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COVID BREACH: Saleem Bagh loses license

COVID BREACH: Saleem Bagh loses license

Image: LDRS

A village restaurant in Solihull accused of allowing some punters to use it “like a pub”, in defiance of Covid rules, has been banned from selling alcohol.

Police had received anonymous tip-offs that the Saleem Bagh, in Dorridge, was allowing groups to drink on the premises – in an area which was then “a hotspot” for the virus.

Officers, who discovered a fully-stocked cabinet of ice-cold Cobra beer at the Indian eatery, claimed there had been “a catalogue of dishonesty”.

Following their visit early in the latest lockdown, which also highlighted concerns about a lack of action to make the business Covid-safe, they had asked the council to review the licence.

The restaurant’s owner of 30 years, Shahid Ali, last week admitted he had made “a silly mistake” but insisted that he had not charged for the drinks – instead handing them out to those waiting for takeaway orders.

While police had alleged there was strong intelligence suggesting rule-breaking had been going on for a long time, this was refuted by the premises which insisted the activity was confined to a few weeks.

Members of a Licensing Act Panel, which met to consider the case, were deeply critical and cited concerns from the council’s own public health team that the restaurant had put people at risk during “a national emergency.”

While they stopped short of revoking the licence altogether, members agreed to exclude the supply of alcohol and confirmed that new conditions – around CCTV and keeping an incident book – would apply to other activities.

PC Luke Prescott, who had visited last month, had told the hearing that Mr Ali had initially denied serving alcohol and suggested some customers might have brought their own drinks in while waiting for food.

But he owned up after police quizzed him about the chilled beer and up to 30 empty bottles of the same brand, which were found in the restaurant’s bins.

In a written statement, provided to councillors, PC Prescott said the force expected business owners “to set an example” and the breaches weren’t fair on other outlets who were making “huge sacrifices.”

His Solihull Police colleague, Sgt Tim Evans, said: “At the time when this was going on, Dorridge – which is where this restaurant was based – was a Covid hotspot area.

“So we were seeing significant rises of the virus within that area, which meant our police activity was increased anyway.”

The officer told councillors that police were concerned about what they considered a “serious” and “knowing” breach.

“He’s actively been evasive and it’s only through a bit of diligent police work really that we’ve identified that this was continuing.

“And a year into the virus – when there can be no mistake about the rules and regulations –  we think this is very, very purposeful.”

He went on: “It wasn’t that the odd customer is being served a bottle of beer while they’re waiting for their curry. This was about groups of people sitting in the back of the restaurant and using it like a pub.”

The visit had also flagged concerns about a lack of measures, such as signs or socially distanced seating, to keep customers safe from Covid. Although the meeting heard changes had since been made.

Graham Hopkins, acting for the restaurant, said it was a long-established business with a good track record and had asked councillors to give the owner “another chance” – revisiting the conditions in place.

“I can tell you – and he will tell you himself – that he is genuinely sorry and remorseful for the mistakes that he has made relating to giving customers bottles of beer while they waited for food orders they were collecting…

“Also for the fact that there were inadequate measures in place relating to Covid protection.”

He said that Mr Ali, who had stepped aside as the designated premises supervisor,  regretted not being honest to begin with and that he had “panicked” when the police paid a visit.

Although the restaurant maintained no money had changed hands for the beer.

Mr Hopkins suggested that revocation would be harsh given that a London  restaurant responsible for a “far more serious” breach, hosting a birthday party for the pop singer Rita Ora last autumn, had avoided being stripped of its licence.

But Cllr James Butler, who chaired the meeting, said: “The gravity of this cannot be underestimated.

“This is a very, very serious incident we are talking about here. You mentioned an incident down in Chelsea I think it was … But that’s Chelsea, this is Dorridge. And we must deal with this on its own merits.”

Cllr Tony Dicicco (Con, Meriden) said that Covid had already killed more than 110,000 people in the UK and that the failings couldn’t be taken lightly.

“We need to have trust, we need to believe that this premises will operate within the law.”

A written notice, issued by the council said: “[The panel] decided on balance that due to the very serious public safety breaches, dishonesty towards police officers and during a time when the community were most at risk of coronavirus, it was appropriate and proportionate to exclude a licensable activity at these premises, namely the supply of alcohol.”

Interim measures on the sale of hot food, imposed following the police’s visit, have been lifted.

Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter


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