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Asian Restaurateurs (Immigration Enforcement)

Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2014

I am grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to raise the treatment of Asian restaurateurs by immigration enforcement officers. I seek to make this a constructive debate on a very difficult issue, and I genuinely hope that it will lead to a more productive relationship between Asian restaurant owners and immigration enforcement officers.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to try to make this a constructive debate. Of course, I know that hard-working immigration officers have to do their job, but was she as disturbed as I was when a group of restaurant owners came to the House of Commons last week and described some of the ways in which they and their staff were being treated? Should not the Minister explain why that must not happen again?

That is a good point. It was distressing to hear some of the stories that we heard last week, which is why I have secured the debate. The meeting that was held last week brought a delegation of Asian restaurant owners from south Wales to the Houses of Parliament for a meeting arranged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). He had invited representatives from the immigration enforcement service to attend, but they were unfortunately unable to do so at short notice. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), Labour’s shadow Immigration Minister, attended, and I am grateful for his presence today, even though the rules of debate mean that he does not have an opportunity to make the case from the Opposition Front Bench.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Minister said last week, we all agree that we need strict border security and proper enforcement of immigration rules, but the way in which some Asian restaurant owners have been treated by immigration enforcement officers is nothing short of disgraceful, and it is damaging to business. Times are tough, so to have immigration officers arriving at 7 o’clock on a Friday evening, causing distress among the customers, slamming the doors and handcuffing the chefs before they can even turn off the cookers is simply not acceptable. It causes not only immense financial loss on the evening in question, but irreparable damage to the reputation of that restaurant, particularly in a small town, and it will take years to rebuild customers’ confidence in returning to the restaurant. That is an acute embarrassment. Sadly, in some cases, it was even found that there were no substantive grounds for going there in the first place, so it was a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

The debate coincides with the publication last month of the report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration on the use of the power to enter business premises without a magistrate’s search warrant. The report makes the point that two thirds of visits to business premises lack the necessary justification. Although the report focuses on a particular issue, it highlights more general points, such as widespread non-compliance with the guidance and lack of oversight procedures by senior management, who seem to have quite limited knowledge of the power as it is being used in practice. The report highlights visits on purely speculative grounds and inadequate staff training. It mentions that significant numbers of staff and management were either ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the guidance. It also highlights a lack of understanding of what constitute suitable grounds for a visit, and gives an example of how an allegation should be backed up by any available data from, for example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

My hon. Friend talks about restaurants, but shops are also getting caught up in the problem. A judge recently threw out a case relating to a business in my constituency, and when the business was finally awarded costs, it received a fresh visit from immigration enforcement officers the next day. Although we all want the authorities to carry out their jobs properly, does she see how a business might feel particularly targeted in such circumstances?

My hon. Friend describes a distressing case. That procedure being repeated unnecessarily was not only distressing for the shop owner but a waste of public money. In fairness, the inspector says in his report that the Home Office began to look at procedures that he was highlighting as he carried out the inspection, but there is clearly a lot of work to be done in that respect. Last week, we heard about the distressing nature of the raids. We also heard about immigration officers inspecting documents, saying that they were okay and then returning two weeks later to say that they were not okay. If the immigration officer himself or herself cannot identify the documents, it puts the restaurant owner in a difficult place.

The Asian Catering Federation says that the problem applies not only to Indian restaurants but to Chinese takeaways and Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Vietnamese, Pakistani and Japanese restaurants. The federation stresses that it wants to co-operate and that the matter is extremely important to it.

I turn briefly to what needs to be done. First, there must be continued dialogue with the restaurant owners. The federation said that whereas previous visits had taken the form of terrorist-type raids, some progress had been made. None the less, what restaurants are still experiencing—the shutting down of restaurants at peak time, and the aggressive approach of the enforcement officers, who give them no opportunity to explain to customers what is happening or even to answer the phone—has been extremely damaging to their businesses. That is the first thing: we need continued dialogue, because law enforcement is always better with collaboration and not antagonism.

Secondly, the concerns in the report clearly must be addressed. Thirdly, the whole issue of reasonable grounds for visits must be looked into: why have these visits been decided on in the first place? My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) gave a clear example relating to that. The Asian Catering Federation wants to co-operate and give the required information, but it must be done in a way that works for businesses, as well as for the immigration enforcement service.

