Gangmaster guilty of manslaughter after 21 Chinese cocklers were engulfed by tide

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The Independent Online

The Government and the Immigration Service stand accused of repeatedly frustrating police efforts to tackle a "shadow industry" of Chinese cockle-picking before and after the Morecambe Bay tragedy in which 21 cocklers were killed. Two others, whose bodies were never found, are also feared dead.

A Chinese gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was convicted at Preston Crown Court yesterday of the manslaughter of the cocklers who died in February 2004, after they were engulfed by the bay's notorious tides. But the jury was was not told that the defence lawyer Lord Carlile tried to get some of the charges thrown out because of the way that "officials of government and ministers connived in and co-opted officials into acceptance of the illegal trade".

The UK Immigration Service (UKIS) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) knew removing illegal Chinese immigrants was difficult because the Chinese government would not accept them back without passports, which were destroyed by those who trafficked them into the country. But since the cockle-pickers were self-sufficient and not a drain on the state "officials and possibly ministers acquiesced in that state of affairs in a very positive way," Lord Carlile told the judge.

In a joint statement yesterday, the Home Office and DWP said "robust and appropriate action" had been taken before the February 2004 tragedy. But a Cumbria police log describing the interception of 15 illegal Chinese cocklers in a Ford Transit van just five days before the disaster suggests otherwise.

"Liaised [with] Lancashire police who were aware of this bunch. They have liaised with the Immigration Service as they had a lot in custody recently [but they] are not really interested in them as it's a protracted business getting rid of them."

Lord Carlile, who secured the acquittal of a fish merchant, Tony Eden, on charges of assisting illegal immigrants, detailed scores of similar incidents, and argued that the UKIS and DWP officials were as guilty of facilitation - helping others breach immigration law - as any of the defendants. He also accused the Government of creating a "misleading impression" by claiming that police and UKIS were "working together" on tackling illegal cockling.

The Government's apparent inability to deal with the immigrants provided a clear run for Lin Liang Ren, who was also convicted of perverting justice and facilitation. His girlfriend, Zhao Xiao Qing, was found guilty of perverting justice. Mr Eden's father, David Anthony Eden was acquitted of facilitation. Lin and his girlfriend will be sentenced on Tuesday.

Lin, a wealthy young accountant, was head of finance at a plastics firm which employed 900 people in Fuqing City when he decided to use his financial acumen trafficking Chinese immigrants into Britain and putting them to work for a pittance.

Since their earnings in China were just £40 a month, there was a ready supply of individuals prepared to pay up to £20,000 (loaned to them by Snakehead gangs) to get to Britain. Lin needed only concern himself with finding rooms for them and transporting to the places where they were put to work. He was warming himself in a van on the Morecambe Bay shoreline when his cockle-pickers were dying.

He had arrived in England in 2000 and paid £1,500 to enrol as a student at "colleges" in London and Manchester. They were a front designed to secure him an extended student visa. Rather than study, he started renting cheap Liverpool properties to house Chinese sent from London.

Lin did not need to get his hands dirty. He employed henchmen such as Tian Long to intimidate British cocklers when they complained about the Chinese stealing "their" profits. Had he had not perished at Morecambe Bay, Tian, who communicated only by grunts, would also have faced a manslaughter charge.

Lin enjoyed spending the vast cash profits put his way by fish merchants who arrived at the shoreline with up to £100,000 in cash. He drove a red Mitsubishi sports car and blew £600 on one unsuccessful hand of blackjack at a Liverpool casino.

His cocklers would have needed to fill 120 large cockle sacks to earn that much. When he was arrested with illegal immigrant cocklers on Crammond Island in the Firth of Forth in October 2003, his girlfriend was holding £4,100 which she could not account for. Lin spent the trip sightseeing and buying bagpipes.

The Chinese he put to work earned £5 for each bag of cockles they picked at Morecambe Bay; selling them on to the Edens for £15, a mark up of 200 per cent.

After fees for workers' board, lodgings and transport were deducted, cocklers were sent into high street banks to deposit wads of cash into Snakehead accounts. They did not speak English, but Lin got around that by sending them with mobile phones containing the bank account numbers, which they placed under the bank tills with the cash.

Lin's fortunes in Britain were also aided by the Prestige oil tanker disaster off north-west Spain in November 2002 which destroyed some of Europe's finest cockle-beds. Shellfish collection was suspended for months until the coastline were cleaned up.

The Spanish demand for cockles, second only to Japan, brought companies such as Conservas Dani, owned by the Spanish football club chairman Daniel Sanchez Llibre, to windswept corners of Britain.

At the same time, UKIS was demonstrating its inability to deal with Britain's fledgling illegal Chinese cockle-picking teams. In December 2002, the DWP mounted Operation Shark in Scotland, which found that half of the country's fish-processing workforce was illegal. No prosecutions ensued, despite the DWP's finding that "severe criminality" had been uncovered.

On the day of the disaster, 70 Chinese cocklers had set out from Liverpool at 1pm . But one of their two minibuses broke down, leaving only 35 of them to pick enough cockles to fill the two articulated lorries that had been hired to transport that night's catch to Spain. They arrived at Morecambe Bay shortly before 5pm when the few British cocklers on the beds were leaving and, with transport limited to two pick-ups, many had to walk the two miles to the cockling area on foot. One loaded pick-up become stuck as the tides encroached, forcing those on board to jump out and make for the shore. One group went in one direction and escaped; the other went another way and drowned.

Gradually, survivors have dared to speak out against Lin, though their families, have suffered threats and assaults in China from Snakehead gang members. Witnesses have been forced to take police protection.

Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell, who led the criminal investigation, praised the bravery of those who, despite testifying, may now be returned to China. Their temporary British citizenship, granted to prevent them vanishing, ends in May.

Legislation governing the way gangmasters operate has since been introduced to some industries but not, as yet, in marine industries including cockle-picking.

Despairing last calls as sea swept in

As the Morecambe Bay tide engulfed them the cockle-pickers made desperate, final calls on their mobile phones to friends, family and the emergency services.

Guo Bin Long called his wife, 5,000 miles away in the village of Ze Lang. "I am in great danger," he told her. "I am up to my chest in water. Maybe I am going to die. It's a tiny mistake by my boss. He mistook the time. He should have called us back an hour ago. Tell the family to pray for me. It's too close. I am dying."

The body of Mr Guo, who had a six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter, was recovered two days later. A second, unknown victim made a 999 call from the Hest Bank cockle-bed, desperately shouting: "Sinking water."

The operator who took the call could not understand. When police rang back, a voice screamed "Sinking water" over and over until contact was lost.

Guo Jin Fu, who was on shore, had a call from his friend Guo Bin Long on the cockle-beds, imploring him to ring for help. But Fu had just arrived in Britain and had no idea how to do so. He called his friend back, to find him crying for his parents. He talked to him until Guo Bin Long could speak no longer.