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Morecambe Bay Disaster (Aftermath)

Volume 574: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2014

First, may I express my mixed emotions about introducing this debate on the cockle picking disaster that took place 10 years ago, in 2004? I have mixed emotions because I am extremely honoured to represent Morecambe and Lunesdale, but the event that we are talking about is a great scar on my community and our whole nation.

Morecambe bay is one of the most picturesque places on earth, but it is also an unforgiving environment that can claim lives in minutes. I have always found it hard to reconcile the sedate appearance with the dangerous reality. In 2004, many people believed that the risks associated with Morecambe bay had been mitigated. After all, we had been offering guided tours under professional supervision for years, warning signs were all around and in any case the amount of onshore fishing had declined. Given that background, it is easy to see why the people of Morecambe felt such a profound sense of shock and sadness when the events of 5 February unfolded.

Before I make any comments on the 10 years since the cockle pickers’ tragedy or what we should do in the future, perhaps it is worth remembering what happened. On 5 February 2004, a group of some 38 illegal immigrants from China were working to collect cockles near Hest Bank, which is the northern part of the bay. Shockingly, they were being paid £1 per kilogram of cockles—a desperately low wage by anyone’s standard. As the day drew on, a team of British cockle pickers tried to signal the Chinese workers and warn them that the tide was coming in. Given the distance, they tapped their watches and tried to speak to them, seemingly to no avail. At about 9.30 pm, the Chinese cockle pickers were cut off by the incoming tide. It is a long-held belief locally that they were waiting for the evening to come, as cockles come to the surface at night.

When it was clear that the cockle pickers were in trouble, they phoned the emergency services for help. Sadly, what followed was fairly confused, for the following reasons. It was quite dark, and a basic description of the location was unlikely to enable emergency services to pinpoint exactly where they were. The cockle pickers were not fluent in English and found it hard to explain their predicament. The phone call was unclear, and the severity of the situation was not successfully conveyed to the emergency services. All of that led to delays that undoubtedly cost lives. In the end, 23 people, mainly from Fujian province in China, lost their lives. Just 15 people escaped. Sadly, one body has never been found.

In the aftermath of the cockle pickers’ tragedy, the gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He had sent a group of people who had little or no experience of Morecambe bay out without any proper guidance or supervision to their deaths. Anyone who knows Morecambe bay will say that sending people out in that way is unforgivable. Indeed, Lin Liang Ren was described in court as a callous man, motivated by money. The men and women he exploited paid a heavy price for that cavalier and greedy attitude. Not only did many die, but all of them had paid enormous sums to be smuggled into the UK in the first place.

In June 2007, the Guardian newspaper reported on the plight of the family of Wu Hong Kang, who was killed on 5 February 2004. His wife and children bear a debt of nearly £20,000 to pay for his transit to the UK, yet their monthly income is just £20. They have no prospect of ever paying off that sum. At first glance, we might say to ourselves that they should not pay the debt. After all, what was done was illegal, so perhaps the authorities could step in. Sadly, the reality is that the gang collected the money many years ago. The debt is to friends and family who put up the money for Mr Wu’s transport, and these are people who cannot afford to write off the debt. I have no idea what it must be like to be paying a crippling debt for something that ultimately killed a loved one.

In 2005, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) introduced a private Member’s Bill that ultimately created the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I want to place on the record the gratitude of the people of Morecambe and Lunesdale for his work on this issue and for the work of my predecessor, Geraldine Smith. Like all bodies, the GLA is not perfect, but the 2005 Act set the groundwork for much of the work that is being done to protect these vulnerable workers’ lives.

Obviously, a range of national and international issues have been raised by this disaster, and the 10th anniversary is the time to review what work has been done and what has yet to be done, but before that, I want to talk to my hon. Friend the Minister about some very localised issues. I take the view that, no matter how much we regulate gangmasters and reduce illegal immigration, and no matter what the salaries we pay to workers, no one should be out in the middle of Morecambe bay unless they are properly trained and supervised and are aware of the dangers of their working environment. No amount of general employment regulation will ever be enough in such an environment. For that reason, I believe we should be licensing people to undertake onshore fishing in the bay. The aim would be not to stop people making a living, but to ensure that when teams go out they possess the proper skills required to work both profitably and safely.

With the right training and knowledge, Morecambe bay need not be a dangerous environment. In fact, tour guides take people out daily with no problems. We must recognise, however, that they can do so because local knowledge and experience are paramount. Teams of onshore fishermen who do not hold such a level of knowledge are endangering themselves, their staff and the emergency services that might have to intervene. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend the Minister update me on the progress of the Morecambe bay hybrid fishery order? I know that it has a number of facets to it, but how does he believe it will protect vulnerable workers in future? Also, when will it be implemented in full, what has happened up until now and what have been the hold-ups? I am sure he will agree that, whatever national issues were faced in the aftermath, we have a duty to get the regulation right for the bay and for offshore fisheries around the nation.

The tragedy raised national and international issues. Nationally, we have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I know that there have been discussions about what changes might be made to it as we approach the 10th anniversary of the disaster. With that in mind, what lessons have been learned from its first nine years in operation? Does it need any reform or change of scope? What impact has it made in reducing the abuse of vulnerable workers? I should say that I am not tied to any one system; if reform is needed I am happy to work with anyone to look at it. It is important to the people I represent that we feel we are doing all that we can to ensure that we balance protection for employees with a viable system that will not damage the economics of food production.

There is no point in having this debate if we do not touch on the problem of illegal immigration. The cockle pickers’ disaster demonstrated that, at best, illegal immigrants and their families are small cogs in far larger and more sinister criminal gangs. At worst, they are nothing more than victims. Most are from poor backgrounds, forced to leave their home countries due to extreme poverty. We all know that we have a problem with illegal immigration in this country, and I am glad that we are taking steps to deal with it because I believe that it is far worse for the immigrants themselves. As I said earlier, they are forced to pay enormous sums of money to be herded like cattle into container trucks.

There are numerous examples of Chinese immigrants being carried to the UK in appalling conditions. In 2000, 58 Chinese immigrants died of suffocation when they were packed into a consignment of tomatoes. The Dutch lorry driver, Mr Perry Wacker, closed the air vents of his refrigerated truck on the ferry from Belgium to Dover. After he was sentenced to 14 years, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutor Karen Wiseman said:

“The smuggling of humans has become as profitable as drugs. This trade hinges on the promise that at the end of the journey the illegal immigrants are heading for a better life. Tragically for these 58 victims, commercial gain took precedence over human life.”

Only two people survived that incident, and it only came to light because customs searched the lorry. Once again, each person had paid £20,000 for their passage to the UK.

We just do not know whether any similar tragedies have taken place without being detected. The solution is not simple, but what assessment has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made on the level of illegal labour in the agricultural industry? What steps are being taken both in the UK and across the world to reduce the number of criminal gangs operating in the sector? How are we working to educate people around the world about the reality of what it is like to be transported to the UK and treated in such a manner?

Members from all parties recognise that the matter is complex, and that no single magic wand will resolve the issues around the exploitation of vulnerable workers. That said, I do think that in the past 10 years we have taken significant steps towards making such workers’ lives safer. Enforcement at ports has been tightened up, the GLA has enforced against unscrupulous employers, and the Morecambe bay hybrid fishery order will soon be in place.

Before I finish, I would like to put on the record my personal thanks and those of the whole community for the work of the emergency services 10 years ago, particularly Harry Roberts from the RNLI, a former colleague of my father who led the rescue of the cockle pickers and undoubtedly saved lives.

We are not going to solve the issues of Triad gangs overnight and we are not going to stop people desperately seeking a better life, but we owe it to our community to drive forward enforcement and work on illegal immigration and improvements in the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. We owe it to those who have suffered so much hardship and trauma as a result of the disaster 10 years ago. It must never happen again.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this timely debate. I thank him and the Minister for allowing me to speak briefly on this important matter.

