SA diplomats duck UK fines

2010-06-29 22:15

Johannesburg - South African diplomatic staff owe more than R6.8m in unpaid traffic congestion charges to the British government, according to a list available on that country's parliamentary website on Tuesday.

In response to questions submitted to the House of Commons, the British Foreign Office revealed that 57 diplomatic missions owed more than £100 000 (about R1.1m) each in traffic congestion charge fines.

South Africa's diplomatic staff alone racked up 6333 fines for not paying the charge since its introduction in February 2003.

The charge aims to reduce congestion and emissions by encouraging people to use public transport instead of cars in parts of the busy capital.

Motorists or residents pay £8 (about R91) a day in advance to drive through designated areas. A closed circuit television system monitors the number plates of vehicles in those areas and records whether the fee has been paid. Those who have not paid are fined £120.

Paying within 14 days of the fine halves the amount. The charge accumulates according to how long it has gone unpaid and eventually bailiff's fees are added.

The fees and the fines go towards upgrading the city's transport infrastructure.

The British government raised more than £137m (about R1.5bn) for the financial year 2007/8 while at the same time reducing the number of cars on the designated roads by about 70 000 a day.

21 parking fines

On the list of countries owing more than £100 000, South Africa came second to Tanzania, which had accumulated 7 203 unpaid congestion charge fines amounting to £753 520.

Zambia had 3 355 fines outstanding, Zimbabwe 3 038, Mauritius 2 370, Namibia 2 362, Swaziland 2 267, Mozambique 2 035, Lesotho 1 927 and Botswana 1 623.

South Africa did not feature on the list of countries owing more than £10 000 (about R114 000) in national non-domestic rates bills (NNDR), the charge for maintaining services such as street cleaning, lighting, maintenance and fire services.

According to the reply by Foreign Secretary William Hague, the majority of diplomatic missions in Britain pay the NNDR requested from them, but at April 1, and after a gentle reminder by letter, the list of missions owing more than £10 000 was topped by Bangladesh which owed £80 612 (about R919 000).

Eight of the 12 countries listed were African, with South Africa's economically challenged neighbour Zimbabwe owing £93 414 (about R1 064 980).

South Africa's diplomatic staff also accumulated 21 unpaid parking fines last year amounting to £2 060 (about R23 485).

Also on the list were the United States, with 26, France with 118, Russia with 162 and Germany with 29. Kazakhstan had failed to pay 1 399 fines.

Diplomatic staff enjoy immunity from prosecution in terms of the Vienna Convention and this means they also do not have to pay certain taxes.

Criminal diplomats

However, the British government and the company that runs the congestion charges scheme reject the argument by some diplomatic staff that the charge is a form of tax, preferring to liken it to a highway toll.

Foreign secretary William Hague also listed diplomats who had been apprehended for crimes, but who were immune from prosecution.

In 2005, one person from the South African diplomatic corps was apprehended for theft and robbery of a motor vehicle and driving without insurance.

In 2006, one person from the South African diplomatic corps was apprehended for attempted robbery, one for robbery, and one for driving under the influence of alcohol.

In 2007, one case of domestic assault was recorded. No other criminal incidents were recorded as committed by South African diplomatic staff after that.

Some of the incidents recorded for 2009 by other countries included "neglect of a young person" (Cameroon), shoplifting (Gambia), human trafficking (Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone), and driving under the influence of alcohol (one person each from Brazil, Germany, Russia, Tanzania, USA, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, and the International Maritime Organisation).