Reflections on Morecambe Bay

Today is the 5th anniversary of the tragedy at Morecambe Bay. Many are surprised to learn that 5 years have passed already. Perhaps it is because shock and sorrow have a way of lingering on after a death… or 23 deaths in this case.

You may recall that there were a number of casualties. In addition to the cockle pickers from the Fujian Province of China who drowned in Lancashire, there was the Tory MP, Ann Winterton. The latter was suspended by Michael Howard, then leader of the Tories, for a month for an offensive and insensitive racist joke but who remains MP for Congleton till this day.

The real casualties however were the families left behind. There were 36 orphans who had each inherited thousands of pounds in debt. Many of their stories were chronicled by Jonathan Watts of the Guardian. I have since heard that more than a third of the children have had to drop out of school in order to work. There was at least one case of a parent committing suicide over the death of her offspring.

Only after the events of February 2004 did the Government see fit to regulate gang masters in areas involving labour in agriculture and shellfish gathering with the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. Crucially, despite the gangmaster Lin Liang Ren being found guilty of 21 counts of manslaughter (2 bodies were not found), a class action which ensued against the Government’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) failed on the grounds that there was no act of violence and that the victims were at the time undocumented workers.

We need to pause here for a moment and ask if this can be right? Do undocumented workers have so little protection under the law, that their lives regarded of so little value? It would appear that even enemies of the State and prisoners of war have more rights and protection than undocumented workers.

There are a few points which I must highlight in the context of our current Immigration and Asylum policies.

1. The Government has no idea how many undocumented workers there are in this country at the moment. Estimates range between 500,000 and 750,000 – the result of years of slack border controls.

2. Of those from China (estimated to be around 70,000) at the current rate of deportation (about 500 a year), it would take a staggering 140 years to deport them all. To deny them the right to work is to force them into destitution and to become easy prey for criminal gangs. However if they were allowed to work that could increase revenues for the State via taxes and national insurance contributions.

3. Whilst there is cross party support for the new Points Based System, the system has yet to be fully tested. What are ‘shortage occupations’ under Tier 2 also need to be constantly monitored depending on the needs of our economy. The system also places a huge onus on employers to enforce the law with disproportionate penalties for employing irregular workers.

While the Home Office got away with employing thousands of security guards who were undocumented workers, other employers, especially in the catering industry, have not been treated as lightly. There have been many cases of heavy handed raids by the Border Immigration Agency with dogs and BBC cameras in tow.

And I have come across at least one case where the court allowed the business takings to be seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act, penalties more befitting a drug baron than the owner of a Chinese takeaway in a small town.

As we enter recession in the UK with news each day of more job losses, arguing for more rights to foreign and undocumented workers may not be timely nor welcome.

On the other hand, just because immigration is a thorny issue does not mean that we do not try to find real solutions. We need to force into daylight what is a shadow economy and rescue those driven into an underclass from a fate similar if not worse than those of the cockle pickers we remember today.

Fortunately the Liberal Democrats are brave enough to speak up on this and have come out in favour of giving asylum seekers and undocumented workers a route into civil society through earned citizenship provided that they have been in this country for at least 10 years.

PS If anyone would like to contribute towards the Morecambe Bay Victims’ Childrens Fund please visit

Merlene Emerson is PPC for Hammersmith and a co-founder of Chinese Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

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