Spreading the Web: The Extent of HSBC’s Tax Evasion Scandal

Like a neutrino bomb on the landscape of banking, regulation and journalism, the HSBC tax evasion story via its Swiss subsidiary keeps spreading with devastating effect – at least for those whose careers concern it.  According to investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed, who managed to get hold of rather golden whistleblower material from Nicholas Wilson, a “conspiracy of silence” has characterised the treatment of HSBC within the regulatory community, law-enforcement authorities and the media generally.

Wilson, a former debt recovery specialist at Weightmans solicitors, revealed to Ahmed how “Britons have been defrauded of a total of one billion pounds worth of money” by the banking giant.  What Wilson exposed was a range of improprieties which seem to have been habitual in the HSBC modus operandi.

There have been links to financing involving Islamic terrorist groups.  There have been links to money-laundering and drugs. There were illegal impositions of collection fees on consumer debt.  The bank has truly given substance to Berthold Brecht’s famous assertion in The Threepenny Opera that robbing a bank is far less significant a crime than founding one.

The persistent whistleblower is determined to see HSBC account in some way, despite the constipation of local authorities to do the same.  Lawyers and officials are staying off the HSBC wick.  In February, an undeterred Wilson launched a crowdfunding campaign to gather funds for a legal prosecution of HSBC for fraud and conspiracy to defraud.  He seeks to raise £100,000 by April 17 to cover legal costs, which he will sorely need.

Prior to the Wilson bomb, the bank was very much in the middle of it with another stash of whistleblower data.  In 2008, Hervé Falciani left Switzerland, heading to France furnished with the account details of over 100,000 customers of the Geneva branch of HSBC.  Falciani had worked there as a systems engineer.  It proved to be a Snowden-like heist of valuable information, pilfered to expose a range of transactions that would make the reader’s jaw drop.

Between 2005 and 2007, internal emails covering undeclared client funds, whole wads of cash being dispensed to account holders, and a range of other activities, were discussed (The Economist, February 15).  Caught in the act, tax evaders claimed no impropriety in massive withdrawals that somehow eluded the clutches of the suits at inland revenue.

What the revelations pointed to was that, while several countries have been rather active in pursuing tax evasion, Britain has been conspicuously lagging. The French seem to be taking the lead, and in hot pursuit, Belgium, Spain and Argentina.  British-held accounts in the files may have been “ripe for investigation”, numbering some 6,000, but a mere $230m in tax, interest and penalties has been recouped. This constitutes a meagre 1% of the estimated total (The Economist, February 15).

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, recently parried questions about conversations he had been having with HSBC’s former boss, Stephen Green (The Guardian, March 4).  Did the issue of tax evasion come across the lips of both men at any stage?  Lord Green had been appointed as a Conservative trade minister in 2011, a date that only assumes significance because it came after the first round of allegations were fired at the bank over tax evasion of well-moneyed HSBC clients in Switzerland.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Osborne made a stab at cleaning the slate, suggesting that the relevant tax evasion charges were matters of current, not past, interest.  “The information that has been published recently has only recently come to light.  Until that point the allegations had been that individuals with bank accounts at HSBC had been evading tax and HMRC was, rightly, investigating it. The new information is that, potentially, the allegation is that HSBC Suisse colluded in this – this is new information.”

The trees of journalistic integrity have also been withered in light of the tax evasion revelations.

Take, for instance, the Telegraph, a paper that seemed somewhat mute on the subject of covering the fact that HSBC had been engaged in systematic tax evasion for some time.

Seasoned journalist Peter Oborne revealed how corporate interests came before editorial grit.  The Telegraph’s fuming counter has been predictable, taking aim at “the BBC, the Guardian and their ideological soulmates in the Labour party.” Revealingly enough, the paper claimed that it had “covered these matters as we do all others, according to our editorial judgment and informed by our values.”

Even The Guardian can’t throw too many stones of accusation here at such informed values.  Owen Jones, writing in the wake of Oborne’s resignation, spoke of the paper being “unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul.” The assertion, as Ahmed notes, is false, given that, in 2008, it was replaced by a limited company that functions on standard profitmaking principles. Read into that the fact that the Guardian Media Group actually speaks of “sponsorship deals with partners such as HSBC, Netflix and Airbnb” and we do have a discomforting proximity between naughty bank and careful, side-stepping reporter.  The paper’s US adventure, it should be noted, has profited considerably because of the HSBC link.

Tax evaders have also gotten away scot-free, while actress Emma Thompson and fellow thespian husband Greg Wise have decided to launch a moral crusade that amounts to the same premise many of HSBC clients seek to uphold: tax evasion.  “I want to stop paying tax,” suggested Wise, “until everyone pays tax.”  Russell Brand has happily joined them in this contrived act of civil non-paying disobedience. “Yes, Emma Thomson [sic] and Greg Wise!  In unity!  Let’s stop paying out taxes and mortgages.”

Wilson doesn’t have the same luxury to express such moral outrage via the wallet, facing the indecency of no employment for having “breached confidential information”.  Every potential employer, from call centre to the Financial Ombudsman Service, fear him.

What is the time honoured approach in dealing with corporate misdemeanour and crime? Praise the company responsible for it, while suggesting a bit of house tidying before the vigilant tax man.  The Tory approach here, though in this they have been historically joined by New Labour, continues the traditional line of avoiding any roughing up of accounts connected with corporate giants – or their customers.

For Osborne, Britain’s success was bound up with HSBC’s performance.  “So we want the bank to deal with these problems, to deal with the legacy of the past and have a bright and successful future and we mustn’t entirely ignore the fact that Britain does need successful and strong companies going forward.”  You can’t keep, a good bankster down.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.