Bogus colleges - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-117)


2 JUNE 2009

  Q100  Mrs Cryer: It is related. My understanding is, and I have got masses of information on this, that the ability to provide evidence of knowledge of English to get indefinite leave to remain is also being exploited by people selling documents to say that a person does have English when they actually do not, so there is a really growing cottage industry here.

  Mr Woolas: It is a wider subject, Chairman, and I made reference earlier on to UKBA's ability to predict and be ahead of the game and that is the area that I had in mind when I made those remarks. The fact of the matter is that people go to desperate lengths to get into this country. We had an intelligence report recently that some people were chopping their fingertips off in order to avoid fingerprint detection as part of a people trafficking ring. That was reported in the Sunday newspapers two weeks ago and it was a true story. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths to which people will go to try to get into our country, and clearly the attempts to cheat on the English language test are now part of the attack upon us and our robustness in protecting ourselves from that is strong. It is of course in the regime straightforward to test somebody's ability to speak and write English. We have got the Citizenship Bill this afternoon in second reading and this will come up in that debate, but I think you know, Mrs Cryer, from our part of the country that there is a cottage industry that is attempting to abuse that system, and we are determined not to let it.

  Q101  Tom Brake: Once an organisation has been officially registered as a sponsor organisation, what sort of on-going process is there going to be to ensure that it remains a bona fide organisation and do you use triggers in the way that credit card companies do that highlight strange patterns, in other words an organisation that issues 100 student visas but only has three teachers or premises above a fish and chip shop?

  Mr Woolas: There are short-term and long-term answers to that question. The longer term is of course the student visa overstaying. If there is an intention to abuse the immigration system then that will express itself at the end of the period of the visa through overstaying. In the short term, Jeremy, do you want to add?

  Mr Oppenheim: We use a whole series of triggers, including the number of students, the courses being offered, physical location, and reports from visiting officers. We will continue to visit. We do not just license and then say, "Thank you very much, it was nice." We do follow-up visits on a regular basis. We have got a sponsor management system due to be rolled out in September 2009 which is an on-line system which will give us an increased level of intelligence of the nature you just described, Mr Brake.

  Q102  Tom Brake: You mentioned the unannounced visits. Can you give us a couple of examples of what these have revealed?

  Mr Oppenheim: They have revealed colleges that when visited the first time had students, teachers and all the technology one might come to expect in a small establishment operating legitimately and when we visited again we found none of those things there at all. As a result they did not get on the Tier 4 licence.

  Q103  Chairman: You have seen the concerns of Baroness Warwick from Universities UK about the ASIC and the fact that there appears to be a lack of transparency on its website, a lack of list of inspectors, and a lack of lists of those colleges which have been accredited. She has written to this Committee only yesterday to say she first raised these concerns with Liam Byrne in July 2007.

  Mr Oppenheim: If I may, Minister, Baroness Warwick was clearly busy yesterday because I met her as well. She has raised those issues. We are reviewing together with Ofsted the accreditation bodies. Most of the accreditation bodies' contracts are up for renewal in June of this year and we will be saying to the accreditation bodies not only do we want you to be doing the process of accreditation really well but we want you to publish on your website the outcomes of your visits. We want to make sure that you are far more transparent and that will be part of the contractual expectations that we place upon you.

  Q104  Chairman: How much do you give these accreditation agencies every year?

  Mr Oppenheim: Forgive me for not having the figure at my fingertips but I am more than happy to write to you about the amount we spend.

  Q105  David Davies: I misunderstood the answer to an earlier question. I assumed all of the visits to the 1,600 institutions were unannounced but obviously not. How many institutions have received unannounced visits?

  Mr Oppenheim: I cannot give you the answer to that, Mr Davies, because I do not know, and the number will change week by week as we do more unannounced visits.

  Q106  David Davies: Roughly how many out of 1,600?

  Mr Oppenheim: I would guess—and I apologise because I do not like guessing in committees—that around 10% would have experienced an unannounced visit. They will all have had an announced visit as well because there is no point in doing an unannounced visit unless you have already visited.

  Q107  David Davies: Of that 10% that received an unannounced visit, how many were found to be operating in an illegitimate fashion or raised further concerns?

  Mr Oppenheim: That is a very difficult question for me to answer, not because I am trying to be secretive but because I do not have those sorts of figures with me. We can easily get them.

  Mr Woolas: Do not forget in terms of the 1,600 we are talking about that includes the mainstream, that includes Cambridge, Durham and so on.

  Q108  David Davies: Presumably Cambridge University would not have required an unannounced visit?

  Mr Woolas: I have thought about it but no!

  Q109  David Davies: How many people have been prosecuted under the Immigration Act for the offence of facilitating commissioning of a breach of immigration law by a non-EU citizen?

  Mr Woolas: Again off the top of my head I have not got that figure but I can get that figure for you.

  Q110  David Davies: Would it be a handful, a dozen?

  Mr Woolas: I can give figures on removals if that is of any help.

  Q111  Chairman: Removals of students?

  Mr Woolas: Let me just find the figures. To answer the question, the last set of published figures—and it covers all prosecutions in England and Wales—from Control of Immigration: Statistics 2007 (and figures subsequent to this have not yet been published), in total there were 253 cases presented to magistrates' courts in England and Wales between 2003 and 2007 and there were 518 cases sent to trial at crown court in England and Wales in the same period. Some of those were of course the same.

  Q112  David Davies: And how many were found guilty?

  Mr Woolas: They are not all complete yet so it is not possible to say. I am being very careful because of the caveats on the statistics of which I have been advised—some of them have not yet finished.

  Q113  David Davies: Would it be possible, Minister, for you to come back with further information?

  Mr Woolas: I would quite like to know myself.

  David Davies: And perhaps on the number of unannounced visits and the numbers that were found to be operating in an illegitimate fashion.

  Q114  Chairman: The concern of this Committee is that many of us have very large immigration caseloads, as you do Minister, and we have genuine cases we put to ministers and we write to the Border Agency, and then we look at these huge figures of people coming in as bogus students and that is what prompted this inquiry, our real concern about people coming to this country in a fraudulent manner to pretend to study here and at the same time the genuine cases that form part of an ever increasing backlog of the Border Agency are not being dealt with. That is why this Committee is concerned.

  Mr Woolas: Chairman, It is not an ever increasing backlog, it is a diminishing backlog and it is diminishing quite quickly.

  Q115  Chairman: Mr Prosser is raising this point because of course only last week he raised a case with you and your Department where the file went missing and answers were promised and they were not given. I do not want to raise this particular case because we can all do it, but what we are concerned about is that those who try to come genuinely are not being admitted but tens of thousands of bogus students are coming to bogus colleges in England and Wales and the first we have some action is when a reporter in The Times newspaper decides to have an investigation.

  Mr Woolas: Chairman, I do not accept that on behalf of the Government. I think it is the past tense, I think it is "had been". I was very upfront, as was the Home Secretary, in saying that we had recognised that this had been an Achilles heel, or a loophole, call it what you will, and that we are taking measures to close those loopholes. The Times article is part of that process and it exposed what the consequences of previous policy were, which I readily admit, and I have said this both as a backbencher and indeed as a Minister on many occasions. I think that the new Prime Minister put in place a new policy.

  Q116  Chairman: Finally on the issue of Ministers in the Home Office, not in respect of anything that is going to happen this week, we have expressed our concern previously about the absence of one Minister on maternity leave. She is of course entitled to maternity leave but the Committee felt very strongly because of the workload of your Department that there should be another Minister in there. The other Minister who covered for her has stepped aside two weeks ago. We seem to be struggling with Ministers in the Home Office at the moment. Is there any reassurance that this matter is going to be plugged in the near future?

  Mr Woolas: That step aside is temporary and I understand that period will end very shortly. I am coping. Thank you for your concern.

  Q117  Chairman: We are very concerned.

  Mr Woolas: The number of PQs and letters from Members has not diminished. On a lighter note compared to DCLG it is not half the workload!

  Chairman: Minister, Mr Oppenheim, thank you very much. The Committee will now sit in closed session to consider one issue. Thank you very much.

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