I would like the Minister to look into the matter thoroughly and take very seriously the distress and problems caused to the industry, which is a phenomenal success story in bringing money into the British economy. I hope that she tries to find ways in which immigration enforcement can be properly carried out without disruption to many businesses that, in tough times and particularly in less well-off areas, are finding it difficult to keep going.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for securing such an important debate and allowing me to speak, and I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and thank her for her leave to speak in this short debate.

I want to start by making it clear that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that immigration rules in this country are robustly enforced, and to ensuring that managed migration occurs in a way that is fair, transparent and beneficial for both this country and the individuals involved. The many organisations and businesses that I have spoken to, and that attended the meeting we held the other day, have made it clear that they do not in any way dispute the need for robust immigration enforcement in the catering and retail sectors, or elsewhere in the economy. It is crucial that the House notes that fact. The Asian Catering Federation, the Bangladesh Caterers Association and many other organisations, as well as many individual restaurants and businesses, have made it absolutely clear that illegal immigration undermines their legitimate business and the wider economy. No one wants to see people living and working under the radar, undercutting wages and conditions.

I have received representations at recent meetings and directly from businesses in my constituency, and two major concerns are coming across to me from the Asian restaurant community and, it appears, from throughout Wales. The first, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is the issue of how enforcement operations are conducted. Secondly, the advice and support given to restaurateurs and businesses on ensuring enforcement of, and compliance with, the law is important. It might interest Members to know that I produced a leaflet for businesses in my constituency, which is very diverse, to give advice on how to comply with immigration law. Nevertheless, it is a complex area of law, and although many businesses want to ensure that they are adhering to it, they often do not feel supported in doing so.

My hon. Friend mentioned the concern expressed by a number of businesses that some of them, or, indeed, the sector as a whole, are being disproportionately targeted. That must be addressed. Bearing in mind that concern, I hope that the Minister can furnish us with clear statistics that will help to restore confidence in these operations. I would particularly welcome statistics on the number of enforcement visits that have taken place in Wales, their geographical location and sector, the percentage of such visits that have led to arrests and prosecutions, and the number of premises that have received repeat visits from enforcement officers.

First, is not one of the problems that, certainly in my experience, some restaurants have difficulties in finding trained staff? That leads to all sorts of other problems, so it should be looked at. Secondly, there have been too many changes to the immigration law—in fact, some of it is getting confused with terrorist law. It is an area that really should be sorted out, because there have been wholesale changes to immigration law over the years.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have made it clear to businesses in my constituency that a shortage of or challenge in getting labour is in no way an excuse for flouting immigration laws, and I do not in any way get a sense that any of them wish to do that. In fact, it is quite the opposite: there is wide concern on the issue of the immigration of skilled migrants to this country and ensuring that we have the right laws in place.

I want to concentrate on the two issues I mentioned near the start of my speech. A few themes have come out relating to the conduct of operations. Raids have occurred during busy periods, with diners being disturbed. Equipment has been left operating and staff have not been allowed to switch it off. I have heard of staff not being allowed to switch off woks, tandoors and the gas. Of course, significant stigma and embarrassment is caused, even when no offence has been committed. I am sorry to say so, but it appears that some very heavy-handed tactics have been used, and there have been repeat raids, despite the fact that the operations are supposedly intelligence-led.

I want to mention an example from my constituency about which I have been in dialogue with the Minister for Security and Immigration. Following an enforcement visit to a restaurant in my constituency on 7 November 2013, I was contacted by a number of concerned constituents—including members of my staff—who witnessed the events. I have since been engaged in to-and-fro correspondence with the Home Office that has not resolved the matter to my satisfaction, or, indeed, that of the business.

There was an operation by immigration officers at the premises at around 7.30 in the evening. As well as the restaurant, three of my constituents contacted me to share their concerns about how it was carried out. I would like to read out a couple of their statements. One said to me:

“I am currently sat in the restaurant and the Border Control burst in and told the manager to sit in the public seating area and not move. They then went into the kitchen and made the staff come into the public areas to interview them about their legal status. I think this is disgusting. The staff should have been afforded privacy and been interviewed with dignity. They disrupted the business and then left empty handed.”

Another witness said:

“Immigration officers entered the buildings and gathered the staff at the waiting area at the front of the restaurant. This took place while the restaurant had three or four tables occupied on a Thursday evening. What seemed particularly humiliating for the staff was the fact that they were interviewed in the shop window, so that passersby would be able to observe.”

