Those of us fortunate enough to attend its opening night on December 16, 2019, were mesmerised by not simply the food but the transformation of this one time 400-seat cinema, wartime ballroom and night club that was to put Pera Palace in Chatteris on the map. But on Sunday it closed.
In a surprising upbeat message to its customers, Pera Palace told its customers that it has “now come to the end of our journey; every ending is a new beginning and of course there will be a new beginning for this place”.
Covid, rocketing energy bills and a cost-of-living crisis have impacted the decision by owner Ali Avlik but Home Office immigration officers and the licensing committee of Fenland District Council effectively sealed its fate.
Ali’s brother-in-law Hassan Ates has managed the business and admits its “a lovely business but it’s been a tough time for us. We’ve had enough”.
A nail in the coffin, probably the final nail, was driven in by Fenland District Council.
On March 9 a licensing subcommittee heard an application from the Home Office Immigration Office to review the premises licence of Pera Palace – it followed a raid on the restaurant in November 2022 when three Turkish nationals were found to be working there illegally.
Alvi and Hassan denied the allegations, but the licensing committee found that “no evidence has been put before us today to say this position is incorrect. This committee cannot go behind the decision of the Home Office officers and we have to accept the facts before us, in the absence of any contrary evidence”.
The restaurant, through its trading company Hupus Ltd, had already been fined £45,000 for employing the workers illegally, but the Home Office wanted, and secured, a second ‘pound of flesh’.
The committee was told that it had five options available to them:
- to modify the conditions of the premises licence
- to exclude a licensable activity from the scope of the licence
- to remove the designated premises supervisor
- to suspend the licence for a period not exceeding three months; or
- to revoke the licence.
The decision by the committee pointed out: “Illegal workers generally do not pay income tax or national insurance. They are generally not entitled to paid holidays and other statutory employment benefits; and are often forced or coerced into modern slavery.
“It is the function of the licensing subcommittee to take steps with a view to the promotion of the licensing objectives and in this instance, the prevention of illegal working in the interests of the wider community and not those of the individual licence holder.
“We say that employing illegal migrant workers is in breach of the provisions of the Licensing Act and continuing with their employment up to November 2022 is furthering crime. It is apparent that the right to work checks were not conducted or were not conducted properly.”
“We take a serious view of employing three illegal migrant workers, for the reasons stated above.
“We have considered revoking the licence; suspending the licence or removing the designated premises supervisor but our decision this morning In order to promote the licensing objective in question, we believe it is necessary to: Revoke the licence in its entirety.”
Paul Phillips of the Home Office Immigration Enforcement told the hearing that the owners had “quite blatantly overlooked” the requirements to employ staff legally.
Hassan Ates refused to accept that and said an appeal had been lodged against the fine; he pleaded for clemency and assured the committee employment paperwork was now all up to date.
“I know about paperwork yes there were a few things missing by us that we should have done so but unfortunately there are things that we need to learn from this as well which we have learned,” he told the committee.
“And in case of another visit all our paperwork and everything’s up to date and on behalf of the company I’m sorry about that but there’s always a chance to prove ourselves and we would do that and we’re doing that at the moment.”
Hassan said revoking their licence “it’s not just going to punish us; it’s going to punish a lot of the public as well because we’re very popular and very good most restaurant when we’ve got a very good name from the public.
“And as I said we would like to consider your decision when you’re making a decision obviously consider that this has never happened in the past. We’ve never had a license issue and as I said we still deny having illegal workers and we’ve made that appeal and that’s about it.
“We are a very good restaurant and from safety and health health-wise we’ve got five-star review from the council we’ve got a five-star certificate from the health and hygienic certificates.
“We are doing our best as we can obviously there are there might be parts where you know we’re not there might be something that we’re missing we’re not doing right but obviously we are always there to improve.”
Cllr Michael Humphrey, who chaired the committee, told him the panel was only concerned about his behaviour as licence holder, “not the restaurant and the fact that it has a 5-star review and good food hygiene rating is irrelevant in this determination”.
Mr Phillips told the hearing: “I believe that one was an asylum seeker the other one was back on an ECAA (Visa European Community Association Agreement, mostly known as Ankara Agreement, is a visa category for Turkish nationals who are older than the age of 18) which stipulates very clearly that he was only allowed to work within the plumbing industry as such.
“He was breaching that and that was also self-admitted”.
He said he was “100 per cent certain that all three were working illegally with no right to work within the United Kingdom”.
In his concluding remarks, Mr Phillips had argued that revoking the licence remained his objective.
“I’d just like you to deliberate the revocation of this license because I don’t feel that any further conditions on the license would make any difference whatsoever as unfortunately everything that is stipulated within the license at present hasn’t been adhered to.”
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