Student visa loophole sparks diplomatic row
Gordon Brown has been dragged into a diplomatic row with Pakistan over the flawed student visa system which allowed suspects in an alleged al-Qaeda cell to arrive unnoticed in the UK.
By Gordon Rayner, Chief Reporter
Last Updated: 1:54PM BST 11 Apr 2009
All but one of the 12 suspects currently being held over an alleged plot to bomb shopping centres in Manchester came into the UK from Pakistan using student visas, raising serious questions over vetting procedures.
The Prime Minister responded to the arrests by saying that Pakistan “has to do more to root out terrorist elements in its country” as he tried to shift the blame abroad.
But Pakistan's high commissioner to the UK immediately hit back by saying the problem was “at your end”.
Wajid Shamsul Hasan suggested Britain should allow the Pakistani security and intelligence services to play a greater role in vetting applicants for student visas, implying that an offer to help had been turned down in the past.
“It is at your end you have to do something more,” he said. “Every day we are raiding people, we are arresting people, we are arresting suspects wherever we find them.
“Student visas are given by the British High Commission. They do a lot of the scrutinisation process these days. Sometimes human errors do occur.
“If they allow us to make inquiries first, if they ask us to scrutinise people seeking visas, we can help them, but they have their own regime and unfortunately in every system certain mistakes are made.”
Mr Hasan's comments would have been hugely embarrassing for Mr Brown, who spoke to Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, on Thursday night.
Mr Brown's spokesman said the two men had “agreed that the UK and Pakistan share a serious threat from terrorism and violent extremism, and committed to work together to address this common challenge”.
But Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said: “If the Pakistani high commissioner says more co-operation with the Pakistani authorities is needed, then we should be listening to him.
“We must quickly learn the lessons of who these people are and how they got here and close any further loopholes which exist.”
The immigration minister, Phil Woolas, insisted Britain already co-operates with Pakistan when it vets applicants.
He said: “It's nave to think that we don't check, we do work very closely with the Pakistan authorities, indeed we've been criticised for doing so. “We do have these systems of checking these people to the best of our ability and we are acknowledged in international police circles as being one of the best in the world.
“We do under the new tougher points-based system of course have paper checks and people have to provide documents, but we also use intelligence from our own services and from overseas countries in a targeted way exactly as has been suggested by the high commissioner.”
Government figures showed 42,292 student visas were issued to Pakistani students between April 2004 and April 2008. In 2007/8, the last financial year for which figures are available, 9,544 Pakistani nationals were given student visas.
The Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, who is a Muslim, suggested regular checks on foreign students once they are in the UK would help root out those who slipped through the net.
“We need to have greater checks once they are in the country into what they are doing,” he said. “At the moment, once they arrive they are left to their own devices. We need checks to make sure that these people are doing what they are supposed to be doing and that they are making progress in their studies.
“We need a reporting mechanism, quarterly reviews from the universities to see what progress they are making. We need greater vigilance on their activities when they get here.
“If they are not doing what they are supposed to we need to deal with that.”
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