Police raids reveal squalid conditions of cockle pickers

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The Independent Online

Detectives investigating the deaths of 19 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay said yesterday that many had been living in "appalling" conditions.

Detectives investigating the deaths of 19 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay said yesterday that many had been living in "appalling" conditions.

Raids on several four- and five-bedroom houses in Merseyside unearthed evidence of up to 40 immigrant workers under one roof sleeping on mattresses with little food and poor heating.

The tragedy on Thursday has focused attention on exploitation of the Chinese workers and prompted calls for tighter regulation of the cockle industry and the licensing of "gangmasters" who control the workers. The exploitation of Chinese immigrants, who pay up to £20,000 to be smuggled into the UK, was underlined at the weekend when Lancashire police revealed that the victims and 16 survivors were paid £1 per day for a nine-hour shift.

Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell, who is leading the investigation, said many of the deceased - 17 men and two women - may have only been in the country a couple of months. He said: "We're talking about up to 40 people living in these houses. There are mattresses on the floor, hardly any food, and poor heating. Many have paid a lot of money to come over here, were living and working in appaling conditions, and should not have been on the bay that night."

Police admitted yesterday that the tragedy had prompted a "truly massive" inquiry that will involve numerous overseas forces but they stuck by their undertaking to make arrests "within days".

Although Cantonese and Mandarin translators are helping officers question survivors, police say they are having problems gleaning information about the victims. Det Supt Gradwell said: "We need to work to reassure these people so they can tell us the full story of what's been happening."

The Deputy Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary, Steve Finnigan, said: "We must not underestimate the scale of this inquiry, it is truly massive. It could well take us to all corners of the globe."

On the third day of the investigation, officers continued raids on properties in the Merseyside area, seizing large amounts of equipment which he believed was used to organise the cockle pickers, including computers, documents and mobile phones.

A frantic operation was launched involving two RAF helicopters and numerous lifeboats when the alarm was raised shortly after 9pm on Thursday. Sixteen people survived the disaster, including two people from England, nine asylum-seekers, and five people unknown to the immigration service before the tragedy.

Geraldine Smith, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said she would be raising two issues in the House of Commons today. She said: "We need better regulation of public fisheries, with perhaps a licence of £500 before people can go cockle picking. The money raised from these licences could then pay for proper enforcement of safety at the bay. I also want to see licences for all gangmasters. This would cut out the criminal element and stop the exploitation of workers."

The local community is considering erecting a statue as a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, page 15