Seventeen British envoys avoided trial for serious crimes last year

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Indy Politics

Seventeen British diplomats got off scot-free after being accused of serious offences including serious assault abroad last year by claiming diplomatic immunity.

Each was accused of an offence which could have cost them at least a year in jail if they had not been protected by their diplomatic status. The allegations included serious assault, where the victims suffered injuries, and drunken driving in Muslim countries where alcohol is illegal.

Complaints raised with the British authorities included two allegations that British staff had committed assaults causing actual bodily harm, one in Jordan and the other in Saudi Arabia.

Another British diplomat was arrested while allegedly driving under the influence of drink in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is strictly banned. Other allegations of drunken driving were raised against diplomats in Egypt, Lebanon, Angola, Ghana, Peru and Russia.

A diplomat in South Africa was arrested for theft, robbery of a motor vehicle, and driving without insurance. Another, in Turkey, was accused of dangerous driving, and there were allegations of shoplifting against British diplomats in six countries: Algeria; Cameroon; Ivory Coast; Egypt; Equatorial Guinea and Zambia.

The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who disclosed the figures in a written statement to the Commons, pointed out that the offenders were fewer than one in a thousand of the UK's total overseas diplomatic corps. The Foreign Office employs a total of 23,000 Britons abroad who are entitled to claim diplomatic immunity.

Mrs Beckett also revealed a new milestone in the longstanding row between the US ambassador in London, Robert Tuttle, and the city's Mayor, Ken Livingstone. In July last year, Mr Tuttle told the embassy staff not to pay the London congestion charge, which he claims is a tax. Mr Livingstone says that it is a charge, which staff from other embassies pay without argument.

Mrs Beckett's announcement yesterday revealed that the amount of fines for non-payment of the congestion charge owed by the Americans had now passed the £1m mark. The embassy has run up 10,485 fines totalling £1,016,200. The second biggest offender is the Angolan embassy, which has accumulated £543,300 in fines.

There are also unpaid fines for parking violations and other minor traffic offences owed by a long list of foreign embassies in the capital. The United Arab Emirates embassy tops the list, with 441 unpaid fines, totalling £542,950.

Mrs Beckett revealed that foreign embassies in London owed a combined total of £850,000 in rates, with a dozen embassies owing more than £10,000 each. The biggest debtor is Algeria, which owes almost £60,000.

Mr Livingstone urged the American diplomats to obey British law. He said: "The US embassy claims that the charge is a tax from which diplomats are exempt. They are entitled to their opinion but it is for the British authorities to decide what is a tax and what is not a tax in the UK. The US embassy benefits from the reduction in congestion. The US government rightly expects diplomats in Washington to respect US law; we are entitled to expect US diplomats living in London to respect British law."