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Diplomatic Missions: Congestion Charge

Volume 838: debated on Thursday 23 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to diplomatic missions in London on the non-payment of the Congestion Charge.

My Lords, we regularly raise debts with missions and last week wrote to the missions that hold a London congestion charge debt, reminding them to pay. We are clear, including during briefing sessions to the diplomatic corps, that we consider there to be no legal grounds to exempt diplomats from paying the London congestion charge. It is comparable to a parking fee or toll charge, which we expect them to pay.

I am grateful for that reply. I appreciate that the last Question of this Parliament is not setting the political agenda, but, my Lords, is not the objective of establishing an embassy in a foreign country to build a good relationship with that host country and does not a debt of £143 million, collectively, stand in the way of that objective? So, before any new ambassador is accredited to the Court of St James, could he or she be persuaded to pay his country’s bill to Transport for London?

Like my noble friend, I must admit that there have been a few surprises in the last 48 hours, not least that the last Foreign Office Question I am doing from the Dispatch Box is about congestion charging. Nevertheless, it shows the rich diversity and flexibility of Ministers at the Dispatch Box. I agree with my noble friend and I assure him that, in our typical British way of persuasion, we continue to remind diplomats, both existing and new, of their obligations in this regard.

My Lords, will the Minister name and shame the principal offenders? Are they the same countries that refuse to pay parking fines?

My Lords, the noble Lord will have seen that TfL has published a list, but that has never been, in my mind, the right way. Many of these countries are our friends and partners and they may have differing perspectives on what the charge constitutes. We regard it as a service charge, and that is why we ask them to pay; some contest this and regard it as a tax. Gentle diplomatic persuasion but with direct challenge is the right way, but it must be done in a constructive way. Over the last seven years I have certainly learned as a diplomat that that is the best way to handle it.

My Lords, first, I will say from these Benches how much we appreciate the role that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, has played as a fantastic Minister.

On this particular Question, the House will be aware that British diplomats in the United States regularly pay the toll charges. You cannot get around New York without them, and they are indeed equivalent to the congestion charge. But the Americans argue that a charge is not a toll. Would he, in the very brief time left, care to bring forward a statutory instrument that reclassifies the congestion charge as a toll and deals with this legal obstacle?

Well, again, our diplomats show that they are the best of the best and I confirm to your Lordships’ House that, in terms of our international obligations, we do comply with such fines. Regarding the SI, the Chief Whip has just given me a long, hard Paddington stare—so I may resist that temptation.

My Lords, would it not be a good idea if the Government impounded these diplomats’ cars and suggested instead that they bought bicycles and kept to this?

I am looking at my noble friend to gauge his reaction on impounding cars and using bicycles. It is a novel idea, and perhaps something that might be suggested to whoever is standing at the Dispatch Box in future. In all seriousness, our diplomats—and I pay tribute to our FCDO officials—constantly remind diplomats of their obligations. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, who was formerly a Transport Minister. She knows all too well that we must keep reminding everyone of the nature of the congestion charge: it is a service charge.

My Lords, on 11 July 2005 the US Government said that the

“Congestion Charge is a tax that, under international law, should not be imposed on the United States Government, its diplomatic and consular agents, or its military force”.

So will the Minister renegotiate the Vienna Convention, or will he tell the Americans to use public transport instead?

We try to encourage all people to use public transport, and that is why the Government continue to invest in it and make the case for using it. I am sure there are many diplomats in London who, when they are not in their vehicles, enjoy the city by using public transport—it is a great way to get around.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in the House with a message of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, who has always given us courteous, informed and informative answers to Questions.

I will focus on the US non-payment of £14 million: that would translate to roughly £7,000 per primary school in London. I am sure that many people in this House can think of good things that primary schools could spend that £7,000 on. If we have a special relationship with the United States, surely it could actually pay its way and free up that money to be used well in London.

We indeed have a special relationship with the United States and I assure the noble Baroness that, in all our meetings with US diplomats here, we make the case very clearly about the outstanding debt. But we also need to recognise positives as well; when I was looking down the list, I saw that the best-performing country is Togo, which owes only £40.

My Lords, on what is the very last Question of this Session of Parliament, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for his ingenuity in raising something that gave the House something to laugh about—notwithstanding that it is a serious issue. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for showing his customary ingenuity and diplomacy in addressing Questions. It is a lesson for all Ministers on how Questions should be answered and how Ministers should engage with your Lordships’ House, whichever side of the House they are on. As we move towards the end of this Session of Parliament—not yet, this is our last Questions—I thank the noble Lord for all his efforts and how he has responded, and other Ministers who have always tried their best, in most cases, to answer Questions. I wish everybody an enjoyable and a good-natured election campaign.

I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks, which reflect the best of your Lordships’ House. As we have often said, we have differences, but it is important that we recognise the value, wisdom and indeed wit that many noble Lords bring to our discussions. I pay tribute to all who have served in government over the last few years, particularly, in the current Session, to my noble friend the Leader of the Lords and the Chief Whip, who in the last 12 hours, has had to put together a very extensive agenda. It is a team effort; I thank the noble Baroness and, in doing so, pay tribute to her Front Bench, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his strong support and to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and his Front Bench, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and to the Cross Benches, of course. I am thinking of names, which is always dangerous once you embark on that particular avenue, but everyone has played an important part. I remember talking with the late Lord Judge about a particular Bill that I was taking through. He said, in his quiet way, “Tariq, you know what I think. You’ll do the right thing”—and, hopefully, in some of what I have done, I have managed to achieve that goal.

My Lords, I say to my noble friend that the whole House hugely appreciates the service he has given and, at the risk of embarrassment to him, all of it has been as an unpaid Minister in this House. In the coming days, when people come up and complain about this House, they should look to his example and the examples of so many others who have served this country so well.

I thank my noble friend for those very kind remarks; his kindness is always well respected and well received. It demonstrates again, as I look around our Benches and pay tribute to noble Lords across the House, our strengths and that public service is about how we stand up. Often, we are challenged and criticised as an appointed Chamber, but there are many shining examples of what public service and public duty are, and they are found right here in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, it is many years since a young member of the Ahmadiyya community in Wimbledon approached a rather ignorant member of the House of Commons to advise him about the nature of persecution in his own community. Over the years that have followed, I have counted it a real blessing to become a friend of a noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, and I admire everything that he has done, especially on behalf of those who are persecuted or who are downtrodden in many parts of the world. Whatever the future holds, I hope he continues to shine the light on those dark places. I thank him and, on behalf of my noble friends on the Cross Benches, admire him for the valiant way he has taken up his role and served this nation as a Minister of the Crown.

My Lords, I am again grateful for the kind comments and really humbled by the sense of affection. It again reflects the duty that all of us seek to fulfil in the challenges we are posed and the questions we are asked. We seek as Ministers, sometimes under the challenging parameters within which we have to work, to provide noble Lords with insights and detail—including sometimes through private briefings, which I hope noble Lords have appreciated. It has been a great belief of mine, which I know is shared by all my noble friends on the Front Bench, that we should provide context about issues and questions to ensure that, when we debate and discuss things in your Lordships’ House, and answer questions, your Lordships are informed not just by the question but by the answer.

On a personal note, I thank all noble Lords for their great kindness, co-operation and friendship. Who knows what the future will bring, but I wish everyone the best and I thank all noble Lords.