A convenience store at the centre of a modern slavery investigation is accused of paying immigrant workers “a pittance” and putting them up in unsafe conditions.
Councillors heard that Sussex Police raided Saltdean News and found a worker with no right to be in the UK on 16 December, after receiving a Home Office crime report.
Officers also found another illegal immigrant at a premises in Portslade owned by the licensees, Krunal Chandrakant Patel and Kirma Krunal Patel.
Sussex Police asked Brighton and Hove City Council to review Saltdean News’ alcohol licence the same month, and notified the Patels.
But when it revisited the convenience store on 8 February this year, it found the illegal immigrant who had been working in Portslade there.
A panel of three Brighton and Hove City councillors heard the force’s application on 9 March.
The force’s barrister Peter Savill told them: “On any interpretation, it is a serious case because it concerns the use or employment of staff at these premises who have no right to work.
“The police say this is significantly worse than that. Police believe this to be a case of modern slavery.
“The staff that are employed illegally are paid a pittance and are living in wholly unacceptable and dangerous accommodation.”
Savill told the panel – councillors Jackie O’Quinn, Dee Simson and Theresa Fowler – that Saltdean News was one of three premises owned by the Patels raided in December.
The Portslade premises were not named and the name and location of the third was not disclosed.
He also said East Sussex Fire and Rescue had declared the workers’ living conditions as dangerous.
Savill said: “Nothing has changed. We are used to seeing premises ‘pulling up their socks’ in response to an application for review.
“In this case, the position has remained the same. The licence holders are employing workers illegally.”
He said the situation shows the owners were acting “willfully and intentionally” as police were already investigating.
Savill said there were multiple breaches of the alcohol sales licence that go back to a warning letter given on 13 February 2019.
Details of these breaches were not discussed during the public part of the hearing.
The licence holders met with police in January 2020 to discuss issues with the alcohol sales licence, which continued to be a problem right up until February 2021.
He said: “It’s not often one finds oneself saying the breaches of conditions in this case, bad as they are, pale into insignificance alongside the central allegations.
“In this police case, they do. Standing alone, they would be serious matters.”
Savill said Sussex Police wanted the licence removed as Mr and Mrs Patel are not complying with their existing licence conditions.
Home Office immigration enforcement officer Inspector Elliot Andrews told councillors it was not unusual for businesses to keep employing people when they know they have no right to work in Britain.
He said: “I don’t know why that is, perhaps people are not aware of the severity, but we have had premises visited three or four times where civil penalties are issued.
“The maximum penalty for employing an illegal worker is £20,000 – if we find four or five illegal workers these fines add up.
“Even with premises like that, we return and find the same people employed, so I’m not surprised that police found the same person again.”
He urged councillors to revoke the licence to act as a deterrent to business owners tempted to employ people in the country illegally.
Licensing consultant, Surendra Panchal, director of Personal Licence Courses, represented Mr and Mrs Patel.
He said they had had no trouble with their licence at Saltdean News since they took on the business in 2014, adding that before 2019 they were “quite good”.
Panchal said the Patels employed the two people in good faith.
He said: “Yes, we have made a mistake in employing people whose documents were waiting.
“There is a mistake. We are not disputing that. What we are disputing is the way the case is put up.”
Panchal asked councillors to consider suspending the alcohol licence for two months and order the appointment of a new designated premises supervisor (DPS), who has day-to-day responsibility for alcohol sold on the premises.
He also asked for a condition stating the DPS would have to complete and pass a level three DPS licensing training course.
The panel heard further representations about the modern slavery allegations in private so as not to compromise the Sussex Police investigation.
The panel retired to make its decision, which will be made public in five working days.