Security bonds are a mistake, Nick…

Last June, the idea of insisting that those wishing to bring a foreign spouse into the country should have a minimum level of income was mooted. It was bad enough that the Government adopted it, but it was the Labour response that was even more dubious. Here’s what Yvette Cooper asked at the time;

Will the Home Secretary explain why the Government ruled out consulting on a bond that could have been used to protect the taxpayer if someone needed public funds later on?

So, when Nick Clegg talks about introducing a security bond for visa applicants, it isn’t original and it isn’t clever. In June, the Government, having consulted the Migration Advisory Committee, chose to go down the route of minimum income levels for the British spouse instead.

But, if you’re going to set the bond at a particular level, how do you choose it? Too high, and you punish those whose intentions are entirely honourable, too low, and you set the rate for those whose intentions are less so. Nick does at least see that;

The basic premise is simple: in certain cases, when a visa applicant is coming from a high risk country, in addition to satisfying the normal criteria, UKBA would be able to request a deposit – a kind of cash guarantee. Once the visitor leaves Britain, the bond will be repaid. Clearly, we need to look into the detail and seek a wide range of views, including from the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The bonds would need to be well-targeted – so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups. The amounts would need to be proportionate – we mustn’t penalise legitimate visa applicants who will struggle to get hold of the money. Visiting Britain to celebrate a family birth, or a relative’s graduation, or wedding should not become entirely dependant on your ability to pay the security bond.

However, his naivety is astonishing. If you target the bonds, they by definition discriminate against particular groups. Is he really telling me that the bonds will apply to the United States but not India, Japan but not Jamaica? Does he not understand that we already make it difficult for citizens of many countries to get a visa, insisting on payment without guarantee of success, dealing with applications remotely so that decisions are not made locally? Many are not interviewed, merely scored against criteria decided upon by the Home Office. Hardly a sensitive, accurate process.

You might ask, “Wouldn’t it be better to improve the visa application process?”. Unfortunately, we’ve already reduced our network of consulates as a cost-cutting exercise, so the tick-box method of processing applications is the only currently practical option.

So, if my uncle wants to visit me from Mumbai, how much should he be charged? On top of his airfare, any accommodation costs and expenses? Does it depend on how long he plans to stay? But it can’t apply only to family visits, or you would create an incentive to lie about the purpose of your visit, so it must potentially apply to all visitors from the designated countries, which brings me to the potential effect on tourism and trade.

If you are a tourist, you have a choice of destination. You’re probably price sensitive, and if the United Kingdom wants to add a large chunk to the potential upfront cost, I might decide that it isn’t worth the bother and go to Prague instead. And what will the cost of that be to our tourism industry?

And then, there is the risk of retaliation. Proposals to tighten the visa regime for Brazilians coming to this country were shelved when it became abundantly clear that the Brazilian government would simply retaliate in kind. Trade trumping principles, you might conclude, and I would agree with you.

In June, I wondered if this was a sign of things to come. I didn’t think that the answer would come quite so soon, and certainly not from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats…

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13 Comments

  • There is only one way in which bonds could be of assistance. They could be offered to the sponsor ONLY for people who would have genuinely been rejected as visitors otherwise (from wherever they are from). I have dealt, over the years, with dozens of people who have sponsors ready and willing to put up the cash (or guarantee) which would allow someone who the rules clearly say should not have a visa to come here. They included a pair of sisters living in different Caribbean countries, coming to a wedding, one of whom was allowed to come, the other refused.

    The really big question is how it is, in this information age, that the UK should have such a huge problem with not being able to identify and keep tabs on ‘risky’ people that are allowed into the UK in a way which would permit a liberalisation of visitors’ visas. What about weekly signing in requirements and/or overnight diaries so that the authorities could quickly identify anyone not complying with their ‘official’ itinerary and move fast to identify them?

    The other big question is how governments of different hues have allowed department not fit for purpose run by yes-men and women to ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’ in terms of dealing with the huge hidden backlog of cases – while they massively waste resources chasing people who have every right to be in the UK. Was there a conspiracy with the government ministers of the time to keep the reality away from parliament, press and public?

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 10:42am

    Security bonds might be impractical and discriminatory, but the arguments advanced in this article do not seem very convincing. Whenever a level of anything is set, there will be some apparent unfairness. Job seekers allowance, for example. Housing benefit. We don’t give up, instead, we proceed and adjust.

    What is the alternative to box ticking? It’s the very corruptible process of doing things by personal impression. Wouldn’t it be better to try to re-design the boxes in some better way?

    A simple alternative, for example, if you want to go that route, might be for UKBA to ask you to be the guarantor for your uncle. If he overstays his visa, you get fined on a per day basis. No upfront cost, no disincentive to come. Unless you intend to cheat. Still in partial effect in some countries. Could it be extended so that travel agents act as the finable guarantors?

