Benefit fraudsters exposed in raid on cockle-picking beach

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A raid on hundreds of cockle pickers on a Merseyside beach earlier this week found one in five were working while claiming unemployment benefits.

A total of 206 officers took part in the raid, known as Operation Omega, on the northern shore of the Dee estuary on the Wirral on Wednesday, including 96 from the Department of Work and Pensions, 75 from Merseyside Police and 10 from North Wales Police. They were supported by six police horses, four dogs and a helicopter.

Some 400 people were found working on the three-quarter-mile stretch of coast known as the Wirral Way between Heswall and Thurstaston. Of these, 80 were found to be working illegally while claiming benefits.

Local people have gathered cockles on the beach for generations but there has been alarm over the sudden arrival of hundreds of pickers, many from outside the area.

Malcolm Wicks, Minister of State for Work and Pensions, said there were concerns that some of those digging for the shellfish may be illegal immigrants.

Mr Wicks said: "It's a big industry. On these beaches we have got cockles to the value of up to half-a-million pounds at any one time and lorries there to export them to Spain and other places."

"The problem is that local people, including the honest cocklers, were concerned that suddenly hundreds of people were turning up on the beaches, some from other parts of the world.

"Immigration officers took part in the operation. I don't think they made any arrests, but there was a concern about illegal workers from other countries."