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People who sponsor visits to the UK by relatives from overseas under new visa rules will be required to undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks, and will be liable for penalties of up to £5,000 or even a prison sentence if the relative goes AWOL, immigration minister Liam Byrne announced this week. It will still be possible to visit the UK using a standard tourist visa, but those sponsored by a relative will receive preferential visa treatment, and in order to sponsor, the relative will need to be licensed.

According to the UK Borders Agency: "Sponsors will need to accept and sign up to a liability to a sanction as part of the process of sponsoring a relative to visit the UK. Before accepting a sponsor we will make thorough checks as to who they are, including financial, criminal record and immigration checks [Do we hear 'ID card'?]... and we will link the issue of sponsor licences with the roll-out of national identity cards [yes, we do] for British citizens and ID cards for foreign nationals."

That is, as ID cards for foreign nationals resident in the UK are intended to be introduced late this year, an ID card will be required by people in this category wishing to sponsor a relative. As ID cards for the general populace remain somewhere out in the middle distance, there can't immediately be such a requirement for UK citizens. But Byrne can hope, and there will be linkage - in the voluntary phase, the possession of an ID card is likely to expedite a CRB check, so we can expect one of the next soft targets for the boil-a-frog rollout to be UK citizens with family overseas.

Non-white ones? to some considerable extent. According to Office of National Statistics data (Travel Trends 2006), in 2006 somewhere in the region of 8 million people gave visiting family or friends as their reason for travelling to the UK. Of these, 5 million were from the EU, and around half of the remainder from the US, which would indicate anything up to 1.5 million might be eligible for sponsorship, more if a proportion of those declaring "holiday" as their primary purpose of visit are also visiting family.

In cases where the relative doesn't go home when they should, the sponsor will be liable for a civil penalty of up to £5,000, and could also be prosecuted for assisting unlawful immigration, "which may lead to an unlimited fine or even a prison sentence of up to 14 years."

The new rules are being introduced following a consultation which produced a massive response of 604, 55 per cent of these being individual members of the public. According to Byrne, "we didn't just [surely 'even'? - Ed] run an old-fashioned consultation. I travelled around the UK listening to people, and led my own delegation of community leaders and businessmen to India to review first hand some of the issues in one of our most important overseas markets."

One concession has been included in the new rules. Plans to reduce the maximum visa period from six months to three have been abandoned, although entry clearance officers will still have discretion to limit the visa to three months. ®

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