UK gave sanctioned Russians ‘golden visas’ after first Ukraine invasion

Seven Russians now under sanctions were awarded controversial “golden visas” by the UK after Vladimir Putin’s regime first invaded Ukraine in 2014, the government has admitted.

Jasper Jolly

The government closed the “tier 1 investor visa” scheme in February amid the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border as it prepared to broaden its occupation beyond Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

Since the invasion, sanctions targeted at many of Russia’s richest businessmen have become a key part of the response by the UK and its allies.

The measures have also prompted awkward questions for the government, with critics accusing it of offering an open door to kleptocrats and oligarchs, who in some cases are thought to have expropriated wealth from the Russian state on a massive scale. Much of that wealth has been used to buy luxury property in London.

The golden visa scheme allowed people with at least £2m in investment funds and a UK bank account to apply for residency rights, along with their family. Before 2018 it is thought that minimal checks were carried out on investors or the source of their wealth.

The government revealed that 10 Russians who received golden visas are now subject to sanctions, an increase from the eight previously admitted, in a written answer to a question from Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow immigration minister.

Kevin Foster, a junior Home Office minister said seven of those 10 Russian nationals “either obtained an initial grant of leave or obtained further leave via the route after 2014”.

The government declined to name the people who received the visas, despite demands from Labour and Spotlight on Corruption, a campaign group.

In 2014 David Cameron, then prime minister, said Russia must “choose the path of diplomacy and de-escalation, or face increasing isolation and tighter and tighter sanctions”. However, the latest data suggested that the government continued to wave through visas for Russian nationals now considered by officials to play key roles in supporting Putin’s regime.

“Putin’s invasion of Crimea should clearly have been a fork in the road for how the British government viewed Russian oligarch investors,” said Kinnock. “It therefore beggars belief that – even after the threat posed by Putin to western security and British interests had been exposed – the Conservative government continued to award grants of tier 1 (investor) leave to seven of Putin’s cronies who would later be sanctioned.”

Spotlight on Corruption said the latest revelation made it even more urgent that the government release a 2018 report on the golden visa scheme. A minister last month committed to publish it, but the government has not yet done so.

Susan Hawley, the group’s executive director, said: “This is compelling evidence of the frankly shocking complacency in the UK government about Russian money coming to the UK even after Russia started its aggression against Ukraine in 2014.

“The golden visa regime looks increasingly like a state-sponsored scheme to enable kleptocracy. The lessons must be learned for the UK visa regime across the board.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have made it clear we will not tolerate abuse of our immigration system and we have closed the tier 1 (investor) route with immediate effect to ensure that those who have profited from dirty money cannot gain access to the UK.

“We want to make it clear that the UK is no safe haven for those who enable the Putin regime. By implementing the largest and strongest sanctions package in the UK’s history, we are continuing to crack down on these individuals and making sure they pay the price.”

Exmouth councillor claims someone knew John Humphreys was under investigation

Someone at East Devon District Council (EDDC) knew that former Conservative councillor John Humphreys was under investigation for sex crimes against children while still serving as a councillor, it has been alleged.

Joe Ives, Local Democracy Reporting Service

Labour councillor Paul Millar (Exmouth Halsdon) made the claim at a full council meeting this week.

Humphreys, 60, who also previously served as mayor of Exmouth, is now serving a 21-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting two teenage boys 10 years apart.

He was arrested in 2016 before being released on bail on suspicion of the crimes he would eventually be convicted of in August last year.

Cllr Millar’s claim could have serious implications for the council. The investigation into Mr Humphreys was not made public at the time and he continued to be a councillor until May 2019, eventually being awarded the honorary title of alderman by EDDC in December that year.

Despite being under investigation since 2016, no officers or councillors at EDDC have said that they had any knowledge of the allegations against Mr Humphreys during his time in office or when he was named as an alderman. Following his conviction in August last year, the council retracted the honour.

Addressing the council, Cllr Millar said: “I, unfortunately, have to share that I have been made aware by somebody I consider to be a very reliable source that a senior individual in East Devon District Council was officially made aware whilst Mr Humphreys was a councillor that Mr Humphreys was being formally investigated by police for sexual allegations.” 

In response to the claim, a spokesperson from EDDC said the questions raised by Cllr Millar would be something for the council’s cabinet ‘to consider in due course’.

At the meeting, councillors agreed to commission an external investigation looking into the circumstances around Mr Humphreys from 2016, when he was first arrested, until he received his alderman award in 2019.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Cllr Millar said: “There has to be a way that individuals in any way involved in the [alderman] nomination process are able to intervene to prevent nominating a potentially inappropriate individual. 

“The principle of innocent until proven guilty does not extend to individuals facing serious charges and receiving civic honours at the same time.

“No institution in its right mind should ever risk offering a civic honour if they had any knowledge within that institution of a serious criminal investigation that could be taking place.”

