Page last updated at 04:40 GMT, Saturday, 5 February 2005

Morecambe Bay: One year on

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Shrine at Morecambe Bay
Memorial: Were the deaths in vain?
A year ago 23 Chinese people lost their lives as they harvested cockles, against a rising tide in Morecambe Bay.

This weekend, as their deaths are remembered in special services, the cockling continues on the dangerous tidal banks.

The cockling deaths, rescue operation and ongoing investigations have been one of the biggest incidents Lancashire police have had to deal with in a long time.

Officers had to travel to China in an attempt to identify the dead. Quite simply, it seemed to appear out of nowhere.

We must continue to press for resources and enforcement so that this legislation can stand as a fitting testimony to those cockle pickers
Jim Sheridan MP
The Morecambe Bay disaster shocked the British public. While the truth will not out until criminal trials later this year, the tragedy highlighted the risks and dangers of clandestine migration into the British economy.

While the law has changed on gangmasters - the agents who control casual workers in the food industries - there remain wider concerns about what is happening to those Chinese workers, and others, whose presence in the UK may be completely unknown to the authorities.

So what has changed? Morecambe Bay itself now has a dedicated police officer to gather intelligence on illegal practices on sands.

There are weekly "action group" meetings of the key authorities and the entire harvesting area is also now subject to a permit system.

But many say much more needs to be done. The BBC reported this week how easy it is to get a licence to work the cockling beds. Many MPs also want more action to deal with the illegal gangmasters themselves.

Gangmaster Act

Since the deaths, we have seen new laws to create the Gangmaster Licensing Authority - introduced by backbench MP Jim Sheridan, although supported by ministers.

Cockle picking
Licenses industry
Will revoke permits if necessary
Investigatory powers
Enforcements from 2006

The watchdog will licence the industry and, crucially, will have powers to investigate and bring to the courts those who break the law and endanger others, be it in the shellfish business, crop-picking, or factory processing.

However, officials say the Gangmaster Licensing Authority still needs time to get up and running - meaning there will be no raids on the worst offenders until late 2006.

Until then, the responsibility for 23 ongoing investigations lies in the hands of the police, immigration officials and other bodies.

Brian Wong of the Liverpool Chinese community, where many of those who died were based, said enforcement operations and publicity - including community-led satellite broadcasts into China - has led to a drop in undocumented Chinese people coming into the North West.

"The situation is a lot quieter," he said. "We are seeing fewer illegal immigrants arrive in the Chinese community now.

If you regularise the position of those people then you know who they are and you also pull the rug out from beneath the snakeheads
Jabez Lam
"They were coming here because of the rich pickings of Morecambe Bay but we are now noticing fewer people being smuggled by the gangs - they have always been noticeable because of their regional Chinese accents."

But Mr Wong said some of the clampdown on illegal working has had an unattended consequence.

He said rules introduced last year requiring employers to check their workers' immigration status has led to sackings, even if people are here legally.

This, he argues, may place people in the very path of the unscrupulous bosses the authorities are fighting.

"We would like to see more work permits to undermine the illegal activity, It would undermine the 'snakehead' gangs who smuggle someone here for $30,000 at a time," he said.

Jim Sheridan, the Renfrewshire West MP who introduced the gangmaster legislation, said the deaths at Morecambe Bay threw a light on the exploitation of foreign workers which is "rife" in parts of the economy.

"The Gangmasters Act passed last July will go some way towards protecting future workers from similar tragedies but we must continue to press for resources and enforcement so that this legislation can stand as a fitting testimony to those cockle pickers we remember today," he said.

'Rethink needed'

But Jabez Lam of Chinese campaign group Min Quan said the government needs to rethink its strategy.

If there are tens of thousands of unaccounted Chinese nationals in the UK, he argues, is immigration enforcement an incentive to disappear?

Victor Solomka
Victor Solomka: Found guilty of running racket
"I believe the problems are getting worse," he told the BBC. "It seems that the solution has been to blame the victims - enforcement only drives individuals most at risk further underground."

Mr Lam points to the documented rise in south-east Asian criminal gangs in the pirate DVD market. He has noticed a rise in Chinese people selling the DVDs - in all probability the same people smuggled into the country to work for gangmasters before the tragedy.

"I think the government needs to think about an amnesty for those undocumented workers," he said.

"If you regularise the position of those people then you know who they are and you also pull the rug out from beneath the snakeheads."

Amnesties are of course politically difficult - and there is also the argument that they become a magnet for future illegality.

That said, the government is optimistic. Just days before the anniversary, Victor Solomka, a Ukrainian, was found guilty of running a gangmaster racket worth millions.

He employed up to 700 eastern European workers - 429 unknown to immigration officials - who were also expected to live in overcrowded housing.

Jane Kennedy, minister for work, said: "The government has been active in promoting the health and safety of those cockling in Morecambe Bay and elsewhere in Great Britain. We have seen improvements but the government must, and does, remain vigilant.

"However, success relies on the continued co-operation and sensible management of those who control the work activity, who have primary responsibility for the health and safety and wellbeing of workers."

video and audio news
See police footage of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay

Cockling victims are remembered
04 Feb 05 |  Lancashire
Gangmaster guilty over 5m racket
03 Feb 05 |  Norfolk
Easy pickings for cockle licence
04 Feb 05 |  Lancashire
Cocklers still at risk claim MPs
14 Dec 04 |  Lancashire

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