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Travel firm probed as Pilgrim Bandits disabled veterans charity loses £81,000

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Pilgrim Bandits on an expedition to Greenland in 2016
Pilgrim Bandits on an expedition to Greenland in 2016

A CHARITY which provides hard-core confidence-boosting challenges for amputee veterans has been rocked by allegations a travel company stole tens of thousands of pounds from it.

Pilgrim Bandits, which is based in New Milton and was founded by local ex-servicemen, is reported to have lost £81,000.

An arrest has been made by Kent Police looking into the build-up to a trip to New Zealand in October last year.

It has been claimed that just two days before a group was due to fly out for a 2,500km bike ride, Pilgrim Bandits discovered none of the 22 plane tickets had been booked.

Pilgrim Bandits said it managed to purchase last-minute plane seats to New Zealand using financial reserves set aside for a 2019 trip to the Yukon.

The individual arrested has not been confirmed by police, but has been named online and by the Pilgrim Bandits as Dale Whitney, a businessman who heads up Kent travel firm Black Tip Travel Ltd.

A spokesman for Pilgrim Bandits said it was “devastated” as its fundraisers “work tirelessly”. It said if the matter did not go forward through the criminal courts it would pursue it “through civil channels” and called for “tighter controls on businesses on the web”.

In a statement on its Facebook page Pilgrim Bandits said it reported the matter to police and the Charity Commission.

Companies House lists 34-year-old Mr Whitney as Black Tip Travel Ltd’s sole director, giving his correspondence address as Tonbridge, Kent.

Initially the company released a statement on its website admitting it was “undergoing some issues”, and added: “We are trying to work through these as quickly as possible.”

The company apologised for any inconvenience, saying: “We have made successful arrangements for hundreds of satisfied customers but due to errors being made on some bookings the company took heavy losses creating the situation it is in now.

“We hope to work through this and get back on track soon.” It said it was getting “insolvency advice”.

Subsequently it issued an update on its website that said “simple errors” made meant customers experienced missed ticket deadlines on flights, and that rather than “let down” customers it “took losses” to ensure people got flights they paid for.

That caused “cash flow issues”, it continued, and customers were compensated for issues and stress caused or had alternative tickets booked at a higher cost to the company.

Black Tip Travel Ltd added: “This continued and although there was improvements in cash flow and improved periods of time where there was no issues, we hit a time when there was a reduced number of sales with an increase in overheads/costs coming up causing many issues in a small window of time.

“At this time it was decided we should get professional advice on Black Tip Travel's insolvency. Whilst we are looking at this we will not be taking any new bookings.”

It went on: “We are aware that there are allegations against the company and director and understand people's travel plans are very emotive which is why we wanted to make the above statement to explain what has happened.

“The director has not made financial gains (quite the opposite) due to the way the business has been trading and is distraught and mortified by the comments and allegations that are being made.

“We are deeply sorry for those who have been affected by these issues and whilst this is nowhere near acceptable, we hope that a clearer explanation of what has happened may clear the situation up a little.”

A Kent Police spokesman said: “Kent Police is investigating an allegation of theft concerning a business in Tonbridge.

“A 34-year-old man from Tonbridge was arrested on suspicion of theft on 2nd December 2018 and has been released pending further enquiries.”

Launched by a small group of special force veterans, Pilgrim Bandits has featured on a prime time BBC documentary and its adventure excursions are designed to push to the limit men and women from the army, navy, RAF, police, ambulance and fire services.

Having sustained injuries in the line of duty, participants must use a range of professional skills gained in service to complete these challenges, designed to rebuild confidence and self-esteem.

Previous trips include re-running the Cockleshell Heroes Operation Frankton mission, a daring World War Two canoe-based attack on German occupied Bordeaux, and kayaking through Greenland’s icy waters and a South African river.

Among the ex-soldiers to have taken part are ex-paratrooper Ben Parkinson MBE – a patron of the charity who is one of the most severely injured soldiers to have survived the Afghan conflict – and double amputee James Wilson, originally from Lymington, who was injured in Afghanistan and lost both legs above the knee.

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