Tony Blair's handshake with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in March may have signalled a historic thaw in relations with Libya, but the small matter of a large traffic fine is threatening to mar Britain's burgeoning diplomatic friendship with the north African state.
Libyan diplomats in London have refused to pay more than £34,000 in traffic fines and are being chased by the Foreign Office to settle their bills. Despite a formal demand to pay up, they have 365 traffic fines outstanding from last year.
Colonel Gaddafi's diplomatic cars are not the only ones with unpaid tickets on the dashboard. Saudi Arabia, the wealthy Middle-eastern kingdom, has more than £24,000 in parking fines to pay to the authorities. According to figures released by the Foreign Office, the Saudi embassy also owes £14,400 in unpaid rates on its diplomatic properties.
The scale of outstanding fines has irritated the Foreign Office, which says it is wrong for foreign diplomats in the UK to use their immunity as an excuse to break the traffic laws.
The Foreign Office is now trying to persuade diplomatic missions to adhere to the terms of the Vienna Convention, which says that although representatives of foreign powers enjoy diplomatic immunity they should obey the laws of the country in which they live.
The fines, said to include speeding offences and parking on double yellow lines, are part of more than £350,000 in outstanding traffic fines the Government is trying to collect.
A government statement released yesterday shows that the congestion charge is also being ignored by foreign missions based in London, with more than 1,800 fines awaiting payment. Egyptian diplomats in London have 250 outstanding congestion charge fines while the United Arab Emirates has 182. The Sudanese government has managed to collect 81 unpaid fines while Kazakhstan's diplomats have 84.
Foreign Office sources admit they are facing an uphill battle with the diplomatic limousines.
Last year the diplomats, who are mainly based in London, accrued £750,000 of parking fines, but the Foreign Office only managed to collect £407,000, despite sending begging letters "to all affected diplomatic missions and international organisations" in May this year.
It gave the diplomats the chance to pay the fines or appeal against them, but more than 50 missions have ignored the pleas. Now, in frustration, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has published a list "naming and shaming" the guilty missions to try to embarrass them into paying their fines.
The worst diplomatic drivers in London, after Libya and Saudi Arabia, are from Nigeria, Georgia, China, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Egypt and Ghana, all of whom have over 100 outstanding fines. But Greece has 94 unpaid fines, worth more than £8,000, while Russia has 75, worth almost £7,000.
Poland, a new entrant to the European Union, owes Britain more than £2,000 in parking fines, while Belgium has failed to pay £1,600 in bills.
Even the US, Britain's closest ally, has 14 fines worth £1,310 outstanding.
But traffic offences pale in comparison to the level of unpaid non-domestic rates payable on buildings owned by diplomatic missions. Almost £1m is due from countries including China, Senegal, Uganda and Bangladesh.Reuse content