Cunning brokers are helping wealthy foreigners to get British residency without exposing the complete source of their wealth, as two men in open shirts and business jackets were in sober conversation at a corner table of a Savoy hotel’s American bar talking about a somewhat delicate matter.
Alexander Wade, the founder of Knightsbridge Wealth, was listening closely to the Hong Kong executive who was soliciting his help to get a tier 1 investor visa, known as a golden visa, that would allow his wealthy Russian uncle to gain residency in Britain.
There was a catch, however: the uncle had a chequered history, with powerful connections to the Kremlin that might trigger an alarm in the Home Office if it became known.
“I’m telling you this in confidence,” said the Hong Kong executive. “ My uncle has close ties with [Vladimir] Putin’s inner circle, helped them move their assets overseas years ago . . . They don’t want the history to come out. Could you manage to get them across the line?”
The uncle also had business deals with his country’s government which was subject to international penalties and had been accused of corruption and killing political opponents. So the money the uncle would have to invest in the United Kingdom for his golden visa might be tainted.
Home Office rules require applicants for golden visas to flag up anything that calls into question their moral integrity and requires them to disclose whether they have been involved in activities on behalf of a foreign government that might harm Britain’s interests or safety.
But the Kremlin connection did not daunt Wade, and over the course of many discussions, Wade revealed that a fundamental part of the process would be a letter from his firm regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority explaining the uncle’s source of wealth.
It would further require proof that the uncle had opened a bank account in the United Kingdom, and Wade knew a good guy at a small financial firm who could help, and he warned the Hong Kong executive not to talk too much about the Moscow connections and would assist him to produce a description of the uncle’s business history that would circumvent awkward Kremlin connections.
His comments about the Home Office’s carelessness would be repeated in another meeting between the Hong Kong executive and another golden visa specialist, Houman Mehr of the immigration firm Westkin Associates, who was also recommending a small firm he knew to handle the bank account.
Once the account had been opened, he said, the Home Office would not turn down the application. “If you get past these guys [the investment funds], then getting past the government is easy-peasy . . . There’s not a financial team at the Home Office. These guys are like they’ve just finished school like they might have got a couple of A-levels.”
What Wade or Mehr didn’t know was that the Hong Kong executive was an undercover reporter working for The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches programme as part of an investigation into how foreign millionaires are able to buy UK citizenship while concealing their dubious sources of wealth.
Investigations discovered that the Home Office relied on a group of immigration middlemen who were able to advise the fictional golden visa applicants on how they could evade disclosing delicate information about their wealth.
They bragged about helping a parade of foreign tycoons enter the country, and on occasion ridiculed the Home Office for its ineptitude in policing the system, and some claimed to have a faultless record in getting visas for clients, even though a few had been from rogue regimes with colourful pasts.
More than 11,000 people have entered the United Kingdom since the golden visa scheme was launched in 2008, and current rules state applicants have to demonstrate that they’re worth at least £2 million and promise to invest that amount in British businesses, amongst other checks.
If they keep their money invested for five years, they get an indefinite leave to remain and can apply for a UK passport as a citizen a year later, but campaign groups such as Transparency International UK and Global Witness have long been critics of the scheme, claiming that it has allowed fraudulent people to obtain residency with tainted money and to launder their ill-gotten gain.
The system has been reprimanded for allowing Russian oligarchs close to the Putin regime to gain citizenship, particularly following the Salisbury poisoning attack by the country’s agents, and during the three-month investigation, firms were approached with years of expertise in investors visas. Knightsbridge Wealth, Westkin Associates, Quastels and Fragomen, and posing as a Hong Kong-based executive called Qihua Huang who was trying to obtain residency in the United Kingdom for members of his family in both Russia and China.
In each case, the undercover reporter made it clear that his family had sensitive political and business connections and therefore sought to suppress the full picture underlying their wealth, contrary to what is expected under the investor visa scheme.
In an initial call to Wade, the latter made clear that it would not be necessary to give a full description of the undercover reporter’s family member’s financial history. “I’m used to working with people who can’t divulge everything and we’ll find a way around it,” he said.
He had got visas for many controversial clients, including a member of the Gadaffi family and one from Eritrea whose case took only three days, despite the red flags about his background. “I don’t know much about Eritrea, but if you google it, it’s probably the highest corruption in the world,” said Wade.
“But it was actually worse than that: it’s an Eritrean living in Dubai . . . the British are very suspicious of Dubai as a country that helps money-laundering. So there was an Eritrean living in Dubai, but all the business, all the money, comes from their business interests in Angola. So that was a really interesting one. And Angola, it’s just arms.”
Mehr was also accommodating when the reporter told him he wanted discretion, and as head of Westkin’s business immigration department, he has completed 15 to 20 investor visa applications and charges £10,000 for the service.
When they met in a private room at the Savoy, the reporter explained that his Russian uncle had a property business but had made his money moving the wealth of Putin’s inner circle overseas. “He doesn’t want to divulge the source of his funding,” said the reporter.
Mehr was quick to suggest an easy way around the problem. All the uncle had to do was sell a property and the sale could be used to show the Home Office that the source of the £2 million investment for the visa had been legitimate. “We send the government the bare minimum, which is the sale of the asset,” he said.
He later agreed that the reporter could create documentation around the sale of a property or a piece of art to make it look as if the £2 million had come from that, and he cautioned the reporter that he would probably not want to disclose that information to whoever was processing the case, but said it would be fine if the documents suggested it had been bought and sold for a reasonable price.
It was a common theme in the meetings that the advisers didn’t expect the Home Office to carry out meticulous checks on the information they were given, and the single most important act in getting the visa, said the advisers, was to set up a bank account in the United Kingdom, as financial institutions are lawfully required to do due diligence on new clients.
The Home Office had tightened up the rules in 2015 to make it necessary that all investor visa applicants have a UK bank account. The scheme then effectively assigns the responsibility for carrying out due diligence to those who stood to gain financially from taking on clients.
Admittedly, the investigation found the checks were usually done by small investment firms that had a vested stake in giving a bank account to new millionaire clients.
The advisers appeared to favour these firms to bigger, high street banks because they were more understanding of clients with questionable credentials or didn’t require such a big financial commitment, and in a preliminary meeting with Tanya Laidlaw, the head of the immigration department at the law firm Quastels, the undercover reporter was told she had dealt with numerous instances where banks said that they would not touch it and that smaller companies would be more creative.
She said that the larger banks would not deal with people with Russian or Chinese links, but that the more modest ones that still had an appetite would look, and she stated that it wasn’t a problem that the reporter’s Russian uncle had helped Putin’s associates take their money offshore, and that if there was no unfavourable publicity, it wasn’t a problem.
Many people who applied in the past didn’t have such a clean past, and once they’d opened a bank account, that was it, they were in, and the little known immigration arrangement gave British residency in exchange for a £2 million investment, and now around 3,000 rich people have entered the United Kingdom under this scheme, with no Home Office Checks.
Well, it now appears that most things can be sold off for a price, and if you’ve got enough cash, even if your character might be a little crooked, it doesn’t matter because anything now seems to be buyable, and it now appears that we’re selling the foundations of our country.
It’s citizenship for the world’s wealthy, while the British poor don’t have the right to family life, and this has become a warped country.