James Moore: The US Department of Justice is gunning for HSBC. Why aren't we?


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The Independent Online

The subject of tax is still proving to be taxing. On both sides of the Atlantic. On the other side, President Obama has just nominated Cono Namorato, a Washington lawyer, to serve as his top tax prosecutor.

He’ll face a confirmation hearing by the Senate (that won’t be much fun given that the Republicans are in charge), but assuming he clears it he will become assistant attorney general, overseeing the Department of Justice’s tax division. It has more than 300 criminal and civil lawyers handling investigation and litigation, including the ongoing scandal of what people and their banks have been getting up to in Switzerland.

The department has spent several years investigating HSBC’s Swiss unit and how it allegedly helped US citizens evade taxes. Several HSBC clients have been convicted of tax crimes. It is also gunning for HSBC the institution, as are the authorities in Belgium and France.

To date, there has been nothing to compare to that from the authorities in HSBC’s home country, the UK. Described (yet again) by its chairman Douglas Flint as “the best place for HSBC today” before the Treasury Committee. With the clear implication that it might not be tomorrow, which could very easily be read as a quite disgraceful threat to walk if people are too mean to the bank.

That might soon change, given that next week the first multi-agency meeting will be held, to discuss how to move forward with the information we have from the HSBC Swiss data leak that has exposed what the bank and some of its clients were up to in Switzerland. But there are no guarantees.

Lin Homer, the chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs, told the Treasury Committee that enforcement agencies like hers need a “variety of approaches” including a civil regime as well as the possibility of criminal prosecution for non compliance.

“What you need to do is pragmatically cover the ground,” Ms Homer said. She added that she was glad to live in a country where the evidential bar to succeed with a criminal prosecution is high. Which is fair enough. But one does wonder whether HMRC is putting a little too much emphasis on being pragmatic, particularly with HSBC.

Is that pragmatism perhaps one of the reasons HSBC thinks that the UK is the best place for it to be? At least for today...