London mayor likens toll snub to war stance

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

The mayor of London has used Japan’s role in World War II to attack its embassy in London for refusing to pay a controversial road charge.

Commenting recently about Japan’s decision not to contribute toward the central London congestion motoring charge, Ken Livingstone told the LBC radio station, “I think there are several problems with Japan that we could go on about here.

“Admitting their guilt for all the war crimes would be one thing. So if they’ve not got round to doing that, I doubt they’re too worried about the congestion charge.”

His characteristically undiplomatic remarks have been rejected by the Japanese Embassy in London, which said Japan has already apologized for past atrocities.

But Livingstone’s remarks reflect growing frustration among City Hall officials with several embassies not paying the congestion charge of £8 per day when driving a vehicle in central London. The zone covers the city’s shopping, financial and entertainment districts.

Several embassies — including the United States — have decided not to pay and have started running up a massive backlog of fines. They claim that the “charge” is in fact a tax that their diplomats are immune from paying under the 1961 Vienna Convention, which governs diplomatic relations.

A Japanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Under the convention, diplomats do not have to pay taxes but do have to pay for services. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided in August that the congestion charge did not represent paying for a particular service and was in fact a tax.”

The immunity only applies to accredited diplomatic staff, and locally hired employees at the embassy still have to pay the charge if they drive in central London.

The mayor said the congestion charge does pay for a specific service, namely reduced congestion. And Britain’s Foreign Office also supports this view.

While recognizing he is powerless to enforce the fines, Livingstone said, “Diplomats should be immune from being arrested by foreign governments on political grounds, but they shouldn’t have a license to ignore the laws of the country. I think it’s outrageous — an abuse of diplomatic immunity.”

His representative later told Kyodo News, “Those embassies that flout the law of this country and misuse diplomatic immunity to avoid the charge are enjoying the benefits of reduced congestion but contributing nothing.”

The U.S. and German embassies led the diplomatic revolt in July 2005, and gradually more and more missions have followed suit. It is thought that around 50 countries are not now paying.

It costs drivers £8 per car to enter the zone between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m, Monday to Friday. If drivers do not pay the charge by midnight, they start incurring fines. Failure to pay within 28 days can result in a fine of £150.

The mayor’s representative said the Japanese Embassy owed £312,000 as of March 1. The U.S. Embassy’s fines stood at £891,000 in September, and several African countries have fines in the region of £500,000.

The mayor’s office declined to clarify or expand on Livingstone’s war-related comments when asked by Kyodo News. Livingstone has a reputation for being outspoken. He caused controversy in 2005 when he compared a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard.