More than 45,000 immigrants may have fraudulently obtained English language certificates despite being unable to speak the language, it emerged today.
The government admitted that evidence of criminal activity had been discovered during a probe into the student visa system. Almost 30,000 language certificates were found to be invalid, while a further 19,000 were deemed “questionable”.
Conservative immigration minister James Brokenshire announced in an urgent statement to the Commons today that the true sum could be even higher.
David Hanson, Labour’s shadow Home Office minister, said the “systematic abuse on this government’s watch” was “astounding”.
Brokenshire said: "The government is not prepared to tolerate this abuse. Since the start of February immigration enforcement officers, with the support of the National Crime Agency, together with officials from UK Visas and Immigration, have been conducting a detailed and wide-ranging investigation into actions by organised criminals to falsify English language tests for student visa applicants.
"They've also investigated a number of colleges and universities for their failure to ensure that their students meet the criteria set out in immigration rules."
Each year, around 100,000 non-EU students get their visas to stay in the UK extended.
The Coalition introduced English language tests for non-EU citizens who want to settle in Britain. The system has been undermined, however, by fraudsters selling fake English language certificates for £500.
The Home Office suspended the language tests used to award student visas run by examination firm ETS in February and launched an investigation into criminal activity.
The ability of migrants to the UK to speak the English language has become a hotly contested issue under the current government, as tensions around the scale of immigration to the UK have grown. Last month, the Conservative Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, who is the UK’s most senior Asian politician, waded into the debate by saying that migrants to Britain should be able to speak English.
He said: “I think it's perfectly reasonable for British people to say, ‘Look, if you're going to settle in Britain and make it your home you should learn the language of the country and you should respect its laws and its culture’.”
His remarks follow a controversial statement from Ukip leader Nigel Farage earlier this year, in which he said he had felt “awkward” and “uncomfortable” on a commuter train from London to Kent in which he could hear no passengers speaking English for several stops.