RICHARD HENRIQUES tells how 21 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives

Cast adrift… to a killer tide as fast as a galloping horse: In the final extract from his gripping memoir, top lawyer RICHARD HENRIQUES tells the chilling story of how 21 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives at the hands of ruthless gangmasters

  • Sir Richard Henriques played leading role in some of Britain’s most famous trials 
  • In his new book From Crime to Crime he relives trial of a Chinese gangmaster
  • The greed of the gangmaster and his accomplices cost lives of 21 cockle-pickers

Sir Richard Henriques, one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers, played a leading role in some of the most notorious trials of recent years. In extracts from his new book in the Mail, Sir Richard has given a gripping account of his role in the trial of Dr Harold Shipman, his forensic review of Operation Midland — the shambolic police investigation into an alleged VIP paedophile ring — and the savage murder of toddler Jamie Bulger. Today, he relives his role as the judge in the trial of the Chinese gangmaster and his accomplices whose greed cost the lives of 21 cockle-pickers . . .

The trial began in unique fashion with the jury, counsel and myself — the judge — aboard a hovercraft in Morecambe Bay, all of us in Wellington boots.

We were going to the scene of a tragedy six months earlier in which at least 21 Chinese cockle-pickers — all of them illegal immigrants, untrained and inexperienced — were drowned by an incoming tide.

It was a balmy, still, sunny day — a total contrast to the February night in 2004 when the disaster occurred. From the shore, a large expanse of sand appears to be flat, but that is an illusion.

We were able to observe that Morecambe Bay is riddled with deep channels, some 30 or 40 ft deep, making a speedy escape in the dark virtually impossible either in a vehicle or on foot.

The hovercraft travelled away from shore for between one-and-a-half and two miles, before stopping and parking with its engines shut down. It was mid-morning and on board there was an artificial silence. Jurors and counsel were in close proximity and both realised, and had been told, that intercommunication was not permitted. There was not the slightest breeze and only an occasional seagull or a nervous cough disturbed the tranquillity.

Sir Richard Henriques relives his role as the judge in the trial of the Chinese gangmaster and his accomplices whose greed cost the lives of 21 cockle-pickers. Pictured: Cockle-pickers at work in Morecambe Bay (stock image)

Within minutes, however, we heard a sound; it began as a gentle whistle, increasing in volume as the skipper announced that the tide was approaching.

We were to be told later that on a windy night with a high tide, the speed of advance is that of a galloping horse, approximately 30 miles per hour.

On this perfect autumnal morning, the tide passed our hovercraft certainly at the speed of a cantering horse, possibly 20 miles per hour. No human being could have outrun that tide.

We watched as it filled the channels and gullies and pondered the thought of being on those sands at night in a howling wind, as the water rose. I permitted myself a glance at the jurors: the impact was profound.

Back on land, the trial proper began at Preston Crown Court. In the dock was a Chinese gangmaster named Lin Liang Ren, charged with the manslaughter of the 21 who died, as well as with facilitating illegal immigration and conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

Sir Richard Henriques is one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers 

Alongside him were his girlfriend, Zhao Xiao Qing, charged with the immigration and conspiracy offences, and his cousin, Lin Mu Yong, charged with the immigration offence.

It was alleged that Lin Liang Ren provided accommodation for the migrant labourers, equipped them, paid them, obtained cockling permits for them and, most significantly of all, sold the cockles they harvested. Lin Mu Yong was alleged to have been his sub-boss in all this. Miss Zhao was accused of being their accomplice by finding accommodation for the workers, fabricating bogus cockling permit applications and acquiring vehicles. All three were accused of helping the workers breach immigration law.

The alleged conspiracies were that they had interfered with the police investigation in the aftermath of the tragedy by trying to smuggle Lin off the beach, telling the police lies and instructing others to give false information.

The principal issue in the trial was simply this: was Lin the boss of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died — and therefore grossly negligent in causing his gang to go far out on the sands so late in the day and in those conditions?

