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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007, 13:24 GMT
Q and A: Visitor restrictions
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Heathrow airport
The government is consulting on new visa restrictions
What is the government proposing?

The Home Office says it wants to overhaul how it allows overseas visitors to come to the UK - and how long they can stay. It's the latest stage in what ministers say is a complete restructuring of the UK's immigration system. The proposals are out for consultation over the coming three months.

So what are the key proposals?

At the heart of the plans are measures which the Home Office wants to use to ensure that people who come to the UK leave again at the end of their stay. The changes are directly linked to attempts to tackle illegal immigration, much of which is thought to be linked to visa over-staying.

The key proposals are to cut the time someone is allowed to stay in the UK, make some families provide a financial bond to ensure their relative returns home and to create some new specific visitor rules as part of simplifying the process.

So what are the plans for tourists?

Ministers are proposing cutting tourism visas from six to three months, bringing our system in line with many other European countries, as well as the US and Australia. The question is whether in practice this will make any difference.

According to government estimates, only 1% of tourists stay for three months or more. Critically, shorter tourism visas may undermine some routes to illegal migration because settling somewhere new takes time.

Critics would argue that such a time limit would make it harder for some families who want to make an exceptional one-off visit to family far away.

What about family visits?

This is the most controversial proposal - but it has been well trailed since as long ago as 1999. Ministers are considering introducing "sponsored visits" to ensure that only "genuine" relatives come to the UK. Families receiving a relative may be obliged to provide a financial bond and give assurances that the visitor would not seek work.

The sponsoring family could lose that money if the assurance is broken. Secondly, the immigration system may restrict those it classes as legitimate family, stopping the list at first cousins.

This could lead to complaints from some communities who have different tradtions concerning family relationships.

How has this gone down?

Some campaigners have already called this a sledgehammer to crack a nut and say it will discriminate against ethnic minorities.

But the Home Office says bonds were first mooted as a means of allowing families to prove their relatives were genuine.

Are there other ways of coming in as a visitor?

Yes - and here the system is quite complicated thanks to piecemeal reforms over time. Ministers say they may reduce and reform the multiple forms of entry for business travellers who are based overseas but occasionally work in the UK.

For instance, dentists undertaking a temporary clinical attachment in the UK need to meet different criteria and complete different forms to an overseas film crew, even if their respective visits are similar in immigration terms.

What do we know about visitors to the UK?

The Home Office says almost 13 million people from outside Europe visited the UK in 2006 - and six out of 10 of them came as tourists. These people are thought to be worth about 15bn a year to the economy, with tourism alone employing 1.4 million people.

Where do these changes fit in to the bigger picture?

From January the government's new-look immigration system will be in force. This five-tiered system differentiates between different types of economic migrants and gives them greater access to the UK depending on their value.

In short, the more skills or qualifications you have, the more likely you are to be allowed to stay.

It's a system used by other countries and the British tiers are modelled on Australia's rules.

One family's reaction to the visa system changes

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