Britain scraps bonds for family visitors, Indians to benefit(Lead, Changing dateline)June 25th, 2008 - 8:10 pm ICT by IANS
London/New Delhi, June 25 (IANS) The British government Wednesday scrapped a controversial proposal to introduce financial bonds for people visiting their relatives in Britain, following a strong campaign by the ethnic Indian community in Britain. The proposal, which was criticised as unnecessary and too harsh, would have hit South Asians hardest as they are the largest ethnic group in Britain with near and extended families still in their countries of origin.
Earlier this year, the South Asian community led by Indians in Britain launched a major write-in campaign to protest the proposal.
The widespread criticism led British Immigration Minister Liam Byrne to take the unprecedented step of broadening the three-month process of consultation on the proposal to include ordinary people in India.
The British government said Wednesday visitors will be allowed to stay for a maximum of six months and that while there would be no financial bonds for family visitors, those who broke the rules would face civil penalties.
Under a new system, British citizens or those who are permanent residents in Britain will have to become ‘licensed sponsors’ before their relatives can be allowed to visit.
“Sponsors will have a duty to ensure that their visitors comply with the terms of their visa and that they leave before the visa ends… If sponsors fail in their duties, they face a ban on bringing anyone else into the UK, or in more extreme cases, fines of up to 5,000 pounds or imprisonment,” the government said.
The government also introduced a new low-cost three-month group visa for tourists that is likely to be tested in India before implementation worldwide.
Minister Byrne added: “We know that many people have a stake in us getting this policy right. We, therefore, issued a consultation document last year. In addition, I not only travelled around the UK listening to people, but was also accompanied by a delegation of community leaders and businessmen to India to review first hand some of the issues in one of our most important overseas markets.”
Byrne, who also visited to India in February accompanied by a delegation of British Indians to hear Indian views on the new visa proposals, spoke to Indian journalists over a video link from London.
“The new visa is called sponsored family visitors. Here is where we listened closely and hard to what people in India have told us,” Byrne told Indian journalists.
There will not be any initial cash bond for the sponsor, but if there is any rule violation, then “we can make that sponsor pay a spot civil penalty of up to 5,000 pounds. If there is a more serious misdemeanour, then he could face up to 14 years of jail,” said Byrne.
The reason behind this change in the family visitor visa system was that the British Home Office was losing an unusually high number of appeals against its rejection of visa applications. “This showed that the system was outdated,” said the minister.
In India, 150,000 applications for family visits are received from all over country at the British High Commission. “Out of this 25 percent are rejected. When they go to appeal, we lose 40 percent of the cases, in which we have to give a visa to the applicant,” said Chris Dix, regional director (south Asia and gulf) of the British border agency.
The “40 percent” was the “main problem figure”, with the process of appeals taking months, causing delay in personal plans.
The minister noted that this proposal will help immigration officers “manage the risk more accurately”, as well as, “cut through the red tape”.
However, this proposal is not for immediate operation, as it requires a change in law. While the bill may be introduced by the end of this year, Byrne suggested it might be approved and implemented only sometime in 2009.
Based on the responses, the minister added that the length of the tourist visa will remain at six months and not be reduced to three months.
Further, there are plans to introduce three more visa categories for tourist groups, artists, business visitors and special events, like cultural festivals or the Olympics.
The rejection of the bond proposal was welcomed by Keith Vaz, Indian-origin MP and chairman of the parliamentary select committee on home affairs.
“I am absolutely delighted by the government decision, which has been due to the genuine concerns of the community.
“Seven years ago this was mooted as government policy and it has achieved the same fate as then. That’s because you cannot put an economic cost on people visiting their families,” Vaz told IANS.
“What it shows is that Liam Byrne was prepared to listen to the community, and his visit to India was an important step in the right direction.”
However, Vaz said he was concerned about what kinds of penalties the government had in mind for those who overstayed their visa, saying: “We need to look at the detail.”