Clampdown on student visa scams
Immigration officers are to be given new powers to refuse entry to overseas students in a bid to clamp down on widespread abuse of Britain's visa system.
By Melissa Kite, Deputy Political Editor
Published: 9:00PM GMT 23 Jan 2010
Officials at Heathrow and other airports will be able to check the bank accounts of foreign visitors when they arrive in Britain in a bid to end a series of scams uncovered by this newspaper.
An overhaul of the system was demanded after The Sunday Telegraph undercover reporters discovered last month the ease with which bogus students were obtaining British visas because of loopholes in the system.
Whistleblowers within the immigration service also revealed for the first time that rising numbers of student visa applications had created a global backlog because new Home Office rules had left officials powerless to refuse fraudulent applicants on the basis of their own suspicions.
The weaknesses being exploited in the Home Office's new “points-based” immigration system include foreigners using under-the-counter loans to prove they can pay course fees and support themselves.
The money is handed back to the lender once it has appeared on bank statements long enough to obtain the visa.
In a bid to tackle such abuses, Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, will announce that immigration officers will be given new powers to carry out on-the-spot investigations of the bank accounts of visitors arriving in Britain.
He will acknowledge concerns about the current system, which only allows accounts to be checked before visitors arrive in this country.
Even if an immigration officer suspects that an arriving student may not be genuine he has no power to check their account again; a check which could potentially uncover that the money had disappeared.
Under the new rules, anyone who arouses suspicion will have their bank account checked at the point of entry.
A separate review of the entire student visa system is under way after Gordon Brown last month admitted there should be a rethink.
The introduction of the points-based system has created such a rush of applications that at least one foreign government has raised concerns about it with Home Office ministers.
Government officials in the Philippines alerted British consular staff to the large number of poorly-educated citizens who were heading for Britain on study visas.
It is understood that ministers are now determined to strengthen the points system, which was meant to “raise the bar” and keep a rein on the number of immigrants coming to Britain from outside Europe.
It requires overseas students to have 40 points to come to Britain. Applicants receive 30 points for holding a course offer from a college or university, and 10 points for proving they can pay the fees and support themselves while in the country.
But officials within the UK Border Agency claim that this removes the discretion of entry clearance officers, who are forced to approve all applications if candidates demonstrate they have 40 points, even if they suspect the visitor is a fraud.
Mr Woolas is now said to be keen to hand back more powers to officials to act on their own suspicions and to have discretion to refuse entry even if the points criteria appear to have been met.
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