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UK intros biometric business visitor visas

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From next month, business travellers coming to the UK for up to six months will be fingerprinted for a biometric visa, and will have to prove that their visit is genuine, according to new rules announced yesterday by immigration minister Phil Woolas. The new rules do not affect visitors from the EU or countries - such as the United States - with a visa waiver agreement, but add significant hurdles for everybody else.

These will have to prove that they will be attending meetings or conferences; arranging deals, negotiating or signing trade agreements or contracts; undertaking fact-finding missions, or conducting site visits and promotional activities.

This will apply even to short visits. The new "business visitor" status specifically covers couriers accompanying tour groups, speakers at conferences "provided they are 'one-off and the event is not run as a money-making concern", software company operatives "coming to enhance, install or debug their products", and board level directors attending board meetings in the UK (see the UK Border Agency's statement of intent for a fuller list).

Alongside the business visitor visa the Home Office will also introduce sports visitor and entertainer visitor visa categories, but it will be considerably easier to qualify for these than for the business visitor visa. Entertainers, for example, need only prove that they're performing at an established festival to be granted a six month visa, and the entertainer visa includes provision "for amateur and professional entertainers and their entourages (e.g. press officers, dieticians) to take part in certain events."

In all three cases visas will also be available in multiple entry form, catering for frequent visitors and covering periods from six months to ten years.

According to the Home Office the new biometric visas are intended, like ID cards for foreign nationals, to lock those travelling into the UK "into one identity", and to work with the yet to be introduced "new hi-tech system for counting people in and out of the country." In some senses therefore these biometric short stay visas deal with a loophole in the ID card system. This is intended to cover everyone who is in the country for more than three months, and therefore wouldn't apply to those visiting for shorter periods.

Katja Hall, CBI Director of Employment Policy, said that the CBI broadly supported the government approach. "Importantly," she added, "the new system will not affect people from countries where a visa is not required, including EU countries and the US.

"But while we broadly support the new system, we think the limit on business visitors staying should be 12 months rather than six months as the government has proposed. This would give more flexibility to business, and allow foreign workers to combine business trips with tourism more easily, boosting the economy." ®

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