According to the most recently available Census data, more than two thirds of the residents of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets belong to minority ethnic groups and the district is home to the largest Bangladeshi community in England. By working with residents to curb unscrupulous business practices which inflict harm within their community, Tower Hamlets Trading Standards has built up trust over many years – and seen a string of successful outcomes.
One initiative, the Hajj Advice & Enforcement Project, stems from a notorious case in which members of the Muslim community were defrauded by a conman selling Hajj pilgrimage packages. When the actions of Faruk Ahmed were brought to trading standards’ attention in 2008, says Nazir Ali, former Senior Trading Standards Officer for London Borough of Tower Hamlets, “we had a kind of epidemic of providers of Hajj travel packages. In total, around 60 of these providers existed in Tower Hamlets.”
But Ahmed’s company, Qibla Hajj Kafela, stood out. “The initial trigger was that the price was lower than his competitors – that’s always one of the things to look out for. Also, he just had a small office above a newsagent. There were various travel agents based in the actual complex, but this one was just a desk,” says Ali.
“He was taking money without being Ministry of Housing or CAA approved. He was taking hundreds of group bookings; a package would cost up to £2,000, so that amounted to a lot of money.”
Ahmed was charging his clients for air tickets, accommodation and transport between various pilgrimage sites – money which, it would later emerge, he was using to fund his gambling habit. “Around a million pounds had already gone into his company without having any approvals or protection in place,” says Ali. “We had a few complaints coming in from other agents who were licensed, saying to keep an eye on him.”
Ahmed was contacted by trading standards, who warned him not to take any further bookings until he had a license to trade and protection for his customers’ deposits in place. But, says Ali, “while this was going on, with the Hajj period fast approaching, he realised that he wasn’t in a position to deliver all the things that he promised and one day he just left with the money. We were alerted by some of his clients that he was no longer at the premises.”
The investigation launched by Tower Hamlets Trading Standards – which included gathering numerous witness statements and swathes of evidence – formed the backbone of the prosecution against Ahmed when he was arrested upon returning from Bangladesh to the UK. In 2009 he was sentenced to six years in jail. In total he had stolen £570,000 from his victims, many of whom had put their life savings into the pilgrimage.
More recently, in 2016, following a Tower Hamlets Trading Standards investigation Al Kabir Travel and Tours Ltd was found guilty of taking 120 pilgrims to Hajj without any ATOL protection insurance and fined more than £12,000.
“The Ahmed case triggered the work that happened afterwards, with education and enforcement – a two-pronged approach,” says Ali.
For the past 10 years in the run-up to Hajj – which begins on July 17 this year – Ali and his team have gone out into the community to raise awareness of the potential issues around Hajj pilgrimage package sellers. “We educate all the potential pilgrims, we advertise the information that they should be checking for on our website, in the local press, and then do mobile visits to mosques,” he says. “We select the biggest mosques as well as different areas within Tower Hamlets. Over time this has led to a massive reduction in the number of complaints – and victims.”
In addition to travel packages, the team also raises awareness of the risks of transmissible diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Curbing the spread of MERS has obvious parallels with preventing the spread of COVID-19, which has inevitably disrupted both community engagement projects and the Hajj pilgrimage itself over the past year.
Stubbing it out
Illicit tobacco is another area in which Tower Hamlets has achieved positive results by combining trading standards enforcement with public health protection. As part of a three-year Service Level Agreement (SLA) between Public Health England, Environmental Health and Tower Hamlets Trading Standards, Operation Stromboli aims to disrupt the sale of counterfeit, incorrectly labelled and non-duty paid tobacco and alcohol using trained sniffer dogs from BWY Canine and Wagtail UK Ltd.
Within two years of Operation Stromboli coming into effect, business compliance had improved and 206 underage sales test purchases had been carried out – with the subsequent prosecution of offending sellers and business owners. In addition, £22,000 in illegal tobacco products had been seized.
However, the success of the project has not guaranteed its survival. “The funding through the SLA has allowed us to do Operation Stromboli,” says Ali. “The partnership is working really well but the funding is possibly coming to an end because of cuts. The vision for Public Health England is to have zero smokers by 2050, which as a country we may not meet if we have these budget cuts.”
Ali sees both Operation Stromboli and the Hajj Advice & Enforcement Project as part of a bigger, ongoing effort to foster productive and mutually supportive relationships with businesses in Tower Hamlets – particularly ethnic minority businesses (EMBs). “It’s very important for us to have a relationship with these small businesses, especially the BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] ones,” he says. “A lot of them have the passion to do something for themselves but at the same time, they don’t have the knowledge or the skillsets to fulfil all their legal obligations.
“We’re not all about just enforcing, trying to kill the little fish; there are benefits once we help these small businesses,” Ali observes. “There’s a ripple effect and they will pass on some of the benefits to the consumers. It doesn’t have to be just financial benefits or product benefits. They can also educate their consumers. It’s like having a golden thread from enforcement, through small businesses, all the way to consumer education.”