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Cockle-picking swoop nets the benefit cheats.

A swoop on hundreds of cockle-pickers on a Merseyside beach found one in five were working while claiming unemployment benefits.

More than 200 officers from the police and a range of Government agencies took part in the raid codenamed Operation Omega on the northern shore of the Dee estuary on the Wirral on Wednesday.

Some 47 untaxed vehicles and 48 which were unroadworthy were found during the operation, and there were concerns that some of those digging for the shellfish may be illegal immigrants, said work minister Malcolm Wicks.

Some 400 people were found working on the three-quarter mile stretch of coast known as the Wirral Way between Heswall and Thurstaston.

Of these, 80 were found to be working illegally while claiming benefits.

Local people have gathered cockles on the beach for generations but there have recently been concerns about the arrival of hundreds of pickers, many from outside the area, said Mr Wicks.

There are believed to be pounds 500,000 worth of cockles in the beds at any given time and pickers remove them by the lorry-load for export to Spain and other European countries, he said.

Pickers were able to make a considerable amount of money.

'It's a big industry,' said Mr Wicks. 'On these beaches we have got cockles to the value of up to half a million pounds at any one time and lorries there to export them to Spain and other places.

'The great majority of cocklers are honest people and many of them, when they saw our operation hit the beaches after lunchtime, welcomed the fact that we were doing something about illegal cocklers.

'There is an environmental issue. You can denude the beaches of cockles, you can overfarm the cockle areas. It is bad for bird life.

'The problem is that local people, including the honest cocklers, were concerned that suddenly hundreds of people were turning up on the beaches, some from other parts of the world.'
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 9, 2003
Words:325
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