His defence was to deny he was the one in charge. He was not responsible for them being on the sands that night. He did not owe the deceased a duty of care and was thus not guilty of manslaughter.

The real culprits, the defence said, were English cocklers who let them go to their death without warning them of the dangers, the local authority who did nothing to control the sands and granted permits to the untrained and incompetent, the police who did nothing to prevent breaches of immigration law, and Coastguards who failed to guard the coast.

First in the witness box was the leading authority on the bay, Cedric Robinson, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands. He explained how the tide comes up in all directions, cutting off all possible routes of escape. He thought it ‘madness’ that the authorities had opened the cockling beds to all and sundry. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

Pictured: A court artist’s impression of Lin Mu Yong (centre), Zhao Xiao Qing (second right) and her boyfriend Lin Liang Ren with their co-accused David Anthony Eden Snr (far left) and David Anthony Eden Jnr

He said the Warton bed, where the disaster happened, was particularly dangerous and so far out from the shore that cockles there couldn’t possibly be gathered safely.

You cannot play with the tides, he declared. Five or 10 minutes can make all the difference. Any delay can be disastrous.

Over the years, he told the court, many people had died in Morecambe Bay. Even experienced people got into difficulties; it could be a trap for people who did not know what they are doing.

The prosecution next called Trevor Fleming, who had cockled in the bay for 20 years.

He was out there with his team that particular afternoon and was surprised to see Chinese cocklers being driven out between 5pm and 6pm. Some 30 workers were dropped off near him.

By about 5.30pm the wind was picking up, and he reckoned the tide would be coming in a lot quicker than normal so he decided to head back to shore.

A Chinese party of some 30 pickers was nearby but they carried on raking up cockles, while even more were just arriving on foot.

A Chinese gangmaster named Lin Liang Ren (left) was charged with the manslaughter of the 21 who died, as well as with facilitating illegal immigration and conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Lin Liang Ren’s girlfriend Zhao Xiao Qing (right) was charged with the immigration and conspiracy offences

He was concerned they were cutting it fine and approached a Chinese worker to tell him, tapping his watch to draw attention to the time but was not understood.

Asked why, when he got ashore, he did not alert the Coastguard that there were cocklers still out in the bay, he replied, his voice breaking: ‘That is a question I have asked myself every night since the tragedy.’ A number of other English cocklers also gave evidence about the importance of knowing about the sands and tides, the irresponsibility of those who issued permits to persons completely ignorant about the bay and the damage to the industry of over-cockling.

The issue was explored of whether there was bad feeling among locals because the Chinese worked faster and were felt to be saturating the market.

One man whose family had fished the bay for six generations said he was annoyed at the invasion of the beds, both on grounds of conservation and safety.

Evidence was later given of cockles harvested by the Chinese being deliberately set alight. The jury then heard from the bystander on the promenade at Morecambe who at 9pm spotted headlights far out in the bay and people walking. He rang the police three times but was told they were on a shift change or break and could not attend immediately. Extremely angry at this response, he later lodged a formal complaint.

Lin Liang Ren’s cousin Lin Mu Yong was charged with the immigration offence

Eventually another onlooker alerted the lifeboat station, and a hovercraft, a lifeboat and a helicopter were sent — but by then conditions had worsened, with two-metre high waves that beat back the hovercraft. The lifeboat rescued one person stranded on a rock. The helicopter searched the bay and recovered 12 bodies on sand or soft mud.

From the survivors, the court heard graphic evidence. Zhang Ping was a woman in her early 20s who flew from China in 2003 and moved into a flat in Liverpool where she shared a room with five other cocklers. She said the boss was Lin, who provided rakes, boots, and overalls and paid them wages of £5 per bag of cockles.

(Later it was established that the market rate for a bag of cockles was £12.50, meaning that if Lin was the boss, he was profiting by £7.50 a bag, resulting in a daily profit of £750 to £1,500.

