HSBC facing criminal investigations in four countries, but no legal action in Britian
BRITAIN'S biggest bank, HSBC, helped wealthy customers dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars of assets, according to some of the contents of a huge trove of leaked account files about secret Swiss accounts.
Files obtained through an international collaboration of investigative journalists, including the Guardian and BBC, reveal that HSBC's Swiss subsidiary colluded with some clients to hide accounts from tax authorities in their home countries.
The files, which cover the period 2005-2007, amount to the biggest banking leak in history, shining a torch on 30,000 accounts holding almost $120bn (PS78bn) of assets.
Among those alleged to have been exposed as having accounts with the Swiss arm of HSBC are said to be politicians, sports stars and celebrities as well as criminals and traffickers.
HSBC said in a statement that they "acknowledge and are accountable for past compliance and control failures" and said that "although there are numerous legitimate reasons to have a Swiss bank account, in some cases individuals took advantage of bank secrecy to hold undeclared accounts."
While holding a secret bank account is not illegal, using them to deliberately conceal assets in order to dodge tax is against the law.
Tax authorities around the world have had confidential access to the files since 2010, but it is only now that the true nature of the bank's misconduct has been made public.
HSBC is already facing criminal investigations and charges in France, Belgium, the US and Argentina as a result of the leak of the files, but no legal action has been taken against it in Britain.
The BBC said the documents include details of almost 7,000 British clients.
HM Revenue and Customs, which was passed the data in 2010, has quietly recovered PS135m from some of the British citizens identified as potentially avoiding tax using the Geneva branch of HSBC.
But it has been criticised by MPs over its slow progress and the fact that there has only been one prosecution of an evader to date.
Shadow financial secretary to the treasury Cathy Jamieson said: "HMRC were made fully aware of these practices back in 2010. There are serious questions for the Chancellor to answer about why just one person out of over a thousand have been prosecuted in five years.
"And why the Government's Swiss tax deal has been such an embarrassing flop, raising a fraction of the amounts initially boasted of by ministers."
Picture courtesy of Elliot Brown