That was despite there being

“a large number of telephone orders to be collected, and…a queue of customers lined up opposite the waiting area watching the interviews. I understand fully the seriousness of the operation, but I do not believe that questioning people in front of the public in this manner was acceptable and must have caused them much embarrassment.”

That is one of many examples that have been drawn to my attention and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli. Another, which I will keep anonymised, involved 13 immigration officers and two police officers attending a restaurant in which I have eaten a number of times. They were there from 6.30 to 9.30 in the evening. Allegedly, people were detained in a corridor and not allowed to switch off the gas, while a pencil was taken from a staff member with the suggestion that it might have been used as a weapon. Another allegation was that handcuffs were used. I have no way of independently verifying that but, unfortunately, given the number of examples cited, I am worried that there appears to be a trend in such operations. The witnesses I know are certainly absolutely truthful and would not want to mislead the House or, indeed, the authorities.

For the record, the dialogue with immigration officials in Cardiff to date has been welcome. Many of the restaurant owners and associations wanted that on the record, but the cancellation with a day’s notice of the attendance of senior officials at a meeting with me, other Members of this House and more than 30 restaurant owners from throughout Wales has not done a lot to continue that good and fruitful engagement. Despite repeated attempts, I have been unable to make contact with the officers who were due to attend.

In conclusion, I have three key points for the Minister to address: first, the conduct of the operations; secondly, the support for restaurateurs to help them to comply with the law, as they wish to; and, thirdly and most crucially at this time, reassurance that neither the sector nor specific restaurants are being targeted in any way.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Osborne. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Security and Immigration, who would normally attend the debate; he is in the main Chamber dealing with another matter. He has not yet worked out how to be in two places at once, but we are training him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on securing the debate, which has been very interesting, and I have listened carefully to the points made. We have heard a range of views on the subject of illegal working, and I will respond to each in turn. Before I do so, it might be helpful for Members if I set out the background to illegal working and enforcement visits.

I make no apology for the enforcement of immigration laws. The message we have heard today seems to be that that view is supported throughout the House. The British public expect the Home Office to enforce the law and to remove those persons who have no legal entitlement to live or work in the United Kingdom. We are committed to tackling illegal working, because it sustains illegal immigration, fuels organised crime and encourages migrants to put their livelihoods at risk and place themselves in the hands of people who exploit them. Illegal working also undercuts legitimate businesses, as rogue employers typically undercut the national minimum wage and avoid national insurance contributions.

The Government take, and will continue to take, tough enforcement action to arrest, detain and forcibly remove those who are breaking the law by living and working in the UK illegally. Immigration enforcement does that by conducting intelligence-based operations to target illegal immigration, illegal working and the criminality that supports illegal immigration. We will also act against those who support and fuel illegal activity. That is why we have laid before Parliament new regulations that will double the maximum penalty for employing an illegal worker from £10,000 to £20,000. We are also taking action via the Immigration Bill to simplify the process of receiving unpaid penalties.

Illegal working occurs in a wide range of businesses across the UK, and immigration enforcement targets known offenders, and acts on intelligence received to target businesses believed to be employing illegal workers. We also conduct follow-up checks on past offenders to ensure that they continue to be compliant. The catering trade receives a significant number of enforcement visits, but that reflects the intelligence we receive and the prevalence of immigration offences in a low-cost and highly competitive sector.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked for the statistics regarding the visits. In the UK as a whole, of the 7,904 illegal working visits carried out by immigration enforcement last year, around half—3,972—were carried out at restaurants or takeaways. In Wales, from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2013, 665 illegal working visits were conducted by enforcement teams, from which there were 379 arrests. The number of visits to restaurants and takeaways was 434.

I recognise the disturbance that may be caused to a business when an enforcement operation is undertaken, especially during peak times, and especially if no offence is encountered. I sympathise with the concerns raised; my parents are publicans, so I understand that, when someone is running a business, they want to do so as effectively, and in as hassle-free a way, as possible. However, the busy times are when we are able to maximise the likelihood of achieving a successful outcome. In the 7,904 enforcement visits made last year in the UK, we made a total of 7,274 arrests. That shows that our actions are warranted and successful. Our actions are based on intelligence, and immigration officers are carrying out their statutory duties to investigate that intelligence. We make every effort to verify the strength of the intelligence received, but inevitably there will be some operations where no offender is encountered.