The hon. Gentleman will know that on that night 10 years ago, the cockle pickers could just as easily have set off from the Furness end of Morecambe bay, had the tides been different. Indeed, those gangs were a regular sight, going on to the sands from the coast road between Aldingham and Rampside. His predecessor, Geraldine Smith, and my predecessor, now Lord Hutton, were strongly involved in establishing the Gangmasters Licensing Authority after the tragedy, to try to ensure that this horrible activity—and the way that these people were being abused and exploited—could not happen again.

Let me, too, call on the Minister to respond on his Government’s commitment to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. It was recommended for abolition in the Beecroft review. I understand that there is a firm commitment from the Government not to enact that recommendation, but it is important that the Minister puts that on record and shows that he understands and hears the calls. The rush to abolish regulations and strip away so-called burdens on business can sometimes target the essential element of safety, and we could also end up with people who want to observe safety standards, as many of our local cockle pickers did and do, finding themselves undercut by these horrible, unscrupulous practices.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this debate, which is poignant and relevant to his constituency. The 10th anniversary next week of the tragic events in Morecambe bay is indeed an appropriate time to reflect on developments since. As my hon. Friend said, we know that the Morecambe bay sands are no stranger to loss of life over many centuries; it is, as he said, a beautiful yet treacherous place.

On the evening of 5 February 2004, some 40 Chinese workers were picking cockles on the sands, sent by their gangmaster. For him, maximising profits meant cutting corners, ignoring tidal information and flouting basic safety rules. As night closed in, hours after they should have been told to leave the sands, the workers realised the tide had come up too fast for them to escape and they were stranded. The bodies of 21 men and women were recovered from the bay in the next few days. There were two further known victims: one was not found until 2010 and, as my hon. Friend said, one has never been found.

The victims were illegal immigrants, inexperienced, untrained and with poor English language skills. Their gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was eventually convicted of 21 counts of manslaughter, facilitating illegal immigration and perverting the course of justice. In sentencing him to 14 years’ imprisonment, the judge at Preston Crown court said he was motivated by greed to exploit his countrymen shockingly with no heed for their safety.

The causes of the 2004 tragedy stem from the management of the foreshore fisheries at the time and employment legislation that allowed ruthless exploitation of workers and neglect of safety to go unchecked. The Government’s response addressed both those aspects. Following the disaster, the north-western sea fisheries committee and later the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority instituted a raft of measures through a succession of byelaws to regulate access better to the fishery, including tighter permit conditions to improve safety standards. In specific terms, the number of permits issued has been reduced from 2,000 in 2004 to 120 now. In addition and more importantly, in order to be granted a permit to fish for cockles, applicants must now complete a safety course which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is so important.

Those measures and others will be taken forward in the proposed Morecambe bay fishery order, which is due to be consulted on in the near future. I know that my hon. Friend expressed frustration that there is no time scale for that. Beyond saying “in the near future”, I am unable to give him a specific time scale at this point, but after today’s debate, I will ask officials to make inquiries about the exact status of the order and when he can expect it to be introduced, so that it can be signed off and put in place. When in place, the order will allow for more long-term and adaptive management of the entire mollusc fishery, including the cockle beds. Most importantly, safety measures imposed through the proposed order will be more stringent than those that are in place now.

In response to the disaster 10 years ago, the Government adopted a private Member’s Bill, introduced by the then hon. Member for Renfrewshire West, now the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), resulting in the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. That established the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to regulate the supply of labour in the shellfish, agriculture, food processing and packaging sectors. The GLA’s role provides protection to vulnerable workers, including taking action against criminals, while operating an effective licensing regime to ensure that standards are maintained and to prevent exploitation.

Casual labour agencies in the agricultural sector perform an important function. The seasonal nature of harvests in areas such as horticulture means that flexible labour arrangements are crucial. Most operators in the sector are responsible and compliant businesses, and GLA licensing enables the well-regulated supply of casual labour to the sector. We know, however, that there will always be a small minority who ignore the rules.

Since beginning operations in 2006, the GLA has issued more than 2,500 licences, and there are currently just under 1,000 licence holders. In that time, the agency has brought 67 successful prosecutions—43 for unlicensed gangmasters, 23 for using an unlicensed gangmaster, and one for obstructing an investigation—and in the past three years, it has helped to recover some £4 million for casual staff who have either been underpaid or had unfair deductions taken from their pay. The GLA has also revoked licences in 203 cases, where the holder has breached licensing standards on pay, safety and other matters.

