Act now, oligarchs! Your shot at buying a UK “golden” visa is waning

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street.
Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay
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The Kremlin’s alleged poisoning of British agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil has made Westminster rethink a lot of things. It’s reinvestigating the unexplained deaths of 14 people allegedly connected to Russia. It has expelled 23 Russian diplomats, whom it says were cloaked spies. And MPs are calling for Russian oligarchs to reveal just where they got their millions to buy London real estate.

Now, the government is reviewing its controversial program of giving 5-year visas to people who invest £2 million in British government bonds and other programs, prime minister Theresa May said in the House of Commons yesterday (March 26). Anti-corruption activists have long railed against the so-called “golden” visa, which is beloved of Russian and Chinese elites. The two countries made up more than 50% of the recipients of investor visas for every year from 2011 to 2016, according to Transparency International.

Why is that a problem?

Firstly, the cash wasn’t subject to any anti-money laundering checks until 2015. The government previously allowed people to apply for visas without a UK bank account—they assumed that once an account was open, the banks would do the requisite checks. However, the banks presumed that having a government-stamped visa means they’d been cleared for money laundering, and so no due diligence was done on either side, TI writes.

Secondly, holding property in the UK is an excellent way for government-linked foreign elites to raise money and do nefarious things. The US government discovered that when it realized that Iran had secretly been using rent on a Manhattan skyscraper as a slush fund for decades. That kind of income could potentially enable people linked to the Russian state to pay hitmen based in the UK to kill people without any cash coming in from outside the British financial system. And that doesn’t sound so “golden” at all.