George Osborne’s plan to relax visa rules for Chinese nationals was cast into doubt by Boris Johnson, just hours after it was unveiled.
The Mayor of London, leading his own trade mission to China, suggested the Chancellor’s proposal lacked detail.
He also questioned whether it would mean Chinese tourists, students and business executives having to fill in only one form for access to the UK and countries such as France and Germany – as claimed by Treasury aides.
“We’ll have to see how this scheme actually works because the detail is a little bit unclear to us at the moment,” Mr Johnson told BBC’s World at One.
“I’m initially very supportive and would hope it would make sure that we are able to get large numbers of Chinese students, of tourists, people who are going to bring income to our city. It’s not clear that it’s a single form either because there seems to be two forms.”
Despite attempts to put on a show of unity, Mr Johnson’s remarks threatened to embarrass Mr Osborne after his high profile announcement to lure more Chinese visitors to the UK.
In a speech at Peking University, the Chancellor told students there was “no limit” on the number of visitors from China who could come to Britain, as he stressed his visit was about “more than a collection of business deals”.
Standing alongside Mr Johnson, he said: “There is no limit to the number of Chinese who can study in Britain. No limit to the number of Chinese tourists who can visit. No limit on the amount of business we can do together.”
Mr Osborne’s aides said that Chinese visitors would be able to apply for a UK visa through selected travel agents by submitting just a single EU form, in a pilot study, from next month. Currently a separate form must be filled out when visiting the UK and another EU country.
A new 24-hour “super priority” visa service would also be available from next year and the existing VIP mobile visa service – where agents collect forms and biometric data – would be expanded.
Home Office officials confirmed there would be an additional “addendum” form for the British part of the application for a Chinese person seeking to visit both the UK and other EU countries, but said applicants would not have to provide duplicate information. Visitors would still need to have their fingerprints taken.
The drive to relax visa arrangements for Chinese visitors was strongly opposed by Home Secretary Theresa May last year who said it would threaten national security. However, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the lack of detail meant the Government’s immigration policy was mired in “carnage and confusion”.
She said: “The real problem here is that George Osborne and Theresa May are in complete disagreement about Chinese visitors to Britain.
“The Chancellor wants more Chinese investors, tourists and students to bring money into this country. The Home Secretary wants less because Chinese students are included in her target for net migration, which she is currently failing to meet.
“Until they start talking to each other, this will continue to be a complete mess.”
Business groups, which have long warned that high-spending visitors are put off by the existing system, welcomed the proposal as a step in the right direction.
Confederation of British Industry director-general John Cridland said: “These important changes will make the UK much more appealing to Chinese business and tourists alike.”
But some experts suggested the proposal would, in reality, not change much for Chinese applicants.
Matthew Davies, head of business immigration lawyers Fox Williams LLP, said: “It is important to sort the packaging from the substance here. There is no major policy shift; Chinese nationals must still have a visa to enter the UK for every purpose, including short visits.”
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