UK border control. Photo: Wikimedia
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Scale of English language test fraud by migrants revealed

Today the government revealed the scale of fraud in English language certificates for migrants seeking student visas. The issue is likely to stoke further tensions over immigration.

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.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.