Britain needs to rethink its immigration policy, as numerous visa categories with complex rules are creating a virtual wall for the rest of the world, writes Arabella Murphy
'I will build a wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me!' Donald Trump’s extraordinary boast that he would keep out Mexican migrants has been widely derided on grounds of cost, project scale, and general incompatibility with 21st century mores, but sometimes it seems the UK already has a wall – albeit a virtual one.
Recent media headlines highlighted the inability of a Royal Navy pilot to get a visa for his American wife. He was posted back to the UK, and their belongings followed, but some five months later, she was still sleeping on friends’ sofas in the US, unable to join her husband. (Her visa has now been granted.) But her case is hardly unique – the UK’s immigration rules can seem like an impenetrable and very costly maze.
Tales abound of (usually) wives stranded for months in their home countries after their wedding; families having to move to the UK without their longstanding nanny; non-EU nationals finding it expensive and difficult even to obtain visitor visas; children born in the UK needing to pay over £1,100 to register for their citizenship; and so on. We do welcome visitors from around the world: many nationalities are allowed visa-free entry for up to six months, although the rest of the world needs a paid-for visitor visa. That’s where another swathe of problems begin – the form is long, dense and only in English, the fees are high and the wait can be lengthy.
Of course, there are plenty of people who are entitled to come to the UK. If you’re an EU national, or from certain other countries, you can come to the UK as of right, and stay as long as you like. If your spouse/partner is a British citizen or someone who holds a valid visa to live in the UK, providing you (or they) can support you financially, both you and any dependant children can come here too, but generally you can only stay as long as a visa-holder stays. Or you might be entitled to a visa in your own right: as a student, employee, investor or for other reasons, each with its own criteria. But for each, the fees are high, a mass of paperwork is required, and the processing times are slow. (Don’t be tempted to cut corners by trying to live in the UK as a ‘visitor’, because immigration officials will at some point refuse you entry when you try to re-enter the country.)
So, is it time to wonder whether we have too many categories of visa for the modern world, and whether this puts up too many barriers? Our immigration system needs an urgent revamp. Currently, EU nationals wanting permanent resident status need to produce volumes of paper; the Government is already offering 'light touch' registration for post-Brexit EU nationals, so that approach could be rolled out for others too.
Technology, the vast amount of information available online about individuals, and the automatic global sharing of information, should make it easy to check if a person is who they say they are, and are likely to be coming to the UK for the reasons they give, and have appropriate resources (accommodation, and a job or savings). The main question is whether they are visiting for a few weeks or months, or planning to stay longer.
With Brexit ahead of us, how do we want the world to perceive us? As a citadel, with high walls keeping people out; or an oasis, a welcoming hub along a vibrant trade route? We'd hope it's the latter image.
Arabella Murphy is head of private wealth at boutique private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP