Conran staff deported after raid on restaurant

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The Independent Online

Fifteen employees at Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird restaurant were arrested after a tip-off that it was employing illegal immigrants.

Six employees - a Pole, Brazilian, Bolivian, Yugoslav and two Mexicans - have already been deported. The operation also involved a number of Algerians, a Peruvian and an Equadorian.

Three more staff will be removed from the country, two have claimed asylum and two are still being questioned over suspected forged documents. Action has been dropped against two more. The people picked up include waiters and kitchen staff.

In one of the largest raids made on a restaurant in the country, 20 immigration officials supported by 50 police officers raided the designer restaurant on the King's Road, in Chelsea, on Wednesday last week.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant said: "The Home Office did conduct an onsite investigation into the personal documentation of some of our foreign national employees. The manner in which Bluebird had processed their employment is not in question and it has been clearly established that they have followed all the requested procedures in that respect."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: "The operation was consistent with our work to remove immigration offenders." She stressed the restaurant management had co-operated fully with the raid.

But the raid will be embarrassing for Sir Terence, who has been a vocal supporter of New Labour's economic approach and whose restaurants have often been used by Tony Blair.

Sir Terence, 71, is on holiday in Europe, but one employee said: "He's aware of it and he's less than happy." After opening his first restaurant in 1953, his group now includes Bibendum, on the Fulham Road, west London, and Le Pont de la Tour, in Butler's Wharf, south-east London. The art deco Bluebird, which has 350 employees, is among the largest in the Conran empire. Once described as "one of the grand épiceries of the world", it specialises in modern British cuisine. However, the restaurant achieved culinary notoriety six years ago when it was revealed that it served McCain oven chips. The building, a converted garage, also houses a branch of Sainsbury's, a flower shop, a café, cocktail bar, a private club and a homeware store, as well as an indoor fruit and vegetable market. It has built a reputation as a place to be seen in.

After concern among restaurateurs over recruitment problems, increased numbers of work permits are being offered to foreign nationals who want to work as bar staff, chefs and waiters. A survey in 2001 discovered there were almost 26,000 "hard-to-fill" jobs in the hospitality sector.

Under an initiative that began last week, 20,000 permits will be issued for work in the hospitality industry and manufacturing, including 7,500 for people from the 10 countries joining the EU next year.

The Home Office also hopes the move will tackle the problem of illegal immigrants working in the sector, as well as providing income tax and national insurance contributions from foreign nationals now working legally in the country.