Innocent people may have been removed from the UK after they were wrongly accused of cheating in English language tests, a report has warned.
Whitehall’s spending watchdog examined the government response to a scandal that led to thousands of visas being cancelled.
It was “reasonable” to conclude there was cheating on a “large scale”, the National Audit Office found, but it said some people might have been removed from the UK without being guilty.
Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “When the Home Office acted vigorously to exclude individuals and shut down colleges involved in the English language test cheating scandal, we think they should have taken an equally vigorous approach to protecting those who did not cheat but who were still caught up in the process, however small a proportion they might be. This did not happen.”
In 2014, BBC Panorama broadcast footage showing “organised cheating” in two English language test centres run by third parties on behalf of non-profit organisation Educational Testing Service (ETS) who used voice recognition technology to check who had cheated by having someone else sit their test. It identified 97 per cent of UK tests taken between 2011 and 2014 as suspicious, with 58 per cent of 58,459 tests classified as “invalid” and 39 per cent as “questionable”.
The Home Office began cancelling the visas of those it considered to have cheated in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
The report said it is difficult to estimate how many innocent people were branded cheats, but around 12,500 people affected have appealed against immigration decisions, with 3,600 winning their cases.
Evidence “strongly suggests” there was widespread abuse of the Tier 4 student visa system, the report said.
“Nonetheless, the department’s course of action against TOEIC students carried with it the possibility that a proportion of those affected might have been branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating.”
Public accounts committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said it was worrying that the Home Office made “no effort to identify innocent people”. Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said the actions “makes a mockery of the British justice system”, adding: “The impact has been devastating.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The report is clear on the scale and organised nature of the abuse, which is demonstrated by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions.”