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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.