The Government scheme accused of aiding money laundering is still in operation, reports Sam Bright

The number of ‘investor’ visas issued to wealthy Russians has reached a three-year high, despite the 2020 Russia Report calling for a complete overhaul of the system, Byline Times can reveal.

The latest Home Office data shows that 71 Russians were issued with entry clearance investor visas from the end of Q3 2020 to the end of Q3 2021 – the largest 12-month total since 2018. Some 33 of these visas were issued in the third quarter of 2021, which represents the largest single-quarter figure since the second quarter of 2018.

Investor visas, previously known as ‘tier 1’ visas, were introduced in 1994 and expanded in 2011 for wealthy individuals intending to invest in UK bonds or companies. The investment threshold was initially set at £1 million, raised in 2014 to £2 million. The popularity of the scheme peaked in 2014, when 2,995 investors – and 618 from Russia – were issued with entry clearance visas.

However, an investigation by Transparency International in 2015 showed that the Government’s investor scheme was vulnerable to money laundering. More than £3.15 billion had entered the UK since 2008 through the scheme, it was revealed, with 97% of investors subject to minimal ‘blind faith’ checks from UK financial institutions.

“We understand through the course of interviews conducted during this research that it is highly likely that UK banks used the fact that an individual had been awarded a Tier 1 Investor visa as qualifying evidence to overcome due diligence concerns when assessing the applicant’s legitimacy”, Transparency International wrote, adding that: “not only would the corrupt have been attracted to a Tier 1 Investor visa in order to achieve UK residency status, but it would have also been attractive to help circumvent a bank’s due diligence checks”.

Transparency International further revealed that 60% of investor visas had been awarded to Russian and Chinese nationals since 2008.

Subsequently, the Government introduced a requirement for prospective investors to open a bank or investment account with a UK-regulated financial institution before making a visa application. Further measures were put in place in 2019, requiring applicants to provide proof of the source of their funds. Initially, this was only a requirement of investors who had acquired the funds 90 days prior to their application, though this clause was later extended to two years.

Yet, despite these reforms, Parliament’s Security and Intelligence Committee concluded in its report into Russian interference in the UK, belatedly released in July 2020, that a “key measure” to prevent illicit Russian financial activity would be “an overhaul of the Tier 1 (Investor) visa programme” – namely to ensure “a more robust approach to the approval process for these visas”.

The report went on to explain that the investor visa scheme offered an “ideal mechanism” by which “illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’”. As a result of the scheme, vast amounts of Russian money had been deployed in the capital to extend the influence and the patronage of oligarchs.

“PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process”, the report said. Those with close financial and political links to Russian President Vladimir Putin have therefore become regular members of the UK business and social scene – “accepted because of their wealth”.

“This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation”, the report concluded.

In 2018, following the Salisbury poisonings of a former Russian military officer and his daughter, the Government launched a review into the investors awarded visas between 2008 and 2015, when due diligence checks were at their weakest. However, the Government still hasn’t published its review – six months after saying that it was being finalised. Meanwhile, new investors have continued to take advantage of the ongoing visa system.

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This is despite the efforts of some parliamentarians. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace recently tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill in the House of Lords, calling for the investor visa scheme to be halted until the Government review is published.

A July 2021 paper by the charity Spotlight On Corruption reiterated the views expressed in the Russia Report – demanding “urgent scrutiny, greater transparency and further reform” of the ‘gold visa’ system. The charity pointed out a number of loopholes with the existing process – there is no requirement, for example, to provide evidence of the source of the investment where money has been ‘gifted’ to the applicant.

Spotlight On Corruption also highlighted the ways in which groups of investors were co-operating to circumnavigate the rules – not least a band of 100 Russian investors who came up with a system of borrowing money from a Russian firm, in order to acquire their visas, and then largely investing in companies ultimately owned in Russia.

Given the escalating tensions in Ukraine, initiated by Russia, it is worrying that the UK continues to buttress Putin’s regime – even despite the consistent warnings of experts and parliamentarians.

The Home Office has said that it “made reforms to the visa route in 2015 and 2019 and [will] continue to keep this visa route under review”.

“Home Office officials work closely across Whitehall, including with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, on reforms to tier 1 (investor) visas and other issues related to tackling illicit finance”, it added.

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