MP’s plea as cockling anniversary looms

Young cockle pickers during a raid at Cockerham Sands in July 2003.
Young cockle pickers during a raid at Cockerham Sands in July 2003.

An MP who championed changes in the law in the wake of the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy has called for an even bigger crackdown on unlicensed gangmasters.

With the 10th anniversary of the tragedy approaching, Jim Sheridan MP has demanded further protection for exploited workers across all sectors of employment.

“The disaster was the impetus for the Government to take action against gangmasters,” he said.

“But I think we’re just scraping the tip of the iceberg.”

Mr Sheridan, Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire, brought a backbench bill before Parliament in the days following the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers on February 5 2004.

His bill called for a licensing scheme to tackle people like gangmaster Lin Liang Ren, who left the cocklers to drown in freezing water off the coast at Bolton-le-Sands.

It led to the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act and the setting up of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA) to enforce it.

This made it illegal to operate as a gangmaster without a licence and to supply workers without a licence in the shellfish, agriculture, horticulture, forestry, fish processing, dairy farming and related industries.

But Mr Sheridan said: “This problem is also rife in the construction, care, health and leisure sectors.

“People are terrified to speak out about it.

“I believe the GLA’s powers have been watered down as part of the Government’s ‘red tape challenge’.”

An amended Labour bill calling for an extension in GLA powers to regulate all sectors of the economy is scheduled for a second reading in Parliament on February 28.

David Morris, Conservative MP for Morecambe, will chair a meeting in Parliament tomorrow (January 29) on changes to policy in the wake of the tragedy.

Mr Morris said: “Jim Sheridan is a good friend of mine and someone I have a lot of respect for.

“The death of 23 cockle pickers is above party politics.

“The Government is working to ensure that the GLA bears down on abuse to protect vulnerable workers while working in a business-friendly manner to reduce red tape.

“In 2012 a byelaw came into force in Morecambe Bay which states that no person shall gather cockles or mussels without possession of a full gathering permit.

“I am working with DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the North West Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority to introduce a Hybrid Order, containing provision for an even stricter licensing scheme.”

Liang Ren had brought the cocklers into the country illegally, housed them several to a room in squalid conditions and then transported them down to the cockle beds to work for a pittance so he could pocket the profits.

He was later jailed for 14 years for manslaughter.

The GLA has since successfully prosecuted 47 people for operating as a gangmaster without a licence since the law came in.