Ashton Travel Agents Fined for Pilgrimage Failings
Thursday 21st July 2016 @ 10:22 by Tom Greggan
Ashton News

A travel agent that specialised in arranging religious pilgrimages has been sentenced for causing customers to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Tameside Council Trading standards took action against Ashton Hajj and Umra Ltd – which traded as Ashton Travel – after receiving over 40 complaints about the firm, based on Oldham Road.

Customers – many using their life savings – had paid thousands of pounds to travel on a Hajj Pilgrimage, only to be told days before they were due to depart that they had not been allocated a visa and they were unable to travel. Over 230 people are known to have been affected although more victims could yet come forward.

Yesterday, Ashton Hajj and Umra Limited pleaded guilty at Minshull Street Crown Court to trading with a lack of professional diligence.

The court fined the company £6700 with £5000 costs and ordered it to pay £34,300 in compensation.

Pilgrims were not told by the company that there was a possibility that they may not be able to obtain Visas.

It is estimated that the pilgrims involved in this case lost in excess of £600,000 – although this figure may increase, depending if there are more victims yet to come forward. All of the victims had paid cash which had been forwarded to airlines and hotels in Saudi Arabia.

In sentencing, his Honour Judge Lever said: “An aggravating feature of the offence was that the defendants had been issued with a written warning in 2012 and so were on formal notice as to the catastrophe and loss caused to the general public by not putting customers in the picture.”

The convictions follow a complex and comprehensive two-year investigation by Tameside Business Compliance Trading Standards.

Tameside Council Executive Member Cllr Allison Gwynne, who is responsible for public protection, said: “The financial and emotional consequences for Pilgrims were huge as all Muslims are required to make this trip once in their lifetime. Many of the victims had used their life savings to cover the costs. They had put their faith in the company to act professionally and make all the necessary arrangements – only to be told days before they were due to go that they could not travel.

“Our officers worked hard to investigate the company and take robust action against its unfair trading practices so that victims could seek recompense. Anybody who feels that they have been the victim of an unfair trading practice by a Hajj Travel Agent should contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or their local Trading Standards Department.”

Tameside Trading Standards has issued the following advice to anyone wishing to travel on a Hajj Pilgrimage:

  • Check the travel agent is authorised by the Ministry of Hajj. Such agents have to conform to strict criteria set by the Saudi Arabian Government and are allocated Visas for pilgrims to travel;
  • Make sure the travel agent is ATOL (Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing) and that the trip is protected by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Any UK travel business selling air packages, which includes Hajj pilgrimages, must have ATOL protection. “ATOL is the Government backed financial protection scheme, which gives air travellers the peace of mind they won’t lose their money and will get home safely – even if the travel business they book with goes out of business;
  • If possible pay by a credit card to obtain further protection against unfair trading practices.