Labour leadership contest: Curry becomes a hot topic on the campaign trail

Parliamentary Business: One issue that Andy Burnham has been lobbied on is the country's acute shortage of curry chefs

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The Independent Online

When the next Labour leader is announced on 12 September, 127 days will have passed since Ed Miliband quit in the wake of a disastrous general election in which the party was reduced to just 232 MPs, its lowest level since 1987. That election is now so long ago that Mr Miliband has since had the time to jet off to Ibiza, Italy and Australia, and to grow a beard that has its own Twitter account. 

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats completed their leadership contest in barely two months: the winner, Tim Farron, was relieved to have a summer for him and his dwindled troops to recover.

Andy Burnham is desperately trying to turn round a campaign in which he started as favourite before dramatically falling to a distant second behind the hard-left insurgent Jeremy Corbyn. The early weeks of the campaign are a distant memory now and he laughs that he still has “dozens” of meetings and local party events to attend before voting closes in little more than a fortnight.

Labour might have turned a simple leadership battle into a war of attrition, but Mr Burnham believes that all the candidates have benefited from travelling the country and finding out what the real, rather than perceived, concerns are among the party’s rank and file.

Disturbed by first and second-hand accounts of the impact of welfare reforms, the shadow Health Secretary, should he win, will demand that the Government release data on suicides that have allegedly resulted from benefit cuts.

One issue that he has been lobbied on is the country’s acute shortage of curry chefs, which the Spice Business trade magazine believes is hurting nearly 90 per cent of Indian and sub-continental Asian restaurants. The industry is worth £4.2bn and employs more than 100,000 staff in the UK, so what might sound like a niche problem is, in fact, one of economic significance.

Out on the campaign trail Mr Burnham was approached by a senior member of the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs, and is convinced that curry houses could, as the industry warns, go the way of the local pub with hundreds of closures across the country. “It’s a real issue, isn’t it?” he says.

The Independent on Sunday this weekend reported that Enam Ali, who owns the Spice Business, the British Curry Awards, and the award-winning Le Raj restaurant in Epsom, wants David Cameron and Theresa May to introduce temporary work visas so that chefs can be flown over from Asia. Modelled on systems in the US and Germany, these visas would only last a few months, with no right to renew, guaranteeing they would only be here  for work and not drawing from the  benefits system.

If it seems unlikely that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary will take much notice of what will be an unsolicited submission, then think of this: both have accepted invitations to be guest of honour at the curry awards in recent years.

In 2013, Mr Cameron pledged to help restaurants find and train new chefs, while Ms May said last year: “The British curry industry really is one of Britain’s greatest success stories. Through hard work and innovation, you’ve built a vibrant industry, which generates wealth, promotes growth and employs tens of thousands of people.”

Training a chef from scratch, though, takes at least three years and younger generations have proved less interested in entering an industry with such-anti-social hours. Restaurateurs say that Eastern European immigrants have proved uninterested in working with such strong spices, while curry colleges are struggling to fill places.

The immigration cap requires skilled workers from outside the European Union to earn £29,570 – curry chef salaries are typically closer to £25,000. Applications are often refused and the shortages are the main reason why two Indian restaurants are closing every week. Even successful sponsorship licence applications can take eight months, Mr Ali warns, while many restaurateurs have to bear the cost of getting external advice on how best to navigate this complicated, time-consuming process.

Mr Burnham says he will “look at” Mr Ali’s suggestion: “I wouldn’t be opposed to a review of those rules, to lower the hurdle a little bit.”

The short-term work visa would obviously have implications for the immigration system and it’s hard to believe that there will only be an exemption for curry houses. As Mr Ali concedes in his submission: “The hospitality industry overall is more dependent upon immigrants to fill in jobs than others and so perhaps the case of the curry industry is part of a wider problem.”

It would also pour more fuel on the immigration debate, which is already blazing over the Calais crisis.

Hopefully, though, Mr Cameron and Ms May will consider this suggestion seriously. Mr Ali says that he doesn’t think the Government has failed the industry yet – but he will judge them on their response to his and others’ concerns this time around.

If curry truly is our national dish, then we have a patriotic duty to make sure the restaurants and takeaways do not disappear from our high streets. Moreover, if Cameron and the next leader of the Opposition are involved in a curry clash, Labour’s interminable contest will have actually achieved something beyond internecine warfare over the future of  the left.

Twitter: @mleftly