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Face the Facts Update

Duration:
27 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 09 January 2013

In July 2012, as the country prepared for the London Olympics, we reported the concern of the tourism industry that our visa system was making it too difficult for people to visit the UK. Senior figures in the industry said the UK was missing out on a huge rise in Chinese tourism because our visa application forms were too long and too intrusive. Potential visitors had to travel hundreds of miles to visit a centre for biometric testing. By comparison the so-called Schengen visa allows tourists to visit more than twenty European countries is much easier to obtain. As a result many Chinese travellers give up on visiting Britain and confine their trips to the Schengen countries. And, so say tourism leaders, the lost revenue can be counted in billions of pounds. However critics say an easier tourist visa system can make us more vulnerable to illegal immigration.

In December, the Government announced improvements designed to make it easier for visitors from China to come here. We ask the UK's primary tourism body - Visit Britain - how helpful the reforms will be.

We look forward to an inquest into a tower block fire which killed six people and may lead to safety improvements in such properties.

And what has become of the man who is accused of ripping off dozens of investors who handed over money to buy properties in Dubai and yet never set foot in their apartments? The liquidators of his company have so far been unable to find "Mr Bollywood" or the money.

Presenter: John Waite
Producer: Nick Jackson and Richard Hooper.

  • Transcript

    THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

    Waite
    Today we revisit some of our recent investigations and ask how much has changed for those involved - the families hoping an inquest into a tower block fire which left six people dead will bring some sort of justice; the UK tourism industry eager for new business but often foiled by a long complex and expensive tourist visa system, ministers have now announced reforms and the property dealer who told us this in 2011:

    Nasir
    I have done nothing wrong, I am an innocent man.

    Waite
    ... as had his company officially wound up, so where are all the missing millions?

    But first:

    News clip
    Six people, including three children, have died in a fire which swept through a tower block of flats in South London. A three week old baby is among the victims.

    Waite
    On July 3rd 2009 a television set caught fire and set alight the 14 storey Lakanal House on Southwark South London. Afterwards there were questions about general fire safety and evacuation procedures in the tower block. Issues which would have been considered in an official fire risk assessment but despite a completed assessment being a legal requirement there wasn't one for Lakanal, indeed we discovered that Southwark Council - which owns Lakanal House - had to admit it had completed assessments in only 54 out of its 200 tower blocks. Why? A question I put to Kim Humphreys Southwark's executive member for housing at the time.

    Humphreys
    We have 55,000 council properties and we have somewhere in the region of about 3,000 odd fire risk assessments that need to be done. It's a big job, as I'm sure you can appreciate, and as a result of that we needed to actually ensure that we get a number of things in place before we carried out those fire risk assessments. We worked with the London Fire Brigade in terms of devising a training programme which they carried out for us for our housing officers so that they could carry out those fire risk assessments.

    Waite
    But London Fire Brigade has told us it is not acceptable for risk assessments not to have been done on complex buildings.

    Humphreys
    Be that as it may - and we're in communication with the Fire Brigade - we have carried out all of our fire risk assessments.

    Waite
    You've completed them now but didn't it take a fire, in which six people tragically died, to get you to do it?

    Humphreys
    No that's certainly not the case.

    Waite
    Well the exact circumstances that led up to that fatal fire, including Southwark Council's conduct, will be the subject of an inquest which begins next week and is expected to last at least 10 weeks. It's already been decided, however, by the Crown Prosecution Service that there will be no criminal charges for manslaughter.

    Dave Lewis chairs the local tenants and residents association, indeed his upper storey flat at Lakanal's sister block, Marie Curie House, is directly opposite the one where five of the six people lost their lives and from his balcony he himself witnessed the blaze.

    Lewis
    Opposite where we're now standing is Lakanal House which has been empty of people, of residents, since the fire happened in July 2009. The block has been sealed by the council so that people cannot get in or out of it and a decision on its future will be made once the inquest is concluded.

    Waite
    So what, in your view, are the unanswered questions?

    Lewis
    I think we need to know the factors that contributed to the rapid spread of fire. The ferocity of that fire and the speed in which it spread upwards was terrifying and then further fires broke out further down with falling debris being sucked into open windows because it was a warm hot day and quite windy and that meant that there were I think six or seven fires at the end that the Fire Brigade were dealing with.

    Waite
    Now the judge decided not to allow the residents group, your group, to cross examine the witnesses, there seemed to be a concern that this didn't turn into a public inquiry, what do you make of that?

    Lewis
    Yeah it was disappointing to be honest. The refurbishment programme happened in Lakanal in 2006, three years before the fire took place, appears - but we don't know - to have contributed to the rapid spread of fire and I'd like to be able to ask the contractors and our landlord - Southwark Council - detailed questions about the materials that were used and whether or not they were appropriate. It's not that none of the questions that we need answers to will be asked, many of them will be asked, but time will tell, there may be some areas of questioning where we don't - our voice isn't heard and our question isn't heard and that will be sad but I don't want to pre-judge what's going to happen, we won't know until the end of all of this really, just how that process works or doesn't.

    Waite
    Well your flat - we're standing outside it on your little balcony here - it's near identical, isn't it, to the one where five of those six people died. Your block's now shrouded in scaffolding, what changes have been made to this one following the fire?

    Lewis
    There was a lot of work in the aftermath of the fire that Southwark did to bring fire safety standards up. They replaced the communal corridor ceilings, they put new fire doors in, they re-glazed some areas. So there was about, I think, one and a half, two million pounds spent on Marie Curie in the aftermath of the fire. So that gives you a few clues on to the areas of concern that the fire brigade had and Southwark had in the aftermath of that fire.

    Waite
    Now last year, summer 2012, a decision was made not to bring manslaughter charges, what was your reaction?

    Lewis
    I wasn't personally and I don't think most of the people in our tenants' and residents' association were baying for Southwark Council to be found guilty on that charge to be honest. I think the result of that would be that they would be fined two, three, four million pounds and that money would then come out of the housing budget for maintenance of the housing stock in the borough, so if anything we'd be poorer.

    Waite
    Dave Lewis and of course we'll be reporting fully on the outcome of that inquest in Face the Facts later in the year.

    Last July we reported expert estimates that our tourist industry could earn the UK another £800 million a year by making it easier for foreign visitors to come here. How? By improving the tourism visa system.

    Horse Guards Parade actuality

    Cameron
    I want to see us in the top five destinations in the world. That should be our ambition.

    Waite
    David Cameron addressing the UK tourism industry in 2010.

    Cameron
    Currently we have 3.5% of the world market for international tourism. Now for every half per cent we can increase that you add £2.7 billion to the economy and more than 50,000 jobs. Now at a point where our economy is coming back from the brink I just think we cannot let this opportunity pass us by.

    Fletcher
    We don't take it seriously. Tourism because it cuts across so many different sectors is hard to identify. It's also difficult for government sometimes to recognise that tourists coming here and spending money in the UK is an export - but it is an export.

    Horse Guards Parade Actuality

    Waite
    Britain's image abroad is one of its best exports, bringing in foreign tourists who see things like the Changing of the Guard in London as part of an industry that brings in around £18 billion a year to the economy. Tourism is in fact is our third largest export industry after chemicals and financial services and according to Professor John Fletcher, tourism economist at the International Centre for Tourist Research at Bournemouth, has bags of potential.

    Fletcher
    I'm absolutely passionate about the tourism industry as an industry that could help drive the UK economy forward and if you nurture it and you feed it it will grow into probably the largest industry in the UK.

    Waite
    The big growth in international tourism comes from China. Fifteen years ago five million Chinese travelled abroad, today it's more like 70 million and the Chinese love Britain's history, our countryside and increasingly affluent they love our designer shops. But as Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Travel Operators' Association, told us in July few foreign visitors love our visa system.

    Jenkins
    We did a survey two years ago where we asked people which process was the most daunting and I'm afraid the UK came out worst. And we found that one in four of all people starting the visa application process gave up. We have the longest application form of any of the major destinations. We've been uniquely enthusiastic at implying biometric requirements on our visitors, you have to be photographed and supply your fingerprints. On top of this we require people to attend in person for an interview at a consular authority. You may be subjected to a 600, 700 mile journey just to be interviewed for the privilege of coming here.

    Waite
    Visa forms are also in English and ask visitors to declare details about personal and family finances, hardly a welcoming approach. The Home Office explained it was trying to strike a balance between easing travel for genuine tourists and protecting our borders, the fear being tourist visas can be used as a means to enter the country by people wanting to settle in the UK. That's one reason the UK has never signed the so-called Schengen Agreement, which allows successful applicants to travel within 26 countries across Europe. Many in the tourist business in the UK would like us to sign up but the government shows no sign of listening. Nevertheless in December Home Secretary Theresa May announced a package of visa reforms designed to make the UK more attractive to tourists from China.

    May
    We've made it easier for Chinese visitors to come here by simplifying documentation requirements, establishing a new business network across China, extending our express visa service and introducing a new passport pass back scheme for visa applicants.

    Waite
    Well Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at Visit Britain, the UK's official tourism organisation, welcomed the range of changes to the visa system announced by Theresa May.

    Yates
    Possibly the biggest one is that online application forms will be translated from April, which means that Chinese visitors will actually be able to apply in their own language. For ADS visits, which is the group visits, we're going to see a simplified application form and an even tighter turn round. And that people who have been to the Schengen area, that's Europe, before will be able to apply for priority visa processing, so a faster visa processing.

    Waite
    Will these proposals really help to get more Chinese tourists into the UK?

    Yates
    I think they're a really good start. The translated application makes applying for a visa much simpler, if you think you're a Chinese visitor you used to have to apply in English. The ADS visas are in a way the simplest to deal with because they're a tight - tight, more controlled group. They're only about 15% of total visas issued are ADS visas...

    Waite
    This means that people come in a large group?

    Yates
    They come in groups of more than six yes and obviously we would like to see those improved services and the tighter application forms rolled out to more groups. I think we do have a good news story to tell in that the government has a target of processing 90% of visas within 15 working days, actually they beat that quite considerably but don't tend to talk about it, so talking about what the real visa processing times are and that for ADS, for example, they're turning them round in about four days, I think is absolutely crucial.

    Waite
    Surely it is only a first step because the French get about a million visitors from China a year, we get not even 150,000.

    Yates
    We have a considerable way to grow, yes, we've seen 16% growth this year, so we've seen some good growth and of course we've had the showcasing of the Olympics and look forward to driving Chinese visitors to come.

    Waite
    But I mean even your own projections for visitor numbers from China by 2020 still put us a long way behind what France gets today.

    Yates
    The Schengen countries should be introducing biometrics from this year, that would mean that Chinese visitors have to go to a visa processing system, as they already do for British and American visas.

    Waite
    So it could be more complicated to get a Schengen visa in future and therefore the numbers may come down of those visiting most of Europe's countries?

    Yates
    I think that's absolutely right, it takes away one of their competitive advantages and in fact there will only be Schengen visa processing in five cities and we already have Schengen visa processing for Britain in 13 cities and one of the additional improvements announced was a sort of mobile biometric system that could go round the country.

    Waite
    Is another large part of the jigsaw if we join Schengen, if we joined this group of European nations for whom one visa allows visitors to go to them all, could we not just join that group?

    Yates
    We are an island and we do have some security issues and we have to balance prosperity and security and we see that in the tourism industry as other industries in the UK.

    Waite
    But you know better than I do that there is no evidence whatsoever that hoards of Chinese or anybody else are coming over with an easier visa regime into mainstream Europe and staying on and yet our visa requirements seem predicated on the premise that that may well be what happens - they overstay their welcome.

    Yates
    I think it's been the case in the past that security has been the lead issue for deciding whether nationals of a country should get a visa. Now we're seeing the government talking about growth and prosperity and looking across all departments, including the Home Office, on how they deliver on that and visas and balancing that need for economic growth for a country, as well as keeping a country safe, we need both, it's absolutely part of the dialogue that's going on, we're seeing the start of improvements in China, we would like to see some of those improvements shared across the world and indeed develop more broadly in China as well.

    Waite
    Patricia Yates. And what of David Cameron's aspiration expressed in 2010 that the UK would become one of the top five destinations in the world? Well currently we're seventh - down from sixth - overtaken by Turkey.

    Back now to an edition of Face the Facts in 2011. Remember this man?

    Nasir
    I've been taken, I've been accused, I have been abused, I have been used, my name has been exploited in a personal capacity, yet I have done nothing wrong, I am an innocent man.

    Waite
    And should you need more of a reminder:

    You're leafing through a number of photographs here; these are well known Bollywood figures.

    Nasir
    Top Bollywood stars, top Bollywood individuals and who have even broken through to some of the Western side as well, like this individual he's a very good friend and he's also done a lot of Western material and Hollywood movies as well.

    Waite
    The star of today's Face the Facts claims to be a friend of the stars, well known in Bollywood circles. Presenter of the Holly Bolly TV show which ran on Zee TV, the popular Indian satellite channel.

    You became a personality too?

    Nasir
    Yes indeed I did because my shows became top, I became very, very, very famous and I loved it - the fame, I was on streets, people wanted to take photographs with me, I was in the middle of nowhere once - Medina in Saudi Arabia - where I least expected it in a very isolated area and I heard screams and people came up and wanted to take photographs. So the beauty of it, the glorification undoubtedly it's there.

    Waite
    Not just a Bollywood mover and shaker but a successful property mogul too. So who is he? Well he goes by the stage name Zain, his companies are registered as Ramzan Nasir, sometimes Nasir Ramzan. But then again some of his customers have a few other names for him:

    Dubai Heaven on Earth client
    I call him a rogue, that is what I call him.

    Waite
    Yes Ramzan Nasir, Nasir Ramzan if you prefer, is an innocent man, despite the hoard of property investors pursuing him for money they gave his company to invest in the Dubai apartment market. They say they're owed tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds each, often individuals' or families' entire life savings. We know of nearly 50 investors from across the country, their losses totally around £3 million. The Metropolitan Police invested the company for four years and at one point Mr Nasir and two other suspects were arrested on suspicion of fraud. The Met's economic and specialist crime unit, despite drawing up a list of over a hundred people who they believed had suffered very substantial financial losses, had to abandon the investigation, they told us, after the Dubai authorities repeatedly failed to provide bank account records and witness statements.

    Meanwhile desperate clients, who rang Mr Nasir at his office in Ilford in East London, found that sometimes he took their call but that often he didn't.

    Dubai Heaven on Earth client
    I leave so many message but he doesn't - no return. Once he gets the money, once he gets your signature, that's it, he doesn't want to talk to you after that. Every time I ring he is in Dubai, he is in America, he is in Hong Kong, he is in Australia, he's everywhere.

    Waite
    Not in Ilford?

    Dubai Heaven on Earth client
    Not in Ilford.

    Waite
    Last May HM Revenue and Customs applied in the High Court to have Mr Nasir's company wound up. The debt, the Revenue claimed, was in excess of £100,000, although Mr Nasir disputes HMRC's figures. The accountants, MHA MacIntyre Hudson were appointed as liquidators of Dubai Heaven on Earth Real Estate Limited. The firm says letters to Mr Nasir have so far gone unanswered. Mr Nasir disputes that too, something he confirmed to us in an e-mail marked as having been composed at “39,000 feet above sea level”. Liquidator Adrian Dante has so far identified a large sum of money that's been paid into the company, what he hasn't identified so far is where it's all gone.

    Dante
    So we're looking at close to £4.5m and we've got quite a number of investors that run into six figures and we've got one here at £350,000, another one at £207,000, one at £715,000 and one at or two just under £300,000...

    Waite
    They're very substantial.