Most court sentences result in fines of between £300 and £5,000, community service and probation orders or suspended sentences. It is important to note that that is to be expected since we would want fines and penalties to be proportionate to the breach committed. However, we should also note that there is scope for custodial sentences in extreme cases. In a landmark decision last December, the first custodial sentence was handed down; a man in Norfolk was jailed for seven years for acting as an unlicensed gangmaster. It was an extreme case, involving violence and intimidation, and the individual built up an organised crime group responsible for placing large numbers of vulnerable people from Lithuania in substandard accommodation, demanding high rents and charging for finding them work in local GLA-sector industries. What that case illustrates is that the law can and does provide the powers to deal with a full range of incidents that the GLA encounters, from minor breaches right through to criminal abuse and intimidation.

The Government have made it clear that they want the GLA to focus more on the worst excesses in the areas that it regulates and work more closely with other agencies that tackle crime, while stripping out unnecessary burdens on the majority of compliant businesses. I would say that the GLA is doing that. In September 2013, as part of the round of action to ensure that public bodies remain fit for purpose, a triennial review was announced, which provides an opportunity to test robustly the requirement that the GLA is operating and is organised as effectively as possible.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked for reassurance on the Government’s intentions regarding the GLA. The GLA has been considered by several reviews in recent years, including the red tape challenge and the 2010 public bodies review. The triennial review, which will be published shortly, provides an opportunity to consider whether we can better organise the authority to address the challenges that we face.

I will shortly publish a statement on the GLA triennial review, but I will outline the main points today because I have been specifically asked about our intentions. The review will conclude that the functions of the GLA are necessary and that the GLA remains the right body to deliver them. We will also conclude that the GLA should remain a non-departmental public body and should continue to deliver reforms already in train to reduce financial and administrative burdens on compliant businesses and to focus effort on enforcement. We believe that reforms to the GLA board should happen as soon as possible to bring about a smaller, better structured board that is able to provide a clear strategic direction for the authority.

The GLA is already proceeding with reforms to remove burdens on the majority of compliant businesses by removing the need for all applicants to receive an application inspection and by introducing longer-term licences. That fits with the Government’s commitment to have safeguards in place to monitor those businesses that are at risk of breaking the law while enabling law-abiding, compliant businesses to get on with business unhindered.

The GLA is not alone in taking steps to mitigate the risks to vulnerable workers. On 16 December 2013, the Home Secretary published the draft Modern Slavery Bill, which would consolidate existing human trafficking and slavery offences; increase the maximum sentence available from 14 years to life imprisonment; restrict the activities of offenders and those who pose a risk to others; and require statutory bodies, such as the GLA, to report all victims of human trafficking to the National Crime Agency, which the GLA currently does routinely.

The draft Bill will now be subject to a period of pre-legislative scrutiny. The answer to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale on what more we are doing to address extreme abuse of vulnerable workers is contained in the draft Bill.

I thank the Minister for giving us those details ahead of the review. The issue will be difficult, and hon. Members will want to be able to scrutinise the draft Bill if it is genuinely to increase the level of protection, rather than simply cut costs. Will he commit to an oral statement in the House when he publishes the review, so that Members may ask questions?

We will publish the review when it is ready, and there will be a written ministerial statement. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have been generous in giving him foresight of the key elements of that review. This debate is an opportunity for us to set out our intentions. The review is a detailed document, and I am sure he will find all the information that he wants. If, subsequent to that, he would like to challenge me in another debate, he has a right to call for such a debate.

In conclusion, the events that occurred at Morecambe bay a decade ago were a terrible yet avoidable tragedy. I hope that I have persuaded hon. Members that lessons have been learned. We are in a better place than we were 10 years ago, but we are not complacent. I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that much has been done to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated. I will get in touch with him and make inquiries to see whether we can progress the order that he seeks sooner rather than later.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.