On 17 February 2022, the Home Office scrapped the UK’s Tier 1 Investor visa route (‘golden visas’) without formal notice and with immediate effect. This decision is welcome – last year, Spotlight on Corruption published research which revealed serious concerns with ongoing loopholes that left the visa route vulnerable to dirty money. While we support the government’s decision to scrap the route, we urge the government to go further and take the following steps.
- The Home Office must be fully transparent about its review, started 4 years ago, into golden visas.
In March 2018, the Home Office announced that it was reviewing golden visas issued between 2008 and 2015, when there was little or no due diligence or anti-money laundering checks on investment funds. Last summer, we established that the Home Office review covered half (6,312) of all golden visas ever issued for a range of possible national security risks.
Four years after the review was announced, and despite indications from the Home Office that it has been completed, the review has not been published nor has the government committed to a publication date. On 21 February, the Home Secretary indicated vaguely that “it is our aim to publish it in the near future”.
We think the public has a right to know what the government has found in its review and what steps it has taken to address the risks posed by those who entered on golden visas. The Home Office should commit to publishing the full review as soon as possible, and by early April 2022 at the latest. The Home Office should disclose:
- Details of any national security risks identified, lessons learned, and measures that were taken as a result – both generally and in respect of any individual cases.
- Detailed statistics of how many referrals from the review were made to law enforcement agencies for possible civil or criminal action, and the number of visas revoked.
- How many people in the review period were granted or refused indefinite leave to remain or British citizenship.
- What failings in vetting systems whether in the Home Office itself, or by the private sector, the review found.
- Any updated assessment of the economic benefits and risks of the golden visa route made by the Home Office. This should include the Home Office’s review of a sample of golden visas in 2019, which identified very limited contribution to foreign direct investment.
- The Home Office should publish details of the steps it is taking regarding those already issued golden visas or granted British citizenship who it deems a national security risk.
The Home Office needs to clearly set out how it will deal with people with corrupt or criminal sources of wealth who have already received indefinite leave to remain through the golden visa route. Visas may still need to be withdrawn and other measures taken.
In addition, anyone granted a golden visa before 2015 would now be eligible to apply for British citizenship. That includes the surge of applicants in 2014, when 618 visas were granted to individuals from Russia and 1,348 to individuals from China.
The Home Office should publish the names of those who were granted a golden visa or citizenship who it identified as posing a risk to national security, and publish a detailed breakdown of the number of citizenship applications that were granted or declined as a result of the review. The International Monetary Fund recommends publishing the names of successful golden visa applicants.
- The Home Office should make a public statement about what review it has done of the visas issued, and any subsequent British citizenship granted, outside the scope of the Home Office’s review period and what assessment it has made of ongoing loopholes in the golden visa route.
A recent explanatory note from the Home Office said the golden visa route remained vulnerable to exploitation by those seeking to transfer illicitly obtained wealth to the UK. The Home Secretary’s statement on 21 February reiterated that potential national security risks led the government to end the route without warning. However, the Home Office has not explained why the thousands of golden visas issued since 2015 are not being reviewed, nor why the position has not changed for those who obtained a permission under the golden visa route.
As our briefing revealed, and as the government’s announcement confirmed, there are ongoing loopholes in the golden visa route, despite reforms in 2015 and 2019. These include:
- Wealth gifted to applicants does not require any due diligence; nor does wealth that has been held for over 2 years.
- In May 2021, the Court of Appeal found that the current rules for golden visas were “poorly drafted” after reluctantly concluding that an “objectionable” scheme involving loans to more than 100 visa applicants for investments that ultimately went to companies in Russia (via a UK registered company) was legal.
In our view, the Home Office should publish any assessment it has made of the various loopholes that have continued in the golden visa route since 2015, who might have been granted visas as a result of these loopholes, and what risks these loopholes posed to national security alongside the review it undertook of visas issued between 2008-2015.
- The Home Office must ensure that any route that replaces golden visas has robust checks and genuinely delivers economic benefits to the UK.
The Home Office said that it will re-formulate investment-based migration through reforms to the innovator route that is already in place. These arrangements are expected to be delivered through changes to the Immigration Rules in autumn 2022.
The Home Office must ensure that lessons are learned from previous failings. For example, the new system must embed robust anti-money laundering checks so that it cannot be abused in the same way as golden visas, and there must be an independent audit of the source of each applicant’s wealth as a condition of being granted a visa.
The Home Office should set out what steps it will take to build its institutional capacity to stop those with corrupt or criminal sources of wealth being granted residency or citizenship.
Any revised formulation of investor visas must be independently reviewed – and that review published – to determine whether and to what extent it delivers an economic benefit to the UK.