Around 7,000 British clients are believed to be among 30,000 accounts, holding almost £78 billion of assets, whose details have been leaked to a group of media outlets by an IT worker and analysed by a team of journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Holding a secret bank account is not illegal but they have allegedly been used by some to deliberately conceal assets in order to dodge tax, which is against the law.
“HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channelled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws,” the ICIJ reported.
Some details of such operations were disclosed previously, when HSBC was fined in 2012 by the US for allowing criminals to use its branches for money laundering. However, yesterday’s report discloses a more detailed cache of data and information.
Tax authority HMRC, which was passed the data in 2010, has clawed back £135 million from some of the 3,600 Britons identified as potentially avoiding tax using the Geneva branch of HSBC.
However, only one prosecution has been brought. 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.
The chair of Westminster’s public accounts committee warned the former chief of HSBC must face serious questions following the news. Margaret Hodge said that Stephen Green, HSBC’s former chief executive, was either “asleep at the wheel, or he did know and he was therefore involved in dodgy tax practices”.
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Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “I think this is a very serious situation and the government has some serious questions to answer.
“We need to know why HMRC apparently did not act, apart from at the margins, on the information that they seem to have been given about what was going on.
“We need to know from the government why they appointed Stephen Green of HSBC as a trade minister well after this information was passed to HMRC.
“We cannot have a country where tax avoidance is allowed to carry on and where government just turns a blind eye.”
The bank said that since the period in question, it had “implemented numerous initiatives designed to prevent its banking services being used to evade taxes or launder money” and insisted it was “co-operating” with the authorities.