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MPs batter HSBC over tax evasion

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HSBC executives were yesterday accused by the Public Accounts Committee of consciously allowing the bank’s private Swiss arm to aid and abet tax evasion.

In fiery exchanges, Committee members said it defied belief that executives were unaware of the activities of the Swiss arm.

Stephen Hammond MP called former global private banking boss Chris Meares “wholly unreliable”; David Burrowes MP said the bank’s conduct amounted to “holding the telescope to the blind eye”, and believes that executives at a minimum “suspected was going on” in Switzerland; Committee chair Margaret Hodge said that chief executive Stuart Gulliver was either “completely and utterly incompetent” or “knew about it”.

Meares was repeatedly asked whether he accepted any degree of responsibility for the alleged widespread tax evasion that took place under his watch. While accepting responsibility for control failings that may have happened, he did not take “direct responsibility for individual actions of people in Switzerland that I was unaware of.”

Gulliver, who claimed that media innuendo had damaged the bank’s standing, was further targeted on the basis of his own guarded financial arrangements. Last month, it was revealed that he had moved over £5m in bonuses paid prior to 2003 into a Swiss bank via a holding company based in Panama. Gulliver maintained that there was no tax advantage to the arrangement, and it merely served to keep the size of his bonus private.

However, Hodge responded with scepticism, saying Gulliver’s defence “stretches the imagination a little”, and that it was likely the arrangement was used for reasons other than secrecy. He rebuffed the committee’s prompts to resign.

Trouble is also brewing for HSBC in Latin America at present; the Argentinian tax authority has demanded HSBC hand over an estimated £2.3b, which the authority believes was sheltered offshore by the bank on behalf of Argentinian clients.



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