Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

UK's visa rules out of step with the times

By Roger Gherson (China Daily) Updated: 2014-01-16 07:55

The debate surrounding the United Kingdom's China visa rules has come back into the spotlight after both David Cameron and George Osborne made trade trips to the country. Cameron led a trade delegation which included more than 100 UK business leaders at the end of last year signalling the importance of China to the current premiership.

On the second day of his visit Cameron announced the launch of a same day visa service for business visitors to the UK and promised China's leadership "very open competition" for investments in Britain. This is a welcome development. However, the visa and immigration rules must be aligned in order to support the development and growth of relations with China and the support of Chinese entrepreneurship.

The UK's China visa rules have been out of step with government and business rhetoric for some time. The UK has been keen to attract the brightest and the best to invest in the country, but the bureaucracy can put many people off.

Chinese entrepreneurs and business professionals, who the UK says it is trying to encourage, are being discouraged because the current English language requirements are unrealistic and unnecessary. Applicants are expected to have an English level to GCSE English Language standard-it isn't necessary to reach that standard to run a successful business in the UK.

Another fundamental problem is that applicants are required to surrender their passports to make an application creating the impression that those creating these rules and schemes fail to understand at least two major aspects of day to day Chinese life: first, China is a vast country and applicants often have to travel huge distances to lodge their application and risk the return of their documents and passports to couriers; second, successful businessmen cannot be deprived of the ability to travel for weeks, or months on end. While the UK is attractive, for some it is not that attractive and this results in the UK missing out on business, investment and spending.

In addition, the visa system is overly complicated. Information on the Home Office website is not clear and difficult to navigate. In order to be successful legal advice increasingly needs to be sought.

Quicker processing is clearly needed, as it can take three to four weeks for an investor or entrepreneur to get a residency visa and settlement for spouses or unmarried partners of British citizens take three months.

The current system was introduced to try to simplify the immigration system when in fact it is now more complicated than ever. In addition, the immigration rules for partners of British citizens now require a specific level of income for the partner. These rules are too rigid and have the effect of separating families. Greater flexibility is needed.

The UK must accept that China and the Chinese are a world power and continue to apply pressure on the UK government to respond accordingly through improving the UK's China visa rules. Let us hope that the changes announced by Cameron last year accord with the legitimate expectations of Chinese entrepreneurs and business professionals.

The author is founder and partner at Gherson, voted London's leading immigration firm last year.

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