A gang of people traffickers who plotted to smuggle illegal immigrants across the English Channel in a speedboat were jailed for a total of 27 years and seven months.

Thomas Mason, piloted an inflatable speedboat - containing four Vietnamese men into Deal on the Kent coast.

Although he was making a dangerous crossing on the world's business shipping lane in the middle of the night, the boat had no safety equipment, no flares, no torch and no radio.

Mason had a life jacket, but his human cargo did not, St Albans Crown Court heard.

What Mason and the other conspirators did not know was that their operation, as well as earlier failed attempts, were being recorded for several months by undercover police officers.

Mason and co-defendant Nazmi Velia had been involved in people smuggling in 2010.

Mason had been caught in France trying to smuggle a Sri Lanken man into the UK in the boot of his car. Velia was jailed in the UK for seven years for smuggling Sri Lanken people through Kent ports in car boots and lorry trailers.

Mason, 36, of High Street, Eyeworth near Biggleswade, Hoa Thi Nguyen, 49, of Bisterne Avenue, Walthamstow, East London and her partner Chi Tan Huynh, 41, of Pickford's Wharf, Wharf Road, Hoxton, London N1 were found guilty by a jury of conspiracy to facilitate the illegal entry of foreign nationals into the UK between 1 April and 3 August last year.

Four others: Velia, 32, of Park Street Lane, St Albans, Egert Kajaci, 35, of Turner Drive, Oxford, Erald Gapi, 27, of Marine Tower, Abinger Grove, Deptford SE8 and Wayne Lee ,47, of Grasmere Close, Watford pleaded guilty to the same charge.

Mason, who ran a ventilation business, was jailed for eight years. Nguyen was also jailed for eight years. Huynh was jailed for two years six months.

Kosovo-born Velia , who had run a car wash and worked in a restaurant, was sentenced to five years four months. Lee, a window cleaner, was sentenced to two years. Gapi , an Albanian who was working for an estate agent, was jailed for 1 year 9 months. Kajaci, who was born in Albania, will be sentenced on March 18.

Prosecutor Wayne Cleaver said there were also a number of unsuccessful attempts made by Mason to smuggle immigrants waiting on the Belgian and French coasts on June 3, July 13 and July 27.

Mr Cleaver said shortly after 1am on August 3rd police were on duty on the beach in Deal when the boat arrived.

He said the four people left the beach and went into nearby Kingsdown Road. They got into a silver Audi driven by Kajaci. They were stopped by the police in Granville Road, Walmer, near Deal.

Mr Cleaver said Hoa Nguyen is a Vietnamese speaker with overseas contacts who co-ordinated the immigrants' journeys. Phone evidence revealed contact between her and Velia.

When police raided her home, they found an illegal immigrant called Tuan Nguyen. (No relation) Phone evidence suggested he had arrived in the UK on 28th or 29th May last year.

Data retrieved from Hoa Nguyen's phones showed she had been sending overseas images of travel documents via WhatApp. During this period Nguyen had visited Spain, Greece, Paris, Warsaw and Amsterdam. "She was travelling about Europe. The prosecution say this is an enterprise with international dimensions. She was having direct contact with the people on the other side of the Channel who were 'herding' these people up," said Mr Cleaver.

Chi Tan Huynh was Hoa Nguyen's partner. When she travelled abroad he was an alternative point of contact for the gang. He made no comment to police questions.

One of the four men landed at Deal, Phuon Dan Tran, told the jury he held onto a rope in the bottom of the boat as it went across the Channel.

Mr Phuong he was not given a life-jacket.

Sentencing them, Judge Robert Winstanley there had been an "expectation of considerable financial reward "

He said that "personal gain came before all other considerations with the exposing of victims to a hazardous crossing."

He said the Vietnamese people had not paid to be trafficking but would be working for free once they arrived. He said: "This conspiracy stretches from the Far East to some oppressive workplace in the United Kingdom. All the way down the chain there are linked groups who play their part in the conspiracy."