    Dante
    Absolutely, absolutely huge. A number of the investors do come from the Asian community and quite a number of them are professionals and have invested huge amounts of money in this company with a view of getting a decent return. And I think for a number of them it's quite an embarrassment.

    Waite
    So we are talking some people have lost everything?

    Dante
    Life savings - I think they've even pledged property as well, maybe third party guarantees and are still continuing to suffer as a result of that. And I think as well in this situation, from what we understand, a lot of it was based on trust as well and unfortunately that trust has been severely breached.

    Waite
    What are the prospects for investors?

    Dante
    We've located quite a number of bank accounts where quite substantial amounts of money have actually gone into. On one particular bank account we've established that payments have gone out to the tune of £2.7 million but we cannot establish where those payments have gone at this moment in time, this is something that Mr Nasir needs to answer when we actually show him the actual transactions in the account and say these are all payments that have gone out, can you explain where they've gone. Whether or not we can recover those deposits is another question.

    Waite
    So what is your message to Mr Nasir should he be listening in, wherever he is?

    Dante
    Well what puzzles us at the moment is that there's a lot of these investors that have invested a lot of money but have received nothing for it and there are no pieces of land in Dubai, we just need to understand from the director where have all the investors' money gone, where's it being paid to. We've written to him, we've written to his accountants, his solicitors, he's due to see the official receiver in London at some point this month, at which I hope to be present.

    Waite
    Adrian Dante. As he said Mr Nasir, who met with the official receiver last month, is due to meet with him again and with Mr Dante. In Mr Nasir's letter to us he basically repeated the protestations of innocence that he made in our original broadcast.

    "From day one," he writes, "I am the one who has suffered and have lost everything, created by me in goodwill and good faith due to malicious investigation and falsely circulated rumours. I have not been charged with any criminal offence."

    Once again, as in our original exchange, Mr Nasir goes on to blame the developers in Dubai, he paid them the money, they didn't deliver. As for the 50 or so of his clients who contacted us they had only themselves to blame by not meeting the terms and conditions of their contract or because they were simply lying. Just what he told me back in 2011.

    Nasir
    On the face of it it looks oh my god like the BBC - 50 clients - it's nothing, when you break them down it will stem to a handful of them, it stems from the misleading investigation that propagated insecured these people and the genuine got mixed up with the ingenuine - oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, fraud, fraud, fraud, oh my god want my money back, want my money back and threw whatever they could throw. I need to substantiate with facts and evidence and my friends I have actually and we have and all those who I know of have produced ample evidence - developers have been paid, properties are available, they should come for their possessions, they should fulfil the contractual obligations and if anything we have even helped people when they have been in financial constraints.

    Waite
    Do you feel any sense of responsibility for this - that people invest money with you, they say, and they don't get - or so far haven't received - what they paid for?

    Nasir
    No, we disagree that they have not got what they paid for because either they've got something now, either they're not taking possession, either they are in default and either they're just sitting there waiting for the construction, everybody knows that the developments and how delayed they've been, even government developments are. But we feel a great responsibility, if we did not feel anything for them what is all this that's going on for their interests, this is what people need to wake up and see that we are their biggest blessing in disguise.

    Waite
    Ramzan Nasir.

    One last very quick update on those controversial plans for a major out of town shopping development in York we reported on last summer. We heard on the programme how like town centre traders all over Britain shop owners in the centre of the medieval city were up in arms at the prospect of yet another out of town outlet, adding that it would badly affect not only their takings but the traditionally vibrant heart of York's historic centre. However, they were powerless to prevent the Monks Cross project from going ahead. Well the out of town development has been prevented from going ahead, at least for the time being, not by aggrieved shopkeepers but a colony of Great Crested Newts. A large breeding colony lives on the proposed site and as they're a protected species each and every one will have to be individually caught and rehomed.

    Next week I'll be investigating Britain's commonest form of food poisoning. It affects half a million people a year, can lead to paralysis, arthritis, indeed around 80 people a year die after contracting it. It's been dubbed by one scientist "the silent epidemic", so why isn't more being done to stamp it out?

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