A supermarket could lose its licence next week after it was found to have employed people illegally.
Family Shopper, on Bedford Road in Rock Ferry, had its licence to sell alcohol called in after it was found in February 2023 there were two people working illegally on the premises, a Wirral Council meeting was told.
That matter is still under investigation and the supermarket changed hands on May 12. However, councillors still had concerns about the new owner, PK Retail Limited’s links to those previously involved in the business.
Since the new owners have taken over, 27 illegal vapes were also found behind the counter on June 1 but Kavi Ratnarajah, from PK Retail, said these were not on sale and were legal before regulations recently changed.
The licence was due to be reviewed on May 19 but was postponed as the licence was being transferred to PK Retail until June 14.
Andrew Bushell, Wirral Council’s Licensing Operations Manager, argued the supermarket’s licence should be revoked because of the illegal activity that previously took place there. He said the issue should be treated particularly seriously as immigration crime can “generate easy money for criminal gangs” as well as concern for the immigrants’ welfare themselves.
According to a council report, Merseyside Police visited the premises on February 1 where some beer was found to be five months beyond its best before date. However the visit was cut short after “a gang of youths” reportedly attacked the Police Constable’s vehicle outside.
Due to the beer, a further visit took place on February 10 with police and a Wirral Council licensing enforcement officer. The report states a man working in the shop had little understanding of what was happening and was unable to answer simple questions.
The report states the men said they were from South India and later admitted to being in the UK illegally and that they lived above the premises working long hours for seven days a week.
The licensing panel were told a man named Mathanakaram Sevaniyakam, who claimed to be the owner of the business, was contacted. He was asked if CCTV of the premises could be viewed but failed to provide it despite repeated requests.
However, the licence to sell alcohol on the premises was listed under the name of Shanmuganathan Satchithanathan, the current landlord. The panel were told this licence has now been transferred to Ms Ratnarajah last week.
When asked about the two men in the shop, officers were reportedly told by Mr Sevaniyakam that they lived at an address on Worsley Road in Eccles, Manchester. This was later confirmed to be the same address where Ms Ratnarajah operates one of her businesses under PK Retail.
The two men were later arrested by police with the Home Office reportedly still investigating the previous licence holder, Mr Satchithanathan. The Home Office supported the review of the licence.
Wirral Council officers also said they had paid a more recent visit to the supermarket on Wednesday 17 May where a woman in her 30s was found to be working there. The woman claimed to be a student on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in Coventry and that she travelled there by taxi.
According to officers, the conversation took place at 1.30pm despite the woman claiming she needed to be in college at 3pm. However, Ms Ratnarajah said she would be able to provide records of staff ID checks which would confirm this woman is a mature student and therefore able to work 20 hours a week.
However, councillors still had concerns given Trading Standards were told by store employees to contact Mr Sevaniyakam upon discovering the vapes on June 1. This was after Ms Ratnarajah had taken over the business and claimed Mr Sevaniyakam was no longer working there.
Mr Bushell said, “At best this demonstrated that the DPS (Designated Premises Supervisor) has not gained significant control of the business as they did not know who to report to,” adding: “At worst shows he (Mr Sevaniyakam) still has involvement in the business.”
The vapes were more than 11 times the current legal liquid limit. However Ms Ratnarajah said they were taken off the shelf once new regulations came in and were stored in a sweet box in a cupboard under the counter.
They also questioned Ms Ratnarajah’s relationship with Mr Sevaniyakam, who she said was a good friend and a former employee. They wanted reassurance he would not be involved in the running of the business going forward.
In response to the allegations, Ms Ratnarajah said both Mr Satchithanathan and Mr Sevaniyakam would not be involved in the running of the business going forward. She also said she had heard about the business being up for sale in March and wanted to buy it due to the price and location.
Legal representatives for Ms Ratnarajah argued she was not involved in the business when the illegal activity took place and she was the sole director of her company. They also said an experienced employee was now overseeing the supermarket and it will be run professionally from now on.
Ms Ratnarajah, a junior doctor who previously worked at Aintree Hospital, said: “I want to sort this out and move forward. I only got this granted last week so moving forward you need to give me time to prove that I can manage the store.” She said she wouldn’t have wanted to jeopardise her profession or her business and that she had invested a significant amount of money into the Family Shopper.
Legal representative Mike Thorpe added: “I hope you can move forward and ensure the future of this premises for the benefit of the community it’s located in,” adding: “I can assure you that she would promote all the licence objectives and comply with all conditions attached to this licence.”
Councillors are expected to make a decision on whether the supermarket can keep the licence next week.