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Hajj Pilgrims (UK Tour Operators)

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2009

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of particular importance to many Muslims in my constituency. I extend a warm welcome to my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who has been asked by the Government to respond to the debate.

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. Making the pilgrimage—the Hajj—is the fifth pillar of Islam, and an obligation rests on all Muslims to carry out that pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, providing that they are fit enough to do so and can afford to. For Muslims, the Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people. It takes place over a four-day period in late November or December, depending on the Islamic calendar.

Every year, more than 150,000 British Muslim pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia as part of the 1.7 million Muslims who go there from all over the world. The Hajj pilgrimage is greatly looked forward to in the Muslim world and should be a time of enjoyment and self-fulfilment. However, for some British Muslims, the experience turns into an expensive disaster due to the activities of rogue travel operators, who either fraudulently take money from clients and disappear, or promise a five-star package pilgrimage that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Sadly, many of the people who have been ripped off by rogue travel agencies come from my constituency.

For example, in November 2008, one of my constituents handed over a cheque for £4,500 to the owner of Qibla travel. The cheque was cashed and my constituent, who was paying for his mother and father to go on the Hajj, was told that they would fly out on a specific flight. Just before they were due to leave, they were told that the owner of Qibla travel had disappeared with the money and passports, which he said he needed in order to get the visa put in them. No flight existed and no visa applications were made. Although that incident has been the subject of a police investigation—I am pleased to say that the passports have been returned—it is not an isolated incident. Another example is that of a company that was paid £10,000 by a family to make arrangements for them to go on the Hajj pilgrimage. Again, the flights and bookings never materialised.

The Foreign Office has set up a special unit to deal with British pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj festival, which is greatly appreciated by the Muslim community. It has worked with organisations such as the Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK, whose general secretary, Khalid Pervez, operates from offices in my constituency. Advice is offered to would-be pilgrims by the Foreign Office, by the association and by officers from Birmingham city council’s trading standards department, who have been particularly helpful in giving advice to pilgrims and in trying to assist victims of rogue travel operators.

The problem, however, is that many people who go on the Hajj pilgrimage feel more comfortable dealing with travel agencies run by members of their own community, whom they believe, as Muslims, will understand more clearly what the pilgrimage is about and what is required. The average cost of a pilgrimage is £2,500 per person, so there is a strong inclination to look for the cheapest deal on offer.

The Package Travel Regulations 1992 oblige any operator who offers a package tour combined with air travel to have an air traffic organiser’s licence—ATOL. That provides some protection so that passengers whose travel agent goes into liquidation or defaults on its obligations can be refunded or flown home. The Association of British Travel Agents—ABTA—is a trade organisation. Although it offers a degree of protection for customers and travel agents that are members of ABTA should they go bust, there is no obligation on travel agents to be a member of that organisation.

Many of the clients who seek to go on the Hajj pilgrimage are not aware of the Package Travel Regulations and do not know the rules and regulations regarding air traffic organiser’s licences. They are unaware of the status of ABTA. Furthermore, if the accommodation that is allegedly being booked is separate from a scheduled flight, there is ambiguity as to whether the flight and separate accommodation are covered by ATOL. The loophole allows rogue travel operators not only to default in terms of promised scheduled flights, but also to give inflated promises about the quality of the accommodation that will be provided during the stay in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims are in a position to complain only once they return to the United Kingdom, but by then, the rogue travel operator has often ceased trading or disappeared.

A feeling exists within the Muslim community that, although the Foreign Office is trying to be helpful in looking after the interests of Hajj pilgrims and liaising with the Saudi Arabian Government to ensure that British Muslims are properly treated while in that county, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has a “soft” approach to the problem.

The Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK has made clear its belief that all travel agents should be members of ABTA and should be required to provide a bond to that organisation to be used as compensation for travellers who are given inferior accommodation or arrangements to those promised when the booking was made. It is aware that a large number of small tour operators in Birmingham—and in other parts of the country, such as Watford—might have difficulty in meeting the stringent requirements laid down by ABTA. However, it believes that if such stringent regulations result in a number of small tour operators going out of business, it will be a price worth paying to ensure that some of the most blatant abuses that pilgrims have suffered are no longer tolerated. If such abuses do happen, compensation could be paid and the operator can be deregistered by ABTA, which, in effect, would mean that it was forced out of business. Although the voluntary approach of encouraging tour operators and travel agents to become members of ABTA has resulted in more Hajj tour operators registering, there are still many who have not done so. Rogue elements who intend to deceive trusting clients will obviously not seek to register.

Through the consumer affairs Minister, the Government have made it clear that they want to help pilgrims avoid booking with rogue travel agents. They have said that pilgrims should book with

“a member of ABTA or other recognised trade organisation.”

However, the rip-off continues and for some, a once-in-a-lifetime experience is turned into a huge, expensive disappointment. The DBERR website claims that it leads the better regulation agenda; I contend that this area needs better regulation. The Muslim community in this country would strongly welcome a Government commitment to considering what further regulation and legislation could be enacted to address the problem of unscrupulous travel agents.

Some people might say that individual would-be pilgrims should take responsibility for whom they booked with, and that further regulation would be another step towards a nanny state, but I would remind them that the Government commendably introduced a scheme in response to widespread concern within the Muslim community about rogue immigration advisers who were misleading people about immigration matters and ripping them off. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 forced anyone who was taking money for giving immigration advice to be registered with the newly created Immigration Services Commission. Section 91 of the Act made it a criminal offence, punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment, to provide immigration advice or services in contravention of the scheme. The Government were then able to recognise that the growing Muslim population in the UK was vulnerable to being ripped off by rogue immigration advisers, and took welcome steps to address that problem, so why can this Government not recognise the vulnerability of the Muslim community to rogue travel agents, and take steps to strengthen the regulations and laws?

The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), who should have replied to the debate, has more pressing affairs of state to attend to today. However, this short debate will be enhanced by his absence, because his most intelligent, charming and delightful replacement, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, knows this issue well, as she, too, has a sizeable Muslim community in her constituency. I therefore hope that she will take this unusual opportunity to liberate herself of the departmental brief that she has been given and to speak from the heart about the problems being caused in her Muslim community by rogue travel agents. I hope that she will agree with—or perhaps be persuaded or even enticed by—me and the Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK regarding how this problem should be addressed. If she consigned the departmental position to the waste bin, abandoned her brief and bravely spoke out, she would rightly earn the thanks and continued support of the Muslim community in Watford and the rest of the country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate and on taking this opportunity to raise awareness in the House about problems within this sector. As he has said, I know about the issue from my constituency work. I know that he has raised concerns about the matter in the past and that he fights hard for his constituents—not only his Muslim constituents, as in this case, but across the board.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to outline the action that the Government have taken in the two years since they learned of the problems being experienced by Hajj pilgrims. The Government take this matter very seriously, and we have been saddened to learn of the suffering and inconvenience experienced by Hajj pilgrims at the hands of rogue tour operators in the UK. My hon. Friend has mentioned one incident concerning Qibla travel, which is, as he has said, under police investigation—and rightly so. We hope that there will be a good outcome for most of his constituents who have suffered in that case.

The problem is particularly pernicious given that the Hajj and Umrah are a religious obligation on Muslims, for many of whom those journeys are the trip of a lifetime and cost a considerable amount of money. In the past two years, my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs and his officials have been working with colleagues from other Departments and the trading standards service with a view to encouraging better practice in the Hajj travel industry. Importantly, they have also been raising pilgrims’ awareness about what they should expect of package organisers, about their rights of redress under the law and about who to complain to if things go wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath is right to express concern that until now the Muslim community has not generally been aware of its rights or about where to go to express concerns.

The Government’s view is that problems in the sector are not due to a lack of regulation, as Hajj trip organisers are as liable to regulation as any other package organiser and Hajj pilgrims have exactly the same rights as anyone else going on a package trip. In many cases, people who have used organisers’ services have not understood the true extent of their rights. Under package travel regulations, tour operators must ensure that all descriptions on brochures and internet sites are accurate, that the customer is given information about passports, visas and health and security issues, that the customer is informed in good time about significant changes to the trip, such as changes to flight details or itineraries, and that the customer receives a written copy of the terms of the contract for the trip. The operator must also be able to show that it has in place measures for the protection of consumer payments. In these cases, protection would be in the form of an air travel organiser’s licence, which ensures that customer pre-payments are protected and that customers can be repatriated if the tour operator suffers financial collapse. Local authority trading standards departments have day-to-day enforcement responsibilities for the regulations, and the ATOL system is run by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Enforcement activity is generally driven by consumer complaints. Previously, it seemed that only a few of the Hajj pilgrims who had suffered at the hands of rogue operators were informing the relevant authorities. I would be interested to hear how many cases were brought to my hon. Friend longer ago and whether people believed that they simply had to put up with what had happened and thought that there was nowhere for them to go. Clearly, many people now know to go their Member of Parliament or to trading standards. It was clear, previously, that the key to improving the situation lay with raising consumers’ awareness about their rights and about what to do when things go wrong.

For two years in a row, my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs has written to hon. Members asking them to contact their local mosques and Muslim community groups. He has also issued a number of press releases, which have received good coverage in Muslim national and regional press. Trading standards departments have also issued warnings to the public about the risk from rogue tour operators. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has also produced two well-received information leaflets—one for pilgrims thinking of booking a Hajj or Umrah trip, and one for Hajj travel organisers. If my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath would like access to more such leaflets to provide his constituents with information, officials from the Department will assist with that.

