In a break with convention, Conor Burns – who was elected MP for Bournemouth West at the general election – secured his own adjournment debate at the end of business on Thursday in which to deliver his maiden speech.
He chose to raise issues asociated with the many schools across the country (of which a number are in his constituency) teaching English to foreigners. He argued that the Labour Government imposed restrictions upon those seeking to attend such schools which risk damaging the economy not only in his constituency, but in Britain as a whole.
Here are the highlights of what he told the Commons:
"More than 500,000 students a year choose to learn English in Britain. That figure accounts for almost 43% of all students who choose to travel abroad to learn English. It is estimated that they contribute more than £1.5 billion to the UK economy every year. It is appropriate that we talk about this in the context of the Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced earlier this week. We have been talking about diversifying the UK economy, away from sole reliance on the financial services sector, and this is a massive export for our country and a contributor to the bottom line."
"Why am I raising this subject now? It has become a problem because of what the previous Government did in their dying months of office. Immigration became a rising political topic as we got closer to the general election, and the previous Government, in an attempt to be seen to be doing something, did the old civil service Sir Humphrey thing: "We must do something; this is something, so let's do it." They changed the criteria on the requirement for competence in the English language that was needed for someone to come to Britain to study English. They also changed the student visa arrangements so that such a person had to return to their country of origin to extend their visa.
"I wish to draw attention not just to the question of the English language schools and the employment that they generate in Bournemouth and Poole, but to the welcome additional earnings in the household budgets of the host families who welcome students into their home, and to the boost to the local economy when students' family and friends come to visit, stay in local hotels and use local restaurants. Professor Fletcher of Bournemouth university has estimated that they contribute more than £200 million to the local economy in the Bournemouth and Poole area."
"The previous Government were right to recognise that there was a problem with some bogus schools, and they put in place measures to try to deal with them. Prior to the introduction of the points-based system, it was estimated that up to 50,000 students could be using the student visa system as a way of staying in the United Kingdom illegally. In April 2009 they introduced the new system, which forced schools to gain Government accreditation and led to the closure of several thousand bogus language schools. Great strides were made in tightening up the system.
"On 12 November 2009, only months after the system was put in place, the then Prime Minister ordered a review of it due to concerns about those coming in to study at below degree level. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Mr Woolas) said about that on 11 December 2009:
"I would like to make it absolutely clear that no firm decisions as to whether and what changes ought to be made to Tier 4 have yet been taken. The responses we have received from all parts of the education sector have suggested that there is the potential for some of the broader review questions to affect the UK's attractiveness as a destination for study if they are implemented. Damaging the education sector is not the aim of the review."
"However, the reality is that the outcome of the review has done just that. I wish to go into some detail about what the change to the English language requirement has done. I shall quote a letter from my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Eden, who posed a simple question to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration on 20 May. He wrote:
"The simple question that needs to be answered is how are students that are coming to this country to learn English supposed to be able to qualify in English language proficiency in order to receive a student visa?"
"It is not just a very basic understanding of English that they require. The definition of B1 competence, which is the equivalent of about an A* GCSE, is that a student can "understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans."
"It seems to me that if someone is able to do all that, they are pretty fluent and would not necessarily need to enrol themselves on an English language course. We are saying to students, "Learn English so you can qualify to come here to study and learn English in Britain." It is painfully ridiculous."
He went on to express his fear that English language schools in other parts of the world will take the students instead and that the UK will lose out, before concluding:
"I hope that the Home Office will continue to review the changes that the previous Government implemented. We can learn much from other countries and how they handle matters. I am not standing here simply to complain about the previous Government's actions because that is futile. The coalition has an opportunity to review much of that and find other solutions. For example, we could move to a bond system – I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration examined that before the election – whereby the student pays an up-front sum of money, which would make absconding much less likely. We could have an assessment level, whereby we examined the risks posed by students from particular risk countries, and we could have a classification system, whereby we perhaps relaxed the rules for others.
"The changes that the previous Government made are having a profoundly worrying and detrimental effect on businesses in my constituency and throughout the country. I hope that the Under-Secretary will examine all the alternatives because we can be proud of the English language schools sector. The English language is one of our greatest assets. English is the language of world commerce, and if we shut off the ability of those schools to thrive, to welcome people to our shores and to enable them to immerse themselves in our language, our culture and our values, in time we will look back and realise that we made a very fundamental mistake."
As the BBC reports, the Government is promsing to review the situation, with Home Office minister James Brokenshire saying in replying to the debate:
"The Government are committed to attracting the brightest and the best to the UK, which is why we are determined to encourage legitimate students to come here for study. The UK is the second most popular destination for international students-second only to the United States. We must ther
efore ensure that our immigration system does not inhibit the education sector, which we recognise has to compete in an increasingly competitive global market."
"The Minister for Immigration intends to undertake a thorough evaluation of the student system in the coming weeks and months, to ensure that the measures currently in place strike the right balance between providing a user-friendly route for bona fide students and education providers and keeping out those who would seek to abuse the student system. Let me be clear: the Government want to encourage genuine students who seek to benefit from our world-class education system and to take away knowledge, skills and a sense of our culture, which they can then put to good use in their home countries."