Civic leaders are facing mounting pressure to explain how nine illegal immigrants came to be working on a £200m flagship Tyneside development designed to create hundreds of local jobs.
Demands by Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes for “urgent talks” with contractors at the city’s 10-acre Stephenson Quarter site have attracted a storm of criticism from fellow politicians after an early morning Border Agency raid found nine men working on the site illegally.
The Home Office later confirmed that all the men, aged between 22 and 56, were employed by sub-contractors Heyrod and were laying concrete floor slabs for the phase one hotel and car park when they were arrested. Six had overstayed their visas, two had entered the UK illegally and one was a failed asylum seeker.
Miller Construction, the main contractor on the site behind Newcastle Central Station, and charged with delivering the multi-million office, hotel, retail, residential and leisure complex said it had “fully supported” the Home Office action, believed to have been triggered by an anonymous tip-off. “We are shocked and disappointed by these arrests,” added a spokesman.
Jim Ness, contracts director at Heyrod, which employed the men, said: “We are looking into the matter and carrying out further investigations”. Neither company would comment on claims that “master forgeries” of personal papers and work permits were used to dupe the sub-contractor into hiring the men.
The process of removing all nine men from the country is already underway. The Home Office also said that anyone found to have employed the illegal workers could face fines of up to £20,000 per worker.
“If these men were employed illegally then it is simply unacceptable on a project that is all about creating jobs and training local people,” said a statement issued by council leader Nick Forbes. “I will be meeting with those responsible for delivering the Stephenson Quarter over the coming days and asking them not only how this happened, but how they will make sure it does not happen again.”
It was not enough for Newcastle Central MP, Chi Onwurah (pictured), within whose constituency the scheme falls. She said she was “disappointed and angry to hear the development, partly supported by taxpayers’ money, had been exploited in this way”.
The leader of the Lib Dems on the city council, Anita Lower, weighed in with her own criticism. “I think it is astonishing that a project that’s supposed to bring in local jobs and economic benefits has illegal immigrants working on the site,” she said. “What sort of checks and balances are they carrying out on this important, high-profile scheme?”
Named after the Robert Stephenson train making works which once occupied the site, the scheme was granted planning permission in 2008 as part of a unique buy-back deal with Newcastle City Council. The authority purchased the site for £10m and allowed developers Silverlink to purchase sections at market price as and when it was ready to build, giving it more cash to finance the scheme.
Work stopped when Silverlink failed to secure funding during the financial crisis, but restarted last spring with backing from Aviva and Royal Bank of Scotland. The first phase, nearing completion, includes of a 251-bed, four-star Crowne Plaza Hotel and conference centre and 35,000sq ft of Grade A office space. At least 325 jobs will be created during construction stage with 2,200 permanent posts when the project is completed.
Birmingham Arena Central Scheme Underway