Britain’s biggest bank HSBC is accused of helping clients evade taxes after a massive cache of leaked files about secret Swiss bank accounts is published.
The documents were leaked by a whistleblower in 2007, and include information on almost 7,000 British clients.
Details of around 30,000 accounts holding around £78bn of assets have been revealed after they were obtained by French newspaper Le Monde.
In a joint investigation, the documents have now been passed to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Guardian, Panorama and more than 50 media outlets around the world.
More than 100,000 clients from around the world are reported to have used the offshore accounts to hide cash from the tax authorities.
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.
HM Revenue and Customs, which was passed the data in 2010, has faced criticism from MPs over its slow progress. There has only been one prosecution of a British tax evader to date – despite reports that the documents include details of over 7,000 British clients.
“You are left wondering, as you see the enormity of what has been going on, what it actually takes to bring a tax cheat to court,” Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the public accounts committee told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“If it had been a benefit cheat it would have been up for court years ago. Now we have had only one tax cheat taken before the British courts.”
HMRC has managed to claw back £135 million from some of the 3,600 Britons identified as potentially avoiding tax using the Geneva branch of HSBC.
We are never assertive enough, aggressive enough and I think just determined enough to actually protect the taxpayer Margaret Hodge MP
HSBC said that it had “implemented numerous initiatives designed to prevent its banking services being used to evade taxes or launder money”.
“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.
“This resulted in private banks, including HSBC’s Swiss private bank, having a number of clients that may not have fully met their applicable tax obligations.
“We have taken significant steps over the past several years to implement reforms and exit clients who did not meet strict new HSBC standards, including those where we had concerns in relation to tax compliance,” it said in a statement.