Ex-spy boss Sir Jonathan Evans to help HSBC in fight against financial crime

Bank hires former head of MI5 to clean up its act after being fined by US authorities

It sounds like a plot from a novel by Dame Stella Rimington: bank hires former spymaster to help catch sinister international criminals blamed for damaging its reputation.

Except that this is a true story. HSBC has hired one of Dame Stella’s successors as chief spymaster at MI5 in the form of Sir Jonathan Evans.

Sir Jonathan has been appointed to help Britain’s biggest bank to clean up its act after US authorities fined it nearly $2bn (£1.3bn) for acting as a conduit for Mexican drug money and sanctions busting.

He will earn £125,000 for serving on HSBC’s Financial System Vulnerabilities Committee as well as joining its board as a non-executive director. The fee for the part-time roles compares to the £159,999 he was paid for his role at the head of Britain’s domestic spy agency in 2010, which was the last time it revealed his salary.

Sir Jonathan will put in 36 days a year for his work on the board, plus an unspecified number of extra days sitting on the committee, which will meet at least eight times a year.

The committee was set to help the bank identify areas where it could be exposed to financial crime, as HSBC battles to restore a reputation that was badly tarnished by the Americans’ findings.

Banks are increasingly being asked to take a leading role in the battle against financial crime, by spotting suspicious activity and alerting the authorities when they see it. Those that fail to take that role seriously can expect to be heavily penalised.

HSBC avoided criminal charges from the US Department of Justice only by signing a deferred prosecution agreement but was placed on probation for five years, and it is now operating on a very short lead with US authorities.

In response, it has increased the control the centre of the organisation has over its far-flung businesses, and sold subsidiaries in numerous “peripheral” territories.

Announcing the appointment yesterday, HSBC chairman Douglas Flint said that Sir Jonathan’s expertise would “be of considerable value to the board as it addresses its governance of systemic threats”.

The bank’s critics put a less flattering spin on the hire. David Hillman, spokesman for the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, which wants banks to be charged a financial transactions tax, said: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who used to work in the shadows has been recruited by a sector that often operates in them. If a bank looking to clean up its act expects the appointment of a spy to do the trick, then they have another thing coming.”

Colleagues of Sir Jonathan on the committee include former deputy US attorney general Jim Comey, Bill Hughes, a former head of Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, and Dave Hartnett, the controversial former head of HM Revenue & Customs.

Other banks have made similarly high-profile hires as they seek to clean up their acts in the wake of the a string of scandals. Barclays appointed Hector Sants, the former chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, as its head of compliance and government relations, while Royal Bank of Scotland made Jon Pain, another former senior watchdog, its compliance chief.

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