Since they first started becoming popular in the 1940s, curry houses have become a staple of Britain’s towns and evenings out.
The nation’s favourite cuisine was adopted and then adapted from its spicy, South Asian roots to suit our more sensitive tastebuds. Along the way, it has spawned an industry worth £4bn and, directly and indirectly, employs an estimated 100,000 people.
But the sector is also in the grip of a crisis. To date this year an estimated 65 curry restaurants have had to close, at a rate of more than two a week. A significant driver of these closures, according to Cobra Beer, has been a skills shortage in the industry and the UK’s immigration policy.
Sold in more than 98 per cent of the UK’s 7,000 licensed curry restaurants (there are 5,000 unlicensed venues, making an industry total of around 12,000), Cobra Beer is well-placed to sound the alarm bell for a meal that has become as British as it is Indian.
Cobra’s founder, the House of Lords crossbencher and chancellor of the University of Birmingham Lord Bilimoria, believes immigration policy changes introduced in April will only drive the sector into more of a decline.
“Curry is one the best value cuisines,” Lord Bilimoria insisted in an interview with City A.M. “Restaurants struggled in the recession but they managed to remain resilient.” Now, however, that resilience is being tested afresh.
Following the April immigration changes, eateries will need to offer salaries of £35,000 for skilled workers from outside the EU who have been living in the UK for less than 10 years if they want to settle here for good.
As chefs fall under the government’s “shortage occupation” list, this minimum salary threshold is lowered to £29,750. On the other hand, this exemption is nullified if the restaurant offers any takeaway services – which of course includes most curry houses.
“It’s almost as though we’re an ungrateful country,” Lord Bilimoria said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Without the ability to bring chefs in from South Asia, the rate of restaurant closures is unlikely to improve. Even pursuing a policy of training more local apprentices would not fill the skills gap quickly enough. “It takes almost seven years to train a professional curry chef,” Lord Bilimoria explained.
The solution, he believes, would be to allow for immigrant chefs to have a lower salary threshold, at around the average rate in the profession of £20,000.
Sadly, his vision for UK immigration policy, the subject of a “terrible” argument during the referendum debate, is unlikely to change quickly enough.