This week revelations have sparked an explosive scandal: HSBC, the UK’s largest bank, has been caught facilitating industrial-scale tax evasion, committed by some of its wealthiest clients. This latest episode has yet again shone a light on the murky world of capitalism and exposed the Tory politicians who defend their rich fraudster friends.
This week revