Immigration rules are causing a curry crisis

Published by The Daily Telegraph (2nd December, 2015)

Shortly after the turn of the century, the then foreign secretary Robin Cook gave a speech celebrating British diversity that resonated so strongly it has since become a set text for students. It is known as the ‘chicken tikka masala speech’, since it used the nation’s favourite dish to symbolise the success of integration: meat baked in an Indian style, smothered in sauce to suit native palates. ‘It is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences,’ said the aptly named politician.

It was a clever and powerful speech, proclaiming London as hub of the planet while praising the pluralism that boosted our economy and broadened our culture. Cook was right to defend the resilience of British identity, even if he was wrong to say it would be strengthened by Scottish devolution and the European Union. Yet reading the speech again, it is striking to reflect that in little more than three decades, the curry house became central to our society.

These British institutions are a curious fusion of colonialism and globalisation, as well as being a startlingly successful example of immigration. There were only about 300 such places when I was born in 1962, then 10 times as many by the time I became an adult. Today there are some 12,000, most started by people from one impoverished part of Bangladesh. Over the years many of the families that run these small businesses have become pillars of their local communities, while collectively they are a quiet model of Muslim integration that has swollen into a £4.2 billion sector employing at least 100,000 people.

It is hard to think of a better pin‑up for the modern Conservative Party than these superb examples of entrepreneurial drive, which crop up across the country, from inner cities to the Scottish Highlands and former troublespots in Northern Ireland. Yet this is now an industry suffering a crisis that is hotting up, with at least two restaurants closing down each week. Owners are turning outlets into flats, staff becoming Uber drivers. And with cruel irony, the key cause is the government’s myopic determination to crack down on immigration.

Amid fierce competition from new chains and nationalities, curry houses are being forced out of business by a shortage of chefs. There are doom-laden warnings that as many as one third could close. And the core issue is that attempts to hire skilled new cooks from abroad are hampered by rules that prevent them coming from outside the European Union unless earning more than £29,570 a year and working in an establishment that does not offer takeaways. But this is some £5,000 higher than standard pay for such chefs and most curry houses offer take-home meals. As so often, government meddling with the labour market has backfired. Even temporary hirings to plug gaps are thwarted.

This bungling intervention coincided with the first generation of owners and chefs coming up to retirement. Their children are often university-educated and prefer better-paid posts in professions to running a restaurant with anti-social hours. This is the typical story of immigration boosting both nations and communities, as proved so clearly in dental clinics and doctors’ surgeries. Such advances are welcome for a minority that has struggled with poverty.

There have been government-led attempts to attract British chefs to curry colleges, while owners have hired Poles and Romanians to churn out chicken birianis and lamb vindaloos. But these largely flopped; typical was a recent four-week campaign to drum up 16 recruits for a course in east London that attracted only two applicants. East Europeans often fail to stick around long, given the range of other jobs on offer. So the result is a curry crisis, threatening something that has become as identifiably British as fish and chips.

Ministers should listen to the likes of Enam Ali, owner of a curry house in Surrey. He came to this country in 1974 to help his family business, opened his own restaurant in 1989 and has since rubbed shoulders with the prime minister as founder of the British Curry Awards. Yet this true blue Tory whose business employs 17 people says the government is destroying his industry. ‘I love this country,’ he told me. ‘But they need to understand there is such a thing as good immigration.’ He is right – and few things show that better than the chicken tikka masala served up by Bangladeshis on high streets across Britain.


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