The UK Home Secretary is blocking plans by her cabinet colleagues to make it easier for Chinese tourists to get visas amid fears it will lead to a rise in organised crime, according to a leaked letter.
Theresa May has warned Downing Street that relaxing checks on Chinese visitors would pose a threat to national security and bring Chinese criminals and asylum seekers to Britain.
Her intervention comes after senior cabinet ministers, led by Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, raised concerns that tourists are being put off coming to Britain by a difficult and expensive visa system.
Mr Hunt’s call to simplify the regime is understood to have been supported by George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, amid complaints from Chinese businesses.
A leaked letter from Mrs May’s private secretary shows the issue has escalated to the highest level of Government with the Home Secretary forced to answer questions from the Prime Minister about how to increase Chinese visits.
It also reveals that she has rejected Mr Hunt’s proposals to let Chinese visitors in tour groups get European and British visas as the same time.
Mrs May claims that checks in Europe “do not match the UK decision quality” and claims the British visa controls are a “key tool in protecting the public against significant harm”.
The letter also points out there are already 400 Chinese criminals awaiting deportation and 1,000 asylum applications from Chinese citizens last year.
“The proposal… is not acceptable to the Home Secretary for national security reasons. At Cabinet the issue of asylum claims was discussed,” the letters says.
“We also face significant challenges with Foreign National Offenders and organised crime including drugs, money laundering, fraud, criminal finances, intellectual property, immigration and cyber crime.”
Her tough line on immigration has opened up a rift with Mr Hunt, who this week promised to improve visa application system to help triple the number of Chinese tourists by 2015.
On Tuesday, he urged Britain to get on the “front foot” and stop underestimating the huge potential of Chinese visitors, who typically spend £1,700 per trip – three time the amount of an average visitor.
Government statistics show Britain is losing out on this trade with only 147,000 Chinese tourists last year compared with 1.2 million going to France.
The European system, known as Schengen, allows tourists to enter 25 countries on one visa.
An analysis by The Daily Telegraph last year found that Chinese visitors to Britain face higher fees, more form-filling and extra trips to a visa office than if they travel to any of the 25 Schengen countries.
Research from VisitBritain, the national tourist body, has also found 61 per cent of Chinese people who chose not to come to Britain were put off by the more difficult visa process. The application forms are currently in English rather than Mandarin.
Estimates suggest the cost of the UK process was last year almost £100 with fees, compared with £55 for Spain. A ten year UK visa costs more than £700.
Sebastian Wood, the British ambassador in Beijing, wrote to Mrs May in June complaining that the visa system is seen in China as a “fortress” that is putting off tourists.
However, the leaked letter, which was sent by Katharine Hammond, Mrs May’s principal private secretary, to Simon King, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, strongly defends the current system and blames VisitBritain for failing to market Britain’s scenic natural beauty properly.
The Home Office also insists the visa process is “insignificant compared to the price and availability of hotels” and says “the cost of the visa is not a barrier”.
It further criticises Mr Hunt’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport for using “selective statistics” to back up its claims that visa problems are to blame.
Last night, the Home Office said it has already made improvements to its Chinese service by introducing more visa officers, introducing VIP facilities, an online application process and translated guidance. It declined to comment on the leaked letter.
Sources close to Mr Hunt said many cabinet ministers were sympathetic to his efforts to boost growth by reforming the visa system.
A report from UK Trade and Industry last month suggested the Home Office’s immigration policy is harming Britain’s efforts to attract more foreign investors who could help drag the country out of recession.
It said the requirement for Chinese visitors to get a British visa on top of their Schengen visa is a “significant barrier”.
Others claim tourists are put off by the lack of direct flights from Heathrow to major Chinese cities, such as Shenzhen, Tianjin, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, said: “The UK is losing out to the rest of Europe when it comes to Chinese visitors and this is entirely in the Government’s control. They need to change the visa system and change it urgently.”