Immigration enforcement staff have a difficult job to do, but it is best done in co-operation with others, as Opposition Members have said. I would like to highlight the good relationships and constructive dialogue that have been established by immigration enforcement staff with Asian restaurateurs to keep them informed of their work and purpose, and to equip them with the knowledge to recognise and deter illegal working, so that they do not unwittingly employ illegal immigrants.

In that case, why did immigration officials withdraw from the meeting last week at such short notice? Why did they become so difficult for my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) to contact?

I cannot answer specifically on that meeting, but there is an excellent relationship with the Bangladesh Caterers Association. That is a prime example of the relationship that officials have with restaurateurs. Regional events take place regularly involving both immigration enforcement and the BCA. The previous Immigration Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), met the London Chinatown Chinese Association, which agreed to co-operate with us. We offered it help, saying that if it co-operated with us and helped us to identify illegal workers, we could then speak to those workers instead of conducting raids at peak times. That relationship has since been working well.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but one of the issues highlighted in the inspector’s report is the lack of understanding by senior managers of what is happening on the ground. Could it be that, while there is dialogue between a certain level of official and, for example, the BCA, what is happening on the ground does not necessarily reflect those talks?

I conducted lengthy discussions with officials in preparation for this debate, and I have been assured and reassured that officials are working hard with the bodies that represent restaurateurs, and that there is a great deal of co-operation between, and a desire to co-operate on, both sides. We want to make enforcement work.

It is undeniable that, in the industry, there is opportunity for the exploitation of workers who are here illegally, which we need to deal with and tackle. However, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: the best way to do that is by co-operation, which we are actively ensuring. Where concerns have been raised by restaurateurs—for example, regarding simplifying documentation checks for overseas workers—we have considered them and sought to introduce change where appropriate. For instance, we are reducing the list of documents that employers have to present at right-to-work checks. The first changes will be introduced at the end of April. In the longer term, we intend to focus the checking system for non-European economic area nationals on the biometric residence permit.

While employers sometimes raise concerns about our approach, there is also broad support from legitimate employers for proactive enforcement action against rogue employers, who are competing unfairly against them. Like the rest of the public, legitimate employers have concerns about illegal immigration and support the aspirations of hard-working people from the UK. They experience at first hand how businesses are undercut by illegal cost-cutting activity, and recognise that it is often associated with exploitative behaviour such as tax evasion and harmful working conditions.

I will not, only because we are running out of time, and I want to address the specific points raised.

We expect to see continued and greater co-operation from the restaurant industry on employers investing in training and embracing the use of resident labour. The Migration Advisory Committee has repeatedly expressed its disappointment at slow efforts by the sector to train more chefs.

Turning to points raised in the debate, the hon. Member for Llanelli asked whether there was justification for visits, and asked whether there was perhaps a lack of oversight and guidance. One issue was identified by the report; we have discussed this, and the Home Office is already aware of that and is acting on it. No letters were issued or authorised without justification since the report, and the power is now being used correctly. The hon. Lady also asked about joined-up working—about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Home Office making separate visits, for instance. She is absolutely right: joined-up working is an absolute priority for the Home Office. We are focusing on streamlining the different agencies looking at illegal working to ensure that the number, and therefore cost, of operations is minimised.

The hon. Lady asked about the substantive grounds for some operations. Every operation is based on the intelligence that we have at the time, but intelligence is not always perfect. We work on very fine intelligence, but have a statutory duty to investigate allegations if we believe them to have a foundation. If we did not follow those allegations up, we would be criticised for it.

I am pleased to say that the majority of people in the country agree with the Government and want a robust stance on immigration and illegal activity. Our illegal working operations must be seen in the wider context of the reforms of the immigration system under the Government. Our tough reforms are carefully targeted, and we will continue to work hard to bring net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament, and to create a selective immigration system that works in our national interest. Put together, our engagement with local communities, enforcement activity and reforms will ensure that individuals who have no right to work or live in the UK are encouraged to comply with the rules and depart voluntarily, but individuals who partake in illegal activity or harbour those who do will always be sanctioned in line with UK law.

I am grateful to have had the chance to listen to the hon. Member for Llanelli and others today. I thank her again for securing this debate and will reflect further on the points made.