James Moore: Are more skeletons about to drop out of the HSBC closet?

Even when staff knew of problems, they were only allowed to raise them with immediate bosses

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The Independent Online

Outlook The knives are out for Stephen Green, the former HSBC boss and trade minister, who has become the most high-profile target for MPs in the wake of the latest revelations about the dealings of the bank’s Swiss unit with wealthy clients looking to avoid – and evade – tax.

Lord Green was running HSBC during some of the Swiss shenanigans. But how much personal responsibility should he take? Isn’t this rather like asking the mayor of Norwich to know that Mrs Miggins’ son, Tommy, has been out late with his spray can in a vain attempt to emulate Banksy?

During Lord Green’s time at the top of HSBC, it was almost easier to name the countries it did not have an operation of some kind in, than those in which it did.

Even now that it has brought the curtain down on its self-defeating policy of flag planting – and sold upwards of 50 businesses – it still employs more than a quarter of a million people.

Martin Wheatley, the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, had the right of it when he told MPs on the Treasury Committee that “frankly, the chief executives don’t know about the skeletons in their organisations”.

This may have been one of those cases. The Swiss unit’s status as a hub for intentional tax avoidance – and perhaps much worse – was likely discussed and approved at a much lower level. Lord Green may have seen a spread sheet with some good looking numbers on it, and nodded his head in approval, but that’s about it before it was time to move on to the more pressing matters thrown up by a truly vast organisation.

Too vast? Now that’s the question. While I might question whether Lord Green bears any personal responsibility for the actions of his Tommy Miggins, unlike our Norwich mayor he did oversee, and had the power to influence, a structure in which this, and many other problems, were able to flourish. A structure which perhaps made them inevitable.

I have spoken to former HSBC people who have told me even when they knew of problems, they were only allowed to  raise them with their immediate bosses. Who themselves could only move them one further rung up the corporate ladder. Their running into a blockage at some level was therefore all but inevitable. Which led to situations like that in Switzerland, or those in Mexico which contributed to a $1.5bn US fine over money laundering allegations.

Lord Green will now have to defend his oversight of that structure.

His successors, meanwhile, have to prove that they’ve fixed them. If the revelations from a former HSBC compliance officer are to be believed, they’re not there yet.

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