Essex truck tragedy: why the driver is probably innocent

Note: this was written on Thursday 24th when the story was a day and a half old, the dead were still believed to be Chinese rather than Vietnamese, and Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson had only been arrested, not charged. At the time it seemed very likely that a driver could have been innocently caught up in a crime he had nothing to do with personally. He has now been charged with manslaughter, money laundering and immigration offences.

A maroon Scania V8 tractor unit with ten added headlights and bull-bars. The tractor has a long wheelbase and a rear tag (lifting) axle. It is pulling an unmarked white refrigerated trailer with a Thermo King fridge device. The truck is photographed mid-turn on a large expanse of tarmac on an industrial estate.
The tractor unit belonging to the driver involved in yesterday’s tragedy (not the same trailer).

Yesterday 39 people, now known to be of Chinese origin, were found dead in a refrigerated trailer on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex (to the east of London). The driver, a self-employed man from Northern Ireland named Mo Robinson, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and police have raided properties in the province to investigate whether the gang that smuggled the people into the country are based or have operations there. Initially, the story was being reported in terms of a truck which had carried the migrants into the UK via Ireland, through the port of Holyhead, a route which would arouse immediate suspicion, but it has now been revealed that the trailer in fact came into the UK on a ferry from Zeebrugge, Belgium, and was picked up by Mo Robinson about an hour and a half before the bodies were discovered. The victims either froze to death or suffocated inside the trailer, which can be used to transport either chilled or frozen foodstuffs, and were probably dead long before Robinson, who it is reported discovered the bodies when checking for paperwork inside and alerted the emergency services himself, became involved. This incident is likely to result in changes to how drivers and hauliers handle sealed trailers, as currently they are often picked up on trust and only the exterior is examined.

Yesterday, very many media reports described the vehicle as a shipping container. A shipping container is in fact a demountable box which is carried on a ship on a stack of other containers and then lowered mechanically onto a special trailer called a skeleton or ‘skellie’ (or a rail carriage) and secured with special locks called twist locks. I have carried shipping containers a few times and if you pick one up from a port, the box will be sealed with a metal bolt which can only be opened with a large bolt cutter. Drivers never look inside them so they could contain people, drugs, guns or anything else for all they know. If any of these things are found inside, the driver is almost certainly completely innocent. This vehicle was a ferry trailer, which is dropped off by one truck on one side of the Channel and then removed by another on this side (in fact, it would be dropped at and removed from a trailer park and loaded on and off the ferry itself by a shunter employed by the ship operator). It’s highly likely that the driver would have simply been told which trailer to pick up and where to deliver it, and done so, assuming, given that it is a fridge, that it contained foodstuffs. He would have done his usual checks to make sure the trailer was roadworthy (e.g. the light, wheels, door security, exterior condition and that the fridge worked) and then pulled it away. Such trailers may be sealed so as to give the recipient assurance that the goods had not been tampered with en route; they are entitled to refuse the goods if the seal is broken, so the driver does not open the cargo compartment. In this case, the driver was expected to open the trailer and retrieve paperwork himself, so it clearly was not sealed; drivers will, I suspect, be doing this at the port in the near future. (When we pick up goods at source, we look inside the trailer to make sure the goods are as described and that the load is secure before we close the door and, if necessary, apply the seal. However, even then, we cannot do more than take a look inside if the trailer is fully laden, so depending on the size and shape of the items, it might still be possible to conceal people behind goods.)

Any driver who transports these trailers will be thinking twice about his occupation in the light of yesterday’s disaster, at least until the status of Mo Robinson and his employer or client is clarified and he is either released or charged, and similarly hauliers will be rethinking their training and procedures. Going forward, there is likely to be a demand for changes to how drivers handle sealed trailers. As an air-freight driver or “cargo operative” (this status used to be known as Level D), we are given training in security and in procedures to ensure that cargo remains secure in between the screening station and the airport or outlying cargo terminal; this is mostly to ensure awareness of threats to aircraft security such as explosives rather than human cargo. We also require a criminal record check and five years of employment references. We carry plastic seals with us and when we open the doors to load or offload freight, we apply a new one and record the number on the paperwork, and we only open the doors at bonded premises such as the screening station (an approved cargo handling company) or the terminal, and if we leave the vehicle unattended for any reason, we check the seal for tampering on return. Drivers who use cross-channel ferries are told not to stop anywhere near the port to avoid their vehicles being accessed by stowaways, and there is now a secure area where their trailers can be checked before boarding.

If and when we leave the EU, and particularly if, as expected, we leave the customs union area as well as the union itself, customs checks are going to be required on goods coming in and out of the UK which they are not now; as this would otherwise lead to impossible delays at the ports, we are likely to see goods being inspected at source and hauled to the seaport in a sealed trailer, as is the case with air freight now, as well as greater use of ferry trailers as port delays make it impracticable for one driver to handle the entire journey and stay within their driving and working time limits. If ports such as Purfleet do not provide a secure area for drivers to inspect the inside of their trailers before re-sealing, they should provide one, and all new ferry trailer terminals should make sure there is one. This way, if Mo Robinson turns out to be innocent as I strongly suspect he is, anyone still alive can be saved and drivers can avoid being caught up in a terrible tragedy like yesterday’s and facing a possible prison sentence. I should add that the newspapers which printed the pictures of Mo Robinson, mostly taken from his Facebook account, before any facts were known about his degree of involvement or culpability have behaved extremely irresponsibly and disreputably; if they had spoken to anyone with any knowledge of the industry, they would have known that it is quite possible and indeed highly likely, given normal practice, that he is innocent.

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