Cllr Jess Bailey (Independent, West Hill and Aylesbeare), who proposed the idea of an external report, said it should have one key thing in mind: ‘child protection and safeguarding of children’.

Protected areas, such as AONBs, can be the beating heart of nature recovery in the UK, but they must be more than lines on a map

“National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas currently make up 27% of UK land. However, the report finds that the proportion of land that is effectively protected for nature could be as low as 5%.”

British Ecological Society 

A report by the British Ecological Society says that the UK government’s commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 offers the opportunity to revitalise the contribution of protected areas to nature recovery. But it also warns that this ambitious pledge will fail if we don’t make radical, transformative changes.

The UK government has committed to protecting 30% of the UK’s land and sea to support nature recovery by 2030. The report welcomes this target, as failure to achieve it could result in continued and irrecoverable declines in biodiversity.

The BES’s Protected Areas and Nature Recovery report looks at the role protected areas play in supporting nature and determines what is needed to meet the ‘30×30’ target.

Although the ‘30×30’ target seems close to being achieved, with 27% of UK land and 38% of UK seas under some level of protection, the report finds that many protected areas are not delivering for nature and are in poor ecological condition.

The report therefore urges caution over what should count towards the ‘30×30’ target and provides recommendations for what protected areas, and the surrounding environment, need in order to be effective in restoring nature.

Dr Joseph Bailey at York St John University and lead author of the report said: “Designating an area of land or sea does not automatically make it an effective protected area. Designation is simply the first step in a long process towards ensuring that long-term ecological benefits are delivered for nature and people. To be effective, a protected area needs adequate implementation, enforcement, monitoring, and long-term protection.”

Dr Bailey added: “The 30×30 target presents such a good opportunity that we can’t let it pass us by, especially in the face of a changing environment and a future in which we will need resilient ecosystems.”

Protecting the land

National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas currently make up 27% of UK land. However, the report finds that the proportion of land that is effectively protected for nature could be as low as 5%.

Many protected landscapes, such as National Parks, do not specifically prioritise biodiversity and were not established or funded to do so. The report recommends that these areas should not be included in the ‘30×30’ target in their current state.

Professor Jane Hill at the University of York and author of the report said: “The evidence is that most protected landscapes are not delivering for nature and only a low percentage are in good ecological condition. However, because there is existing governance in place managing these landscapes, they have great potential to be adapted to improve how they deliver for nature.

“With the right support and willingness, nature can recover and thrive in almost any landscape. If the objectives of protected landscapes like National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty can be reformed to ensure that they deliver for nature in the long-term, they could then count towards the ‘30×30’ target.”

Protecting the seas

On paper, marine environments seem better protected than UK landscapes with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) already exceeding the government’s target and covering 38% of UK seas. However, many of these areas have no current management measures in place and most areas closed to fishing are in UK overseas territories.

While regulations to control fishing are in place in some MPAs, across the entire UK only three small MPAs ban all fishing activity. Damaging fishing activity from large bottom trawlers is still unregulated in many MPAs across the UK.

Rick Stafford of Bournemouth University and author of the report said: “The proposal to protect 30% of UK seas is very welcome, but we need effective management measure in place in Marine Protected Areas which will protect wildlife and benefit local coastal communities.

“The lack of comprehensive management or enforcement means that the majority are failing to deliver for nature and bring the full range of biodiversity benefits they otherwise could.”

What should count towards the ‘30×30’ target?

For protected areas to deliver for nature and be included in the ‘30×30’ target, the report recommends the following criteria:

  • Protected areas must be managed to deliver for nature in the long term, using evidence-based approaches.
  • Protected areas should have effective governance to address pressures such as climate change, pollution, and damaging fishing activities.
  • Have monitoring in place that informs the long-term management of protected areas so that they meet conservation goals. This will require substantial and sustained funding and resourcing.
  • Protected areas should be inclusive to benefit local people and ensure buy-in. The governance of protected areas should involve local communities in partnership with landowners, NGOs, researchers, government agencies, and other stakeholders.

Nobody should lose out to something benefiting nature

Dr Paul Sinnadurai of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and Cardiff University, and author of the report said: “Protected areas have suffered from not having enough resources and having to make too many compromises. This has left them in a position where they are not doing enough to support nature.

“To turn this around, money and resources need be made available for consistent monitoring. During the late 1990s and early noughties, there was a good advance in the use of the Common Standards for Monitoring in protected areas, but momentum wasn’t maintained in this essential practice because it is resource intensive.

“For effectively protected areas to be successful, they must also be inclusive. To do this we need to have conversations with landowners and local people and ensure nature recovery works for everyone. Nobody should lose out to something benefiting nature.”

Protected areas are not enough on their own

Despite the enormous potential of protected areas, they cannot protect nature on their own. Landscapes surrounding protected areas are also vitally important, particularly with species ranges shifting in response to climate change.

The report details how other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) – areas outside of designated protected areas that are managed in a way to support nature – can complement protected areas and provide an essential contribution to nature protection and recovery.