I am grateful for that offer, but I am not short of leaflets. Will my hon. Friend clarify something for me? If a travel agent books a scheduled flight for a customer who wants to go to Hajj and books the accommodation separately, is it covered by ATOL regulations?

If a travel agent books a package that includes a scheduled flight, it must be an ATOL member. In that instance, therefore, the consumer—the constituent perhaps in my hon. Friend’s case—would be covered by the protections offered by ATOL.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Hajj period is slightly flexible and tends to be around the end of the year. Officials from DBERR and the Civil Aviation Authority attended several regional events organised by pilgrim groups to talk about pilgrims’ rights and protection. The cross-Government group recently met with the two main groups representing UK Hajj pilgrims—the Association of British Hujjaj and the Council of British Hajis—to take their views on Government action this year. Both those organisations do valuable work to help pilgrims to enjoy fulfilling and safe trips. The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs will shortly be writing to all UK mosques and other Muslim organisations to continue to raise awareness of the law both for pilgrims and the smaller Hajj travel organisers. We will also look at the best ways of raising awareness in the weeks preceding Hajj.

Trading standards departments have also been involved in raising awareness, and Birmingham trading standards has been particularly active in issuing press releases and talking to local pilgrims’ groups and operators. There are signs that the overall message is getting through. The numerous complaints received last year by Luton trading standards after the collapse of Go4 Hajj seem to indicate that our work to publicise the issue has had some impact on members of the Muslim community.

As well as raising the awareness of pilgrims, the Government have begun to engage with the Hajj travel industry. There are many good operators, but there is clearly an element that is disorganised and unprofessional. This is not an easy business to be in. There are many unpredictable elements to the relatively complicated arrangements for Hajj in Saudi, but that does not explain the fact that, in many cases, pilgrims are simply misled about the nature, quality and facilities of the trip that they have bought—usually for several thousands of pounds. Last year the Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs, hosted a summit for Hajj travel organisers. That was held to deliver our message about their responsibilities and to hear their views on how they believe the sector can improve its reputation and achieve greater consumer confidence.

Since that event, the Civil Aviation Authority has reported that it has received an increasing number of applications for air travel organisers’ licences from Hajj trip organisers. Many licences have now been granted, which extends the financial protection of pilgrims travelling to Hajj. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath asked whether the travel operators should be members of the Association of British Travel Agents. There is no legal requirement for them to be a member of a trade association, which is essentially what ABTA is. However, they should be members of ABTA, and membership is encouraged by the industry. In essence, the bonding that ABTA provides would not necessarily improve the quality of service or compensate for the poor services that are perhaps provided by some travel operators. However, as I have stated, membership of ATOL would give some financial protection where scheduled flights are part of an overall package.

As I mentioned, Birmingham trading standards has been actively engaged in discussions with local travel operators and, last week, Tower Hamlets trading standards invited local operators to an awareness-raising seminar. There is a greater awareness, and trading standards are taking up the issue and promoting it within communities. This year, we are pressing ahead with engagement with the industry and hope to explore the possibility of achieving a degree of effective self-regulation. We hope that the responsible tour operators can help to banish the poor image and the poor operators from the sector by setting out for pilgrims their commitment to proper behaviour and standards.

Over the past year, we have also forged links with the Saudi embassy in relation to the issue. The embassy is responsible for issuing entry visas to UK Hajj pilgrims. Visas are only available via certain Saudi approved Hajj tour operators and travel agents. The Saudi embassy has agreed to ensure that the list contains only ATOL registered companies in the future. I hope, again, that my hon. Friend sees that as a significant step forward in providing some protection to his constituents, as well as to my constituents and others throughout the country.

I hope that I have shown that the Government take the issue seriously. We appreciate that some UK pilgrims continued to be subject to unacceptable behaviour at the Hajj last year and that that is a continued cause for concern. There is no quick answer to that, but we have seen some signs of progress. In initiating the debate, my hon. Friend has yet again put the issue on the agenda and ensured that, where it is relevant, there is an opportunity for trading standards across the country to promote the importance of protection for Hajj pilgrims. He has also ensured that the issue of an improvement in the service and quality of the tour operators has been raised.

I am sure that all the parties concerned are hopeful that the various initiatives in which we are involved will help us to reach the point where the Hajj becomes a memorable and, as far as possible, trouble-free occasion for all. That is certainly something that my hon. Friend would like for his constituents, and I can assure him that it is something that I would like for mine—in fact, the Government wish to ensure that that is the case for all those who wish to take part in that important event within the Muslim calendar.

Sitting suspended.