    Maybe a system like the Americans now use could be developed here? Online visas, don’t go without one, you’ll get all sorts of hassle!

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 11:33am

    Mark,

    Maybe you could read my comment again? I didn’t write what you wrote I wrote!

    Your answer to box ticking seems to be to open the system to corruption. Why do you think that is a good idea?

  • Keith Browning 26th Mar '13 - 12:00pm

    Many countries already retaliate with their visa application fees. One administration fee, usually less than £100 , applies for the rest of the world and another 3-5 times larger for those applying from the USA and UK. They also add a note that this is purely an act of reciprocation because of the high fees charged to their nationals by these governments. Why does the British Government continue to think it is so special – a small country, somewhere off the coast of Europe, that still acts as though the world map is still coloured pink.

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 12:27pm

    Mark,

    We can carry on tit-for-tat like this if you like, but how about actually discussing the issues? Be brave!

    Box-ticking is a perfectly appropriate and structured activity, one that is designed to be used by unskilled or uninterested staff, yet be checkable and so less open to corruption through personal prejudice or other way. We start by deciding a set of criteria by which we will allow something to go forward. Based on those criteria, we design a set of questions for a technician to ask in order to determine, on the face of it, whether the criteria are met. We might also want the technician to check the answers are truthful. The normal way to do this is by reference to a database. The US system probably accesses the police and homeland security databases.

    Security bonds may indeed be an excessively large hammer, but that is quite a different argument to the ones put forward in this article. It is important, not only to do the right thing, but to do it for the right reasons. Otherwise, when conditions change, the wrong reasons will lead you into error.

  • Geoffrey Payne 26th Mar '13 - 12:36pm

    Excellent article Mark.

  • I question whether the UK BA is up to operating a security bond system; since it seems to have problems operating a relatively straight-forward arrive and departures correlation system.

    Lets first get the UK BA to a point where it can efficiently operate an effective visa system with mandatory entry and exit checks, then we will at least begin to get real data about the extent of people overstaying their visa’s.

  • @Keith Browning
    “Why does the British Government continue to think it is so special – a small country, somewhere off the coast of Europe, that still acts as though the world map is still coloured pink.”

    We could also ask the question as why so many people around the world continue to think that Britain is a major country and worth jumping through all sorts of hoops – both legal and illegal, just to get here. I wonder if has anything to do with them using old maps with most of the world coloured pink…

  • Let’s put Teresa May in charge of UKBA!

    An incompetent service needs an incompetent Minister!

  • @Mark: A great article. I completely agree, bonds are just racial profiling of the worst kind. Currently, we make those immigrating from China give their fingerprints on arrival; there is truly something chilling about watching as a terrified 16 year old girl who came here (at great expense) for a few months to study English suddenly finds herself being treated like a criminal. Even the officer conducting the affair seemed ashamed.

    Also, a good point about Tourism, I know many in that industry who despair at our Government’s closed minded terror of the outside world. A study recently showed that over 80% of Chinese tourists would not consider coming to the UK due to our burdensome and expensive visa process.

  • You’re right this is a mistake. This policy had been rejected countless times each time it came up over the last ten years. There is a feeling of scraping the bottom of the barrel in a desperate search to have a meaningful contribution to the forthcoming meaningless debate on immigration.

    This aspect is about addressing illegal immigration from the overstayers. The first issue is whether they sould be criminalised in the first place or whether the policy of short periods is itself wrong. It really comes down to the efficacy of enforcement. Some people arrive but can’t quite leave as circumstances change (eg family funerals) but the whole bureacracy of letting the relevant authorities know was tedious enough.

    There is no way that a targetted measure would ever not be discriminatory especially now UKBA won’t charge the bond but the Home Office directly will charge, collect and redeem it. It makes more sense for local authorities or the nhs if and only if such visitors need to use health services. Secondly, how would it work in Scotland, wales or northern ireland where the government and people are less spiteful towards visitors and don’t see them as cashcows.

    The bald truth is that immigration policy is economic policy and any barrier to it is also a barrier to growth and social cohesion arising fromt the distribution of returns from that growth.

    Sometimes it seems easier to be a war criminal or an oligarch to come to the UK than a grandfather visiting his niece. One rule for the few and another for the many, some of whom are family and friends of libdem supporters.

    Apologise for frankness here but I was incensed by a libdem leader making hay with the kind of measure that’s alienated supporters from the other two. There’s an implicit social class discriminatory outcome here too as we arrive at a shameful consensus to just send the message, Britain’s doors are closed to not just its own poor but also the poor in other countries too.

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