HM Revenue & Customs is embroiled in fresh controversy after the publication of an email that it received offering details of UK-linked Swiss accounts – some used to evade tax – two years before it finally obtained them from the French authorities on terms that limited their use.
It came as the Bank of England warned HSBC that it could face trouble from at least one of its UK-based regulators over the affair. “The allegations around HSBC raise serious issues around HSBC’s conduct,” said Sir Jon Cunliffe, the deputy governor who is responsible for financial stability.
The French newspaper Le Monde published a copy of what it said was the email sent by whistleblower Hervé Falciani, who spirited the data out of Switzerland, where he had been working on an IT upgrade at HSBC’s private bank.
Sent from the address firstname.lastname@example.org, it was headlined “tax evasion: client list available”.
It said [sic]: “I have the whole list of one of the world top five private bank. 1/This bank is based in Switzerland 2/I’m also granted access to the Information System”.
A similar email was said to have been sent to the Foreign Office, which has said it has no record of its receipt.
HMRC’s chief executive, Lin Homer, came under sustained fire at a hearing of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) earlier this week over a perceived lack of action in response to the data.
When asked if she knew of the 2008 offer, Ms Homer said she was “not aware of” the email. MPs also rounded on the agency for securing just a single conviction out of around 3,000 names, and for recovering just £135m in unpaid tax, less than the French or Spanish authorities.
In its most recent statement, HMRC said: “As the French Finance Minister confirmed, there were strict conditions under the terms of the agreement about the use of the HSBC Swiss data that the French tax authority shared with HMRC.
“Our records show that, since 2010, we have asked the French on several occasions for permission to use the data for purposes wider than tax purposes, eg money laundering, but until recently had not received their agreement.
“As the data is now in the public domain, they have confirmed that they will provide all assistance necessary to us.”
HSBC has admitted failures in compliance and controls at its Swiss unit, which was allegedly used to hide assets from tax authorities across Europe up to 2007.
The bank has also said it has changed its systems and cut back its Swiss operations.
The Independent understands the scale of the controversy in this country has taken senior figures within HSBC aback, as they had felt the story’s main impact would be in France. Further revelations from the leaked files showed the Swiss private bank dealt with alleged drug-runners, arms dealers and bankers accused of looting funds from former Soviet states.
HSBC’s former chairman, Lord Green, has been called before the PAC, while the Treasury Select Committee, headed by Andrew Tyrie, intends to grill other senior executives at the bank, including Douglas Flint, now chairman but previously the finance director.Reuse content