Almost 50 so-called golden visas were issued by the U.K. to investors of university age or below in recent years, prompting anti-corruption campaigners to warn that kleptocrats may have used their children to secure the permits.
To qualify for the visas, each candidate had to invest 2 million pounds ($2.5 million) in Britain. From 2015 to September last year, 46 were issued to applicants aged 21 or under, the Home Office said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Bloomberg News.
Home Secretary Priti Patel closed the visa program to new applicants in February — the same month Russia invaded Ukraine — saying it had allowed people who posed a security risk or obtained money illicitly to move to Britain. The Home Office is under growing pressure from anti-corruption campaigners to publish the review it commissioned into all permits issued under the program.
“Instead of attracting major entrepreneurs, it was used to open the door to the scions of wealthy families — including from countries where that presented a heightened risk of receiving illicit funds,” Duncan Hames, Director of Policy at Transparency International U.K. and a former Liberal Democrat lawmaker, said by email. He called on the Home Office to release its report into the visas.
The program, which was designed to boost investment into the U.K. after the financial crisis, proved popular with both Chinese and Russian nationals. Chinese candidates had invested at least 1.15 billion pounds in Britain by 2015 and their Russian counterparts 729 million pounds, according to Transparency International.
Initially, an investment of at least one million pounds in certain businesses or in gilts allowed a successful applicant to live in the country and, eventually, apply to settle permanently.
Qualifying was comparatively easy as the Home Office expected the banks to carry out due diligence on the money for the investment, while lenders probably thought that the award of the visa was sufficient to overcome any concerns about the source of the funds, Transparency International said in a 2015 report.
Applications for the program slumped after the government introduced additional money-laundering checks that same year and doubled the investment needed to 2 million pounds.
However, that same year, real estate brokers began to notice wealthy students were beating out bankers for some rentals in the city’s best districts. Five tier 1 visas were issued to people 21 and under that year, with nine receiving them in 2017.
While the permits may have brought young entrepreneurs to Britain, there’s a risk “golden visas could have been a loophole for kleptocrats’ children to live gilded lives in London funded by dirty money,” said John Penrose, a Conservative member of parliament who serves as the government’s anti-corruption champion.
“The answer is for the government to publish its long-promised review of golden visas, so we can see what really happened and when,” he said by email. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said the report will be published “in due course.”