A GANGMASTER and four other people have gone on trial charged in connection with the Morecambe Bay cockle disaster when 21 people lost their lives.

Lin Liang Ren, 29, from Liverpool is charged with 21 counts of manslaughter.

He also faces charges of facilitation and perverting the course of justice along with his girlfriend at the time, Zhao Xiao Qing, 19, from Liverpool.

The jury at Preston Crown Court was told how the Chinese cockle pickers, all of whom were illegal immigrants, drowned because Lin Liang Ren failed to take proper care for their safety as they worked for low wages on a cold and dark February night in 2004.

Tim Holroyde QC told the jury of two men and 10 women that Lin Liang Ren, who appeared wearing jeans, T-shirt and trainers, was the 'gangmaster' controlling the cockle pickers in Liverpool.

His cousin Lin Mu Yong, 31, also from Liverpool, appeared charged with facilitation and Mr Holroyde said he had workers in Morecambe.

He went on: "There was going to be a high tide and bad weather. The local cockle pickers either did not go out at all or went out for a short time and came safely back to shore well before the tide came in.

"But not so the Chinese cock-lers in Lin Liang Ren's gang; they stayed out too long and were trapped as the tide came in.

"Lin Liang Ren's gang of cockle pickers were not out on the sands as sightseers. They were not there simply standing around. They were hard at work, heads down in the wind and the rain.

"For them the risk of the tide rushing in unnoticed behind them was all the greater."

Mr Holroyde claimed Lin Liang Ren provided food and accom-modation for his workers by renting properties which were 'greatly overcrowded', with many people sharing each room.

He paid the workers' wages based on how many bags they had picked, although he made deductions for housing and food.

The jury was told how his girlfriend Zhao Xiao Qing, who came into the country as a student, helped look for accom-modation for the workers, buying vehicles and completing false applications for permits.

Mr Holroyde said Lin Liang Ren had not attended college in Manchester nor the course he had enrolled on the year before, despite paying £1,500 in cash for it.

In August 2003, a property on Rydal Road in Morecambe was rented for £150 per week by Lin Mu Yong. Together, the court heard how he and Lin Liang Ren had tenancy agreements on five properties in Morecambe and Liverpool.

"As time went by the number of persons living in the house increased: on an occasion in the autumn when the landlord's agent visited, he found at least 30 mattresses but no other furniture.

"The conditions in which they lived were severely over-crowded, to the extent that the local authority served a notice to end the tenancy on that ground.

"The Chinese occupants nonetheless stayed on, but disappeared after the tragedy, leaving about 20 mattresses behind."

The day before the tragedy in February it is claimed by the prosecution that Lin Liang Ren wanted to rent a property in Galgate and took away a form to fill in, though the estate agent never saw him again.

The Jury heard that as soon as the cockle beds re-opened on December 1, Lin Liang Ren wanted to move his gang there because he thought he would be able to pick more cockles than in Barrow and make more money.

Mr Holroyde said along with Zhao Xiao Qing, Lin Liang Ren set about getting a set of permits to pick cockles.

He claimed that Lin Liang Ren was trying to find someone to buy cockles from him if he went onto Warton Sands but was met by several refusals because it was thought the Chinese cockle pickers would be met with hostility by local fishermen.

Father and Son David Eden, 61, and David Eden, known as Tony, 33, both from Merseyside - the owners of Liverpool Bay Fishing company - are also before the court charged with facilitation.

The court was told how the Edens' ran the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company and bought cockles for onward sale in England and abroad.

It is claimed that Lin Liang Ren found a buyer in Tony Eden, who agreed to pay £15 per bag.

When Lin Liang Ren's gang moved onto the sands in January, Mr Holroyde said there were confrontations between the British and Chinese cocklers, which resulted in bags of cockles being set alight.

He then said that Tony Eden reported to the police receiving threatening phone calls because he was buying off the Chinese.

"The Eden's knew full well that the Chinese cockle pickers were illegal immigrants and were helping those workers to remain in this country by buying the cockles which they had picked, " said Mr Holroyde.

The jurors were expected to visit the Bay and go out in a hovercraft today (Wednesday).

The case continues.