With double-tiding, the profit would be double.)

On the day in question, Ping was driven out on to the sands but it was very dark and windy and she was only able to pick one bag before feeling unwell. She walked back to the shore through knee-deep water but other Chinese workers continued cockling.

From the beach, she saw people swimming. The wind was raging and she was petrified. When the police arrived, Lin told her to deny she had been cockling and say she did not know who the boss was.

Another worker, Wei Si Mao, said he was sent out in a pick-up to get bags of cockles that were in the back of a jeep stranded in the mud. He made three journeys, taking with him eight other workers to assist in the collection.

On the third trip, the tide was very high and it was no longer possible to drive back. The water had risen to the door, which would not open, so he climbed out of the window and jumped into the sea. He swam towards a pile of rocks but one of his friends swam in the wrong direction and drowned.

Another witness remembered struggling through the water and three of his companions going off in a different direction. He got back but they all perished.

Once on shore, all the survivors were told by Lin to say, if asked, that two men who were known to be dead in the water had been the ones in charge. Other survivors gave similar evidence of desperately swimming for their lives. They all stated that Lin was the boss but that he had told them to say he was not.

Each confirmed that their cockling permits contained their photograph along with false information about them. All of them were illegal immigrants who had paid a lot of money to come to the United Kingdom, and many had huge debts in China.

Critical evidence was provided by Janie Bannister, the English girlfriend of the defendant Lin Mu Yong, whom she called Yammi.

She was very much involved in the cockling operation and was, in legal terminology, an accomplice. She found the properties occupied by the workers, bought and delivered food to them and was involved in purchasing vehicles. She also went cockling herself, loading cockles onto quad bikes.

But the prosecution chose not to charge her and instead put her up as a witness. It was a good decision.

She told the court she met Yammi in Liverpool, where they worked in the same chip shop. He spoke no English and she spoke no Chinese but they moved in together. Lin then moved into the same flat with them, as did 15 to 20 Chinese workers, sleeping on the floor. She said Yammi was the first to start cockling and had 120 cocklers working for him. Lin joined his team for a while but then set up as boss of his own gang. But they remained good friends and she regarded herself and Yammi and Lin and Miss Zhao as a foursome.

On the night of the tragedy, she was travelling back to Morecambe from Liverpool with Miss Zhao and Yammi when Lin rang to say that ‘the boys are stuck out’. She alerted the Coastguard.

The beach was ‘pitch black, dead windy and rainy’ when the three of them got there, to find mayhem with police and ambulances everywhere. Some Chinese workers were wet and shaking while others were trying to hide, worried they were going to be arrested.

She saw Lin about to leave in a transit van with more Chinese in the back, but, when he saw her, he stopped, got into her car and lay down so nobody could see him. Yammi then drove him away from the scene.

After he had gone, Miss Bannister was ordered into a police car with Miss Zhao and as they were driven away, they came upon Lin’s car which had been stopped by the police.

The trial proper was held at Preston Crown Court (pictured). The jury convicted Lin, his girlfriend and his cousin on all counts

An officer asked if they could identify Lin as one of the cocklers. Miss Zhao said no, but Miss Bannister told police it was him.

Later she gave a false statement to the police that Lin had been with her and the others on the journey back from Liverpool that night and thus could not have been in charge of the ill-fated cockling expedition. But in court she said she had only done so under considerable pressure from the others. She candidly admitted her own part in the management of the two cockling gangs.

She signed for cars they bought because she spoke English but they were all owned by Lin or Yammi.

She acted as interpreter, making arrangements to go cockling and buying waterproofs for the workers at B&Q. She arranged prices, held the money they were paid for the cockles and distributed wages.

Lin’s counsel pressed her that she was wrong to talk about Chinese bosses, ‘because it was a co-operative. Everybody worked together, and there was really no organisation as such’.

She disagreed. There were workers and bosses, and Lin and Yammi were the bosses. She was adamant she herself was not a boss. Everything she did was for them.

She told the court that at the time of the tragedy she was 24 weeks pregnant with Yammi’s baby but she had ended their relationship when they were arrested. ‘I took off my engagement ring. I don’t hate him. I just wanted them to tell the truth.’

Janie Bannister was in the witness box for a considerable time and my assessment of her evidence was that — though she was clearly guilty of facilitating the immigration offences — she was truthful, brave, and also ashamed of the role she had played in the running of the two gangs.

She had identified Lin on the shore, cooperated thereafter, and more than anyone was familiar with the workings of the cockling gangs. In court, she had done her three former friends no favours.

In his defence, Lin, 27 at the time of the disaster, said he had begun cockling to pay his tuition fees at a college in Liverpool.

He worked for another man before buying some vehicles and setting up his own gang. But he had then decided to give up cockling and sold his van and tools to two other Chinese workers, Lin Li Shui and Tian Long.

In his defence, Lin (a court artist’s impression), 27 at the time of the disaster, said he had begun cockling to pay his tuition fees at a college in Liverpool

On the night of the tragedy, he said, it was Lin Li Shui who was in charge. However, he, Lin Liang Ren, had been asked to drive out to the cockle beds and had done so. But he made a mistake in the dark and got stuck. With the water up to his waist, he walked back to the shore.

He denied trying to escape from the beach without being seen and he denied telling others to say he wasn’t the boss. He denied stating that Lin Li Shui and Tian Long were the ones in charge because he knew they were dead and in no position to dispute the fact.

In his closing speech, Ren’s counsel submitted that it was a tragic accident with many causes, including the Government’s failure to control immigration.

The authorities knew full well what the Chinese were up to and did nothing to stop them. The permit scheme was a meaningless farce: no applicant was ever asked a basic question concerning safety, there was no input from Health and Safety, and no effort was made to warn the gangs on the sands.

He said the English gangs had wickedly destroyed Chinese cockles and their actions had driven them into going out later in the day and further from shore.

The English cocklers saw the Chinese going out but gave them no effective warning, nor did they inform the coastguard or police of the obvious danger. ‘They left them to their fate.’ 

He argued that, even if Lin was technically in charge, it was reasonable for him to delegate the timing to Lin Li Shui. 

The jury disagreed, convicting Lin, his girlfriend and his cousin on all counts. 

I thought the guilty verdicts accurate. This was an appalling and wholly avoidable tragedy. 

The criticism of the permit scheme, Coastguards, Health and Safety and the police was all well founded. 

The conduct of Lin Liang Ren, however, involving a total and callous disregard for his wickedly exploited workers merited a very long prison sentence. 

Fourteen years represented the longest sentence passed for gross negligence manslaughter by some distance. 

I was amazed that this gang of exclusively and obviously illegal immigrants could move into a residential street in a Lancashire town, attracting no adverse intervention from any authority. 

So far as I know, no form of inquiry into the multiple failures in this case has ever taken place. 

The response of the police, namely, ‘Sorry, we cannot attend at present. A changeover is taking place. Nobody can attend for half an hour,’ was a disgrace. 

This was a critical emergency meriting instant action. The case provoked two incidental thoughts. 

Firstly, it became apparent from the evidence that the Chinese cocklers were far more productive than their English counterparts, most of whom had far more experience. 

Although living in the most cramped and crowded conditions and being fed the most modest fare, they farmed cockles with far greater application and intensity than their local rivals. 

It was primarily for this reason that their cockles were soaked with petrol. 

Secondly, and in contrast to the dispiriting facts of the case, Morecambe Bay on a fine day is a place of great beauty. 

Views across the bay from Morecambe to Grange-over-Sands are as fine as I have seen. 

  • ADAPTED from From Crime To Crime by Sir Richard Henriques, published by Hodder on June 4 at £25.

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