Dr Bailey said: “We need to make sure landscapes are suitable for species to move between highly protected areas. This could be done with wildlife corridors such as hedgerows. Protected areas simply won’t work if the spaces in between them are not working towards the same goals.”

Read the report

Share your experiences for a Parliamentary debate on the availability of affordable housing in Devon and Cornwall

A correspondent has drawn Owl’s attention to this Westminster Hall debate next week, to make an input you need to act quickly:

Share your experiences for a Westminster Hall debate

Wednesday 27 April, 2:30 pm – 4:00 pm

On Wednesday 27 April, Selaine Saxby MP is leading a Westminster Hall debate on the availability of affordable housing in Devon and Cornwall.

To inform her debate, she wants to hear from those living in, or near the region about their experiences:

Link to online survey here

Apart from giving your name, email and postcode, there are only three questions:

  1.   How have you, or those you know been affected by the availability of affordable housing in Devon and Cornwall?
  1.   What consequences do you think a lack of availability of affordable housing will have in the future if left unresolved?
  1.   Do you have any additional comments or suggestions on this topic?

The deadline for submissions is midday, Tuesday 26 April.

Introducing the debate, she gave the following statement:

“With summer fast approaching, the lack of affordable housing and the effect of short term holiday lets and second homes in tourist hotspots such as Devon and Cornwall is only likely to get worse.

“While tourism is essential to our economy, a balance is needed, and many people are cautious about the consequences of excessive holiday lets and second homes in our communities.

“Local people are the biggest victims when it comes to availability of affordable housing and private rentals, and action needs to be taken.

“I hope this debate can explore the impact the lack of affordable housing has on locals, and the potential solutions to this problem.

“Your experience of housing in Devon and Cornwall would provide an invaluable insight to the debate.”

The deadline for submissions is midday, Tuesday 26 April.

How it works

How to watch the debate:

Links to watch the debate and read the transcript will be added to this page (see link above) as soon as they are available from Wednesday 27 April.

What is a Westminster Hall Debate?

Westminster Hall debates take place in the Grand Committee Room in the House of Commons.

They give MPs an opportunity to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a government minister. 

Debates in Westminster Hall take place on ‘general debate’ motions expressed in neutral terms. These motions are worded ‘That this House has considered [a specific matter]’.  

How Parliament works: Westminster Hall debates.

How your contributions are shared

In these exercises, members of the public who may have experience or understanding of the debate topic are invited to contribute.

Their responses are passed on to the MP leading the debate, who may refer to them directly in their speeches.

You can see previous examples further down the page.

What happens next?

If you shared your email in the survey, we’ll send you an update after the debate with links to watch it, read the transcript, and information about the Government’s response.

Lower Otter road embankment and bridge building

New road embankment and bridge building for Lower Otter Restoration Project enters new phase

Dan Wilkins 

Building of a new road embankment and a 30m-span bridge in Budleigh Salterton as part of the Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) enters a new phase next week. 

The concrete foundation piles for the new bridge, which will carry vehicles over the new creek network on the west of the Lower Otter Valley, are now complete and building upwards will begin. 

This includes the construction of the piers and supports of the bridge and the earth embankment for the road itself which will go across the valley parallel to the existing road.  

The embankment will eventually be 2.5 metres higher than the current South Farm Road – the same level as the nearby White Bridge – lifting it above the level of the floodplain and making it more resilient to flooding.  

Dan Boswell, LORP project manager for the Environment Agency, said: “This is a fascinating opportunity to see civil engineering in action.  

“Although it will look very big initially, after about four months the surcharged embankment will be re-shaped and reduced in height before the final road surfacing is constructed.” 

 Towards the end of the year, the new embankment will be connected to White Bridge before it crosses the River Otter – White Bridge will remain unchanged.  

To minimise disruption while the new road is being built and connected, later this year a short section of temporary private road providing access to the east of the river will be built.  The new bridge is expected to be completed during the autumn. 

The project is part of the €26 million Promoting Adaptation to Changing Coasts project, which also has a similar scheme underway in the Saâne Valley in Normandy, France.  

A map showing how the Lower Otter will change – Credit: Lower Otter Restoration Project

In Budleigh, it will see current grassland, created during historic reclamation work, replaced with 55 hectares of intertidal mudflat and saltmarsh, plus a net gain of more than two hectares of broadleaved woodland and 1.5 kilometres of hedgerow.  

Watch the full council debate toughen Scrutiny Committee’s report calling for investigation into how John Humphreys became Alderman

An amendment to the Scrutiny Committee minutes, chaired by Cllr Tom Wright, called for an inquiry or investigation into how John Humphreys was appointed an Alderman whilst under police investigation following his arrest in 2016. Much debate on this and whether or not to pause the process of reviewing the appointment system pending the results of such an inquiry/investigation.

Starts at 41 minutes into the recording of the full council meeting of 20 April. Lasts just over an hour with a bit of a cliff hanger at the end – Owl.