It would be too much to imagine that former Mayor Ken Livingstone’s spat with US Ambassador Tuttle over the Congestion Charge would have escaped comment in the Wikileaks exposures.
What the US embassy said was dry but correct, says Damian Hockney.
In the Wikileaks comments, there appears to have been no mention of Ken Livingstone’s description of US Ambassador Robert Tuttle as a “chiselling little crook”…only that “London Mayor Ken Livingstone has focused his ire against the US Embassy and the Ambassador personally”. Who said that the age of diplomacy is dead?
But more important is the succinct summary where the report makes clear that the US was not the first to stop paying the charge and that 23 out of 27 EU delegations subsequently refused to pay.
It’s worth printing the leaked comment here if you haven’t seen it:
“In 2003, the Mayor of London introduced a congestion charge of BPS 5 (USD 10) per day to drive into the central portion of London (50 pence per day for those living inside the zone). The city considers this a fee for service (improved transportation infrastructure, decreased pollution and congestion), and did not grant a diplomatic exemption.
After determining that the fee was actually a tax, and therefore not payable under the Vienna Conventions of Diplomatic and Consular Affairs, the Department of State engaged in lengthy negotiations with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the City of London.
In July 2005, after negotiations concluded unsuccessfully, the Department instructed the Mission and its members to stop paying the tax. The U.S. Embassy was not the first to refuse to pay, and following the expansion of the congestion zone and increase in the fee to BPS 8 (USD 16) in 2007, a large number of missions, including 23 of the 27 European Union missions in London, now refuse to pay the tax.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone has focused his ire publicly against the U.S. Embassy and the Ambassador personally. His position, however, should be seen in the wider context of his anti-American positions on many issues and his coziness to the likes of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.”
When the then Mayor added 60% to the charge in 2005 but offered no further services in return, I made clear to him that he had just confirmed what was (up until that point) ever so slightly contestable – he had effectively confirmed that the C Charge was indeed a tax.
I then predicted that all major nations would probably stop paying and that I was aware of an EU ambassadors meeting which would almost certainly follow the advice they too had received from counsel – that the C Charge is now confirmed as a tax and that diplomatic missions need not pay. And this is indeed what happened.
But what is interesting again is that none of the London media ever dared criticise the EU (which advised member states clearly that they did not have to pay) but regularly attack the USA over the issue, particularly viciously and personally when George Bush was president. And the best bit of all? The EU nations who do pay are either those who have a charge themselves (like Stockholm) or who are trying to introduce it. Oh, and when Stockholm introduced its ‘Congestion Charge’, the government, after protests, had to rename it…it became officially ‘the Congestion Tax’.
It was then made quite clear to all – to the FCO and City Hall – that the C Charge was a tax and that diplomatic missions were within the law not to pay. The response from the UK side was, to put it frankly, a bit like the England bid for the World Cup – the home side congratulated themselves on doing something that was blankly unappreciated by anyone else. London Nil – rest of the world 27. ‘We wuz robbed’.
Watching the handling of the C Charge issues from the sidelines made you wonder how low your own team could sink. No-one on the British side sought and published legal advice, no-one would discuss this matter in a dry legal sense – it was all weasel words (FCO) and politics (City Hall). Attack the USA (George Bush the horned one) and issue bland words about the charge being morally right and good and as far as we are concerned all should be jolly pleased to pay it.
And now the current Mayor follows essentially the same unimaginative approach.
The arguments over the very existence of diplomatic mission tax exemptions are another thing, but of course British diplomats take full advantage of them personally when it suits them (and indeed the Government). There is certainly an argument to be had about diplomatic missions and tax but that is for another time. They exist and London cannot unilaterally alter half a century of international tax law, much of it authored in the UK.
Unless the current Mayor is deliberately playing the same game as his predecessor, he too must be aware of all this and should not shelter behind five year old weasel words from the FCO, which of course failed to address the elephant in the room – the legal advice that everyone had now had about this, and which presumably the FCO had had as well.
The former Mayor attacked the then US Ambassador Robert Tuttle as a ‘chiselling little crook’ for making clear that the USA would not pay. But of course when President Obama was elected and then made clear that the previous administration’s policies about the C Charge were correct, there was barely a squeak. And of course the EU, some of whose nations were the first to take advice and make clear that they could not pay a tax many months before the USA did, has appeared exempt from all criticism. It was two EU nations who first took advice (before the charge had even been introduced) and then made clear they would not pay.
For every shriek from the media and politicians about the evils of ‘George Bush’ and the USA in not paying, there was nothing at all about Germany, France et al. Even though it was the EU which finally took the full legal advice and advised its members they need not pay.
Tolls on roads are entirely different of course, as they are designed to pay for the provision of a service (a road). It is interesting that supporters of the charge find it difficult to address the facts about the matter of tax and diplomats. Their arguments always immediately divert onto why the charge is a ‘good thing’. It may well be, but that is irrelevant.
It always struck me that it would be better to have conceived the charge in a way which dealt with the matter of taxation head on, rather than this strange and illogical approach – attack a power who you happened not to like for non payment but conveniently ignore all those who you do like for doing exactly the same thing, then scattergun arguments about the evils of ‘diplomatic immunity’ etc.
Wikileaks has done an enormous service to the cause of educating people about aspects of how we are governed. On the C Charge, it demonstrates that it really is now time for supporters of the charge to try to address the matter of the exemption: this matter will not go away just because the BBC or Evening Standard periodically update the total ‘owed’ by the USA and run an inaccurate why-oh-why story about ‘diplomatic immunities’.
And of course the idea that diplomats are ‘claiming immunity’ is another matter which seems to be misunderstood. The diplomats are not claiming ‘immunity’ in this issue. They are stating that they have committed no offence, contravention or crime (which they have not) and that they have legal advice to prove this. Importantly, no-one in London has presented one shred of ‘legal advice’ to prove the opposite.
The Russian Embassy, without spelling it out, even attempted to semi-publicly assist London with its comments (effectively ‘get some advice…play with the charge…make it not a tax’), and all it got was an undiplomatic slap in the face. Certainly no-one in my time at City Hall rose to the challenge of taking legal advice and publishing it. I challenged the former Mayor on more than one occasion to do so.
Many nations do indeed claim immunity, for example, over parking fees or fines which are not a tax and are a fee for the provision of a service. But of course nations like the USA, Japan, Germany, France etc do not do this. They pay these because they know it is a legal requirement.
And of course, City Hall knows that if they were to take just one C Charge diplomat offender to court in a test case, they would lose! And that of course is why both Mayors have simply postured over this and made politics, rather than taking legal action, or dealing with it soundly through altering the basis of the charge. It can be done, and indeed within the advice that diplomats have had there (apparently) exist the clues as to how…