Students lose money as political travel firm Politrip goes bust

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  • By Brendan Hughes
  • BBC News NI political reporter

Image source, Primrose Sparkes

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Student Primrose Sparkes said she felt “taken advantage of”

Students owed thousands of pounds by a bust political travel business have discovered they will not get any of their money back.

Volunteer USA Ltd -trading as Politrip- arranged for young people to join election campaigns in the US.

It went into liquidation in 2022 with debts of more than £64,000.

Almost 90 customers were owed money after trips were cancelled, but liquidators have confirmed there is “no prospect of recovery”.

The business was advised by Northern Ireland Assembly member Patrick Brown, who was a consultant for the firm.

He founded the Politrip company in 2017 before selling the brand in 2021 to a new company set up by Politrip’s then general manager to continue its operations – Volunteer USA Ltd.

Mr Brown, an Alliance Party assembly member for South Down, was then employed as a paid consultant on a rate of £800 a month.

One former student said that instead of a refund he was offered an election internship with Alliance.

An Alliance spokesman said they had “sympathy” for those who lost money but the party was “not connected” to the business.

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Nellie Gawne said she was left unable to pay her bills

Politics student Nellie Gawne said she was more than £1,000 out of pocket after her four-week trip to Washington DC was cancelled at short notice.

The 20-year-old said it left her struggling to pay a utility bill on rental accommodation ahead of her second year at the University of Bath.

“I’m a care leaver so money has always been quite a stress for me anyway, so to be put in that kind of financial situation where I was so out of pocket… it was a very, very stressful time,” she said.

Politrip described itself as offering the “ultimate experience for political enthusiasts” by organising volunteer placements on international election campaigns.

It was paid by young people to arrange the trips and they separately booked their own flights.

But last summer it announced the cancellation of all trips due to “unforeseen last-minute operational costs” and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Image source, Google Images

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Politrip arranged placements for young people on election campaigns in the US

A liquidator was appointed for Politrip’s operating company Volunteer USA, in October 2022.

Insolvency documents said the firm had £2,000 in the bank, but it owed £8,000 to HM Revenue and Customs and almost £60,000 to individual customers.

Final liquidation accounts are due to be filed and in the coming months the company will be formally dissolved.

Ross Wilson, from Bangor, County Down, said he paid more than £1,000 but was denied a full refund when his US trip was twice cancelled due to the pandemic.

The 25-year-old said Politrip instead offered him an “internship” with the Alliance Party ahead of the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign.

Image source, Ross Wilson

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Ross Wilson paid more than £1,000 to Politrip

In one email, he was told it would be “Patrick Brown who will be running the programme”.

Mr Wilson said the alternative offer “didn’t make sense”.

“I live in Bangor anyway, so why would I be spending whatever it was, like £800 at the time they were saying, just to go to Belfast during the day and go door-to-door?”

‘A wasted summer’

Primrose Sparkes, 22, from Sussex, said she felt “taken advantage of” when her placement in New Jersey – for which she paid £600 to Politrip – was cancelled “a week before I was supposed to leave”.

“I then just felt like I’d wasted my summer where other friends had gone out and had internship experience or work experience. I now had a massive gap where I didn’t have any of that,” she said.

The Oxford masters student added: “I just think they took advantage of a kind of generation of students that had been poorly affected by Covid.

“I think they kept to themselves a lot of things that probably, had they been clearer about sooner, we would have all had a clearer understanding that our trips weren’t going ahead.”

Image source, PA/Liam McBurney

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Patrick Brown said he was “not involved” with the business

Volunteer USA director Rupert Browne was approached for comment.

Patrick Brown distanced himself from the business last summer when social media users complained their trips had been cancelled shortly before they were due to depart.

He said on X, formerly Twitter, that he was “not connected to the company” and “not involved with them”.

However, on his Stormont Assembly register of interests, he said he was a paid consultant for Volunteer USA until August 2022.

He was listed among the creditors owed money when Volunteer USA went into liquidation.

Mr Brown and the Alliance Party were approached for comment.

An Alliance spokesman said: “We have sympathy with anyone who lost money relating to this scheme but all enquiries should be directed to Volunteer USA, as this is a matter for that organisation, not Alliance, and the party is not connected to it.”

Alliance has previously said no internships were offered by the party and it was “at no time asked to participate in such an arrangement”.

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