By David Thomas: President Safe Communities Algarve

The arrest of top officials suspected of corruption involving the administration of the Golden Visa Scheme, and the consequential resignation of the Minister of Interior,  has tarnished Portugal’s reputation in terms of the fight against corruption as a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, to which it is a signatory.

The fact that top officials were allegedly involved, shows that the policies that are in place to minimize the opportunities for corruption are not working. Although the Judicial Police should be congratulated in doing a fine job in bring those allegedly involved to justice, this should not have been necessary if a more robust approach to corruption prevention existed.

The Court of Auditors in Portugal takes a leading role in fighting corruption. The Council for Prevention of Corruption (CPC), set up within the Court of Auditors in 2008, is tasked with coordination and analysis of prevention policies. The Council recommended that all central and local public bodies, including state-owned companies, prepare plans for the management of corruption-related risks. To date over 1 000 corruption prevention plans have been submitted to the CPC for assessment. However the impact of these plans is yet to be assessed.

In my work with the Hong Kong Police and INTERPOL I worked closely with anti-corruption agencies and it was very clear that in order to root out corruption a “top down” crime prevention strategy was required that scrutinizes government polices to identify and close loopholes that could be exploited through corrupt practices, as well as ensure that there were adequate checks and balances in place prior to their implementation.

To me it is obvious that the Golden Visa Scheme could be exploited in this way, as it involves visa applications (which have been the target of corrupt practices in many countries in the past); that there is a great deal of money involved; and that most applicants are coming from a country which has a high level of corruption.

Interestingly in March this year Ana Gomes a Portuguese Socialist MEP stated in an interview with the BBC regarding the Golden Visa Scheme, that cash-strapped European countries are so focussed on reviving their property industries that they are not looking at potential risks.

“There might be all sorts of corrupt and even criminal organisations behind those who are benefiting from these schemes…and it might be another very dangerous avenue to import additional corruption and criminality into the EU,” she added.

But the Portuguese Communities Minister, Jose Cesario, told the BBC in response that there is nothing to worry about: “We don’t sell visas or passports. They are very scrutinised. We investigate everything about them. We are very rigorous with them.”

However there is evidence that other countries are taking a fresh look at these schemes to amend loopholes. In October both China’s government and Australian investment experts raised concerns that the visas, which build on an existing plan offering residency in four years for people investing at least A$5 million in Australia, could potentially offer a haven for corrupt officials that Beijing has been trying to crack down.  Australia’s government believes changes to visas offering rich foreign investors a fast track to residency in return for multimillion-dollar capital infusions will better combat potential corruption.

In the rush to obtain a much needed boost to Portugal’s economy, it is important not to forget the need for safeguards in drawing up schemes such as this in order to take account of the potential exploitation of corrupt practices.