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Diplomatic Missions: Parking Fines

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to recover unpaid parking fines and London congestion charge payments from diplomatic missions and international organisations.

My Lords, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials regularly lobby diplomatic missions about outstanding debts. Debts are raised with new heads of mission when they first call on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Additionally, before the annual statement to Parliament, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials write to all diplomatic missions and international organisations with unpaid parking fines of more than £500 and unpaid congestion charges of more than £100,000, urging them to settle their debts.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but it just shows that absolutely nothing is happening. The Written Statement on 16 July showed that the diplomatic community as a whole owed £87 million in congestion charges, for which the US won the prize for £9 million and the People’s Republic of China owed £2 million. Why does TfL not get out and clamp all these Rolls-Royces? Better still, why did Boris not think of clamping the Queen’s horse and carriage yesterday, with the president inside it? It might have taught him a lesson.

I have quite a short answer for the noble Lord. Diplomatic vehicles are inviable—no, I mean inviolable, which is a new word for me.

My Lords, there are some more serious offences that various diplomatic missions commit. Some arise from mistreatment and sexual abuse of domestic workers, particularly domestic workers brought from other countries. Since the Government are so concerned about human rights in international relations, as we have seen from their conversations with the Chinese, are they considering pushing within the United Nations for diplomatic immunity to be modified in cases of severe human rights abuses? May I also ask, since Gulf diplomats are the ones who are often the most at stake, could we watch carefully the number of people from Gulf states in London claiming diplomatic status?

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, makes a serious point. To be perfectly honest, I do not know what we are doing at the UN on this basis, but I will write to the noble Lord to find out if there is anything more that I can add. Here in the UK, we expect all foreign diplomats to abide by UK laws at all times. We take a firm line with diplomatic missions and international organisations whose diplomats commit offences.

My Lords, 210 years ago at this time Admiral Nelson lay dying on the orlop deck of HMS “Victory”. I raise this because we are discussing international organisations, and Nelson had showed the value of a British battle fleet in negotiating with international organisations. This led to 100 years of Pax Britannica. Twice in the last century the Navy ensured the survival of the nation. Does the Minister feel that it is appropriate to wish the Navy good luck on the 210th anniversary of Trafalgar?

I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord West. I was wondering what the sting in the tail would be. As we joked beforehand, he was going to suggest that we tab No. 10.

My Lords, will the noble Earl please tell the House whether there are parking or other fines which other people have tried to charge us for, for instance in New York, and do we pay them or not?

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, is very aware, our staff from his old department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, pay their fines and abide by the regulations as much as they can.

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can tell me why diplomatic cars are—what was the word?—inviolable.

Basically, My Lords, my noble friend asked about “inviolable”—I think “immune” is probably a better way of putting it—but this comes under the Vienna convention.

Is the noble Earl aware that this has been an ongoing problem for well over 60 years? I remember that in the 1970s the Foreign Office analysed not only who owed what, but where the cars were parked. Is it still the case that the majority of these cars that are clamped, or which noble Lords recommend should be clamped, would create a traffic jam outside Harrods?

This problem has been going on for many years. I think that there is a particular problem at the moment with the congestion charge, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, where some overseas diplomatic missions consider that it is a tax as opposed to a charge.

My Lords, if, as the noble Earl says, diplomatic cars and, presumably, their occupants, are inviolable, why is so much time and, indeed, parliamentary time, wasted on levying these fines in the first place?

My Lords, I do not think that parliamentary time is used in levying these fines. This is a matter for Transport for London.

My Lords, is there a maximum number of cars allowed to each diplomatic mission, or does this measure apply to all cars, some missions being bigger than others?

If one should have the good fortune to earn a little money in America, you will find that you cannot escape from America until you have paid the tax. All we need to do, if I may suggest it, is to revise the names of these charges and call them a tax and the American ambassador could not leave until the tax was paid.

My Lords, as I said in my earlier Answer, we are in continual negotiation with the various missions, reminding them of their duty when they come to this country to obey the law and pay their parking fines and the congestion charge. Officials from the Department for Transport and Transport for London continue to press non-paying diplomatic missions to pay the congestion charge, and work to identify a solution to the legal impasse with non-paying missions.