Of diplomats and defaults

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Indian high Commission In london (2) new
India house seat of the indian high commission in London England UK United kingdom...CC9C0A India house seat of the indian high commission in London England UK United kingdom
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The Indian High Commission has notched up unpaid dues worth millions to London’s transport authorities as its cars refuse to pay congestion charges which are seen as taxes

By Sajeda Momin

Indian politicians and bureaucrats believe they are above the law, certainly in the country and even when they are abroad. Over the last decade, the Indian High Commission in the UK has notched up unpaid dues worth millions of pounds to London’s transport authorities because cars with diplomatic number plates refuse to pay a congestion charge claiming diplomatic immunity! The British Foreign Office has failed in all its attempts so far to collect the fees and fines and is considering taking the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The issue is so grave that one of the first things new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who was also the Mayor of London till a few months ago, did after assuming office was to inform the House of Commons that embassies owed £95 million in congestion charges, which over the last one month has shot up to over £101 million. The list that Johnson released put India as the fifth biggest defaulter with an unpaid £4,749,240. The US tops the list with a current outstanding of over £11 million, followed by Japan, Nigeria and Russia.

VIENNA CONVENTION

The root of the dispute lies in the fact that some foreign missions consider the congestion charge a “tax” which they claim they are exempt from under the Vienna Convention. But British authorities insist that it is a charge for a “service” which even diplomats must pay and by not doing so, they were breaking the law.

In 2003, the UK government decided that London needed a permanent arrangement to ease traffic congestion and pollution. Following in the footsteps of Singapore, which was the first country to implement a congestion charge in 1975, was considered the best option. A ring was drawn around the inner city of London which had maximum inflow of traffic, creating a congestion zone area of eight square miles (21square kms)—1.3 percent of the total area of Greater London. Any car entering this area—marked with a large “C”—between 7 am and 6.30 pm had to pay a fee of £5 per day. Over the years, this fee has been increased to keep up with inflation and today stands at £11.50.

The fee is enforced by a network of cameras at the 203 entry and exit points into the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ). The car’s number plate is read electronically and the owner is given 24 hours to make the payment for the day. If he fails to do so, then a related penalty charge notice is sent to him. The penalty for one missed payment is £130.

People who live within the CCZ get a 90 percent discount and pay a reduced rate, while certain groups like disabled drivers, licensed taxis, minicabs, public service and emergency service vehicles are exempted from paying. The exemption does not apply to diplomats or cars with diplomatic number plates. 

RARE PRIVILEGE

The Indian High Commission functions from the majestic building of India House on the Strand in central London. The mission has been allotted about eight parking spaces—another rare and expensive commodity in the British capital— and the top brass are allowed to bring their cars to work. The rest of the High Commission staff use London’s very efficient public transport system and avoid paying congestion charges.

When the scheme started in 2003, Indian diplomats grumbled but paid the charges. “Half of the congestion charge is reimbursed by the government of India, but the other half goes out of our pockets and by the end of the year, it adds up to a hefty bill,” a senior diplomat told this correspondent in 2006.

The controversy started in 2005 when American diplomats suddenly decided to stop paying the congestion charge insisting it was a tax and therefore, diplomats were exempt under the Vienna Convention. Indian diplomats took their cue from them. “We don’t mind paying congestion charges, but why should we be made to pay when the Americans are not. These are double standards. All diplomats are covered by the Vienna Convention, not just Americans,” said the senior diplomat who did not wish to be named.

Many other foreign missions also decided to take the Americans’ lead and stopped paying, adding up to a huge debt which is growing daily.

The British government however argues differently. “We are clear that the congestion charge is a charge for a service and not a tax. This means that diplomats are not exempt from paying it,” said Paul Cowperthwaite, general manager for Congestion Charging in Transport for London (TfL), the body that administers the charges.  The starkly different interpretations have led to the deadlock.

ROAD PRICING

So is it a charge for a service or a tax? One definition of a congestion charge is that it is a charge for driving a vehicle in an urban area, often limited to working hours. It belongs to the category of road pricing measures, which also includes tolls, distance- or time-based fees and charges for polluting vehicles. Road pricing is typically implemented as a way of paying back the cost of a debt-financed road like a toll, but congestion charging aims to influence traffic demand and to discourage the use of congested roads during congested times.

When started in 2003, the congestion charging scheme aimed to reduce traffic in central London by 10-15 percent, time spent in delays by 20-30 percent and to push people towards public transport. Ken Livingstone, the first mayor of London and Johnson’s predecessor, had announced in 2007 that the scheme was a success as it had done what it set out to do. “The amount of traffic entering central London during charging hours has been cut by around 20 percent…. It has contributed to the growth of cycling, with more people than ever before travelling by bike—there has been a 72 percent increase in the number of cyclists on the capital’s major roads since 2000,” said Livingstone, who as mayor cycled to office or took public transport. Bicycles are exempt from congestion charges, as are motorbikes, mopeds and scooters.

Johnson, who too was often seen cycling around the capital, is very clear that diplomatic immunity did not mean you can break the law. “Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, those entitled to immunity are expected to obey the law. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) does not tolerate foreign diplomats breaking the law,” said Johnson. “Around three quarters of the embassies in London do pay the congestion charge, but there remains a stubborn minority who refuse to do so, despite our representations through diplomatic channels,” said a TfL spokesperson. The stubborn minority consists of about 70 countries who are major defaulters and unfortunately, India falls into this category.

“Their argument is that this is a tax which diplomats don’t have to pay, but actually it is not. It is a road toll and the law says no one is exempt, not even VVIPs or MPs,” said a TfL spokesman. “This is a charge for a service, similar to Singapore and Oslo. All British diplomats pay road tolls in the USA,” he continued. Ironically, the countries refusing to pay congestion charges are among the richer countries in the world. “There are poor countries like Angola and Sudan who are defaulting, but they can’t afford to pay and one can understand their problem, but the USA is the strongest economy in the world and yet it refuses to pay its dues,” said a TFL spokesman.

The British find their hands tied as under the Vienna Convention, they cannot start any criminal proceedings against the erring diplomats as they would for ordinary citizens who break the law. However, as diplomacy and persuasion have not yielded any results, their only hope is the International Court of Justice.

Lead Picture: Indian High Commission in London

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