The Times: £2 million ‘golden visa’ review is long overdue, ministers told

This article was originally written Geraldine Scott, Political Reporter, and published in The Times.

The government is resisting calls to release a review almost five years old into the security risks posed by granting “golden visas” to Russians.

The tier 1 visa route, whereby wealthy individuals could buy the right to live in the UK by investing in British-registered companies, was shut in February following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amid fears that the system was being abused.

Until then, for £2 million, foreign nationals could be granted a visa, with more benefits the higher the investment and a “steady path” to achieving “much-prized UK citizenship”.

For seven years between 2008 and 2015 — dubbed the “blind faith” era — there were minimal checks on the source of funds, applicants did not need a UK bank account and there were no specific money-laundering checks.

A review was commissioned by the Home Office in 2018 with a commitment to publish the findings but it is yet to be released and the government is unable to put a date on when it will be.

Tom Tugendhat, now a security minister, called on the government to publish the review when he was chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, a plea now repeated by his successor, the Tory MP Alicia Kearns.

John Penrose, the government’s former anti-corruption tsar, urged Tugendhat to use his new position to release the review. In a letter, he said Tugendhat should “immediately” follow through on assurances from the government that the review would be published “in the near future”.

Penrose told The Times: “Golden visas put many people on a fast track to British citizenship. Ministers did the right thing when they scrapped the route in February, but we still have to address the national security risks that may be posed by some of the people who entered the UK via this route before it was closed.

“The Home Office needs to get on with publishing its long-promised report on golden visas and clearly set out what action it will take or has already taken regarding those granted residency and ultimately, in some cases, citizenship via this route.”

Spotlight on Corruption, the anti-corruption charity, found via freedom of information requests that 6,312 golden visas — half of all tier 1 visas ever issued — were being reviewed for possible national security risks. The organisation said it was unclear whether any of those granted visas between 2008 and 2015 had become British citizens and whether further checks had been carried out.

During this time the onus was on financial institutions to carry out anti-money-laundering checks but those institutions were relying on the golden visas as a mark of legitimacy. Some 68 per cent of all of the golden visas awarded to people from China and 85 per cent to people from Russia were issued during this period.

Between 2008 and 2020, 32 per cent of all golden visas were issued to people from China, with 20 per cent going to those from Russia. As of April this year, ten Russian nationals subject to UK sanctions had previously been granted golden visas. Seven of those had been approved after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

Holly Lynch, the shadow security minister, said there had been “zero transparency about the kinds of investigations and checks that have since taken place”.

She said: “Too often we have seen this careless approach towards national security issues. That’s not good enough, it should be the most serious issue of all.”

George Havenhand, senior legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption, said: “The golden visa scheme rolled out the red carpet to oligarchs, leaving the UK vulnerable to national security threats and flows of dirty money.

“The government needs to urgently publish its long overdue report on the national security risks of golden visas so that there is a fuller understanding of what went wrong. It also needs to be fully transparent about what action it has taken as a result of this review, and confirm that it will review potential risks of the thousands of golden visas issued since 2015.”

A government spokesman said: “There is no place for dirty money in the UK, not least that linked to Russia. We have taken robust action to crack down on illicit finance, including by toughening our enforcement action and transparency requirements in order to crack down on corrupt elites, and earlier this year we set out our plans to go further than ever in bearing down on anyone who seeks to abuse our financial system.

“We are one of the most active countries in the world in terms of financial sanctions enforcement, and our experts are on constant alert to combat the threat.”