Author-Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent
The number of wealthy foreigners investing at least £2m in the UK in exchange for a “golden visa” has risen to a five-year high, despite a clampdown on the scheme in the aftermath of the Skripal novichok poisoning attack.
The Home Office granted 255 people tier-1 investor visas in the first half of 2019, allowing them to live and work in the UK for five years. This was the most in a six-month period since 2014, according to the department’s data.
The increase came after the then Home Office minister Caroline Nokes suspended the controversial scheme in December 2018, saying “we will not tolerate people who do not play by the rules and seek to abuse the system”. The government later backtracked and kept the scheme in place, but introduced tougher rules from April to tackle organised crime and money laundering
The Home Office granted 124 applications in the three months to the end of June. That was an increase from 91 people in the same period a year earlier under more relaxed rules. Home Office data shows that just four applicants had their visas denied.
“Late last year the UK was poised to suspend these risky and unethical schemes but just nine months later they’ve sold the highest number since 2014, with very few applicants being rejected,” said Naomi Hirst, an anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness. “At a time when the EU is moving to crack down on the sale of citizenship and residency, it’s worrying that the UK is once again opening its arms to high risk but wealthy individuals. It opens the question as to whether, post-Brexit, the UK will be looking to pick up the customers that EU member states could be forced to reject.”
Following the novichok poisoning attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, which the UK government accuses Russia of ordering, the Home Office said it would crack down on the golden visa scheme and review the visas of 700 Russians who had come to Britain between 2008 and 2015 under the so-called tier 1 scheme.
Some 11,000 people have entered the UK since the golden visa scheme was first introduced in 2008, mostly from Russia and China. Among them are Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea football club, although he took Israeli citizenship after the UK government failed to renew his visa last year.
Other people known to have entered the UK with tier-1 visas include Zamira Hajiyeva, the woman subject to the UK’s first McMafia-style “dirty money” unexplained wealth order who spent £16m in Harrods. Hajiyeva is the wife of a banker jailed for defrauding Azerbaijan’s national bank out of hundreds of millions.
Madiyar Ablyazov – the son of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakhstan politician accused of embezzling $5bn (£4bn) and lying to a court about the scale of his vast fortune, including a £17m mansion on The Bishops Avenue in London – arrived in the UK on a tier-1 investor visa in 2008.
Under the tightened rules applicants must invest at least £2m in British companies, and must be able to prove they had legitimate access to the funds for at least two years, rather than the previous 90 days. If they maintain their investment for five years they are eligible for indefinite leave to remain and apply for citizenship
A spokesman for the Home Office said: “All applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules.
“The tier-1 (investor) route has been reformed to better protect the UK from illegally obtained funds and ensure only genuine and law-abiding investors can secure visas. The reforms also benefit UK companies as the route is now only available to those who invest in UK businesses.”
Anna Harvey, a partner at Price Bailey, a law firm that provides immigration advice, said much of the increase in applicants was probably due to the fall in the value of the pound making the UK a relatively cheap place to move to.
“The government has taken a tougher approach to tier-1 visas on the basis that they were open to abuse for money laundering. It may be the case that the tougher rules deterred some applicants,” she added. “In that context these numbers are even more surprising.”
Vikki Wiberg, an immigration lawyer at Taylor Wessing, also said the fall in the pound was a strong draw for the the overseas super rich looking to move to the UK. “A lot of investors come to the UK seeking education for their children,” she said. “They’re looking for education in English, and Brexit isn’t going to change that; what Brexit has done is cause a sharp drop in the pound and that’s made school fees cheaper.”
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