Keep bureaucracy out of the curry business

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The Independent Online

Indian restaurants in the UK now employ more people than our once-mighty shipbuilding industry. It is estimated that 72,000 people work in Britain's 9,000 restaurants. The sector makes a substantial contribution to our economy.

The present staffing crisis is therefore cause for concern on simple economic grounds. If restaurants cannot find enough people to work in their kitchens and wait on tables they will be forced to close. The Home Office came up with a sensible solution to this problem when it introduced the sector-based immigration scheme last year. Under this scheme, Indian restaurant owners, if they cannot find workers locally, have permission to recruit overseas. Owners were allowed to recruit 10,000 workers from Bangladesh on 12-month visas.

The trouble is that most of these workers have not arrived. British officials in Bangladesh are refusing to issue visas, despite the permission granted by the Home Office. This seems to be due to fears that people will outstay their visas. Of course immigration officials on the ground should prevent abuses of the system, but they should be in no doubt that workers are badly needed. There must be no question of their being tied up in bureaucracy indefinitely.

Migration Watch, the anti-immigration pressure group, has waded into the issue with its usual obnoxious slurs. The group's chairman, Sir Andrew Green, has called the visa scheme "incomprehensible" and points out that the unemployment rate among young British Bangladeshis is high. His implication is, of course, that there is no real labour shortage and that this is an elaborate scam to bring in more welfare scroungers. This is plain wrong. The primary cause of the staff shortages is that young Bangladeshis are now, in fact, better educated than in the past and more likely to go to college rather than work in a restaurant. Indian restaurants are victims of the Bangladeshi community's success, not its failure.

The success of Indian restaurants in the past 40 years is a tribute to the ingenuity and hard work of immigrants. Those who came to Britain from the subcontinent have built up a profitable industry, often in the face of shocking racial prejudice. They will undoubtedly overcome these problems. In the meantime, the Government must ensure the sector gets the manpower it needs and we would do well to appreciate what it takes to satisfy Britain's voracious appetite for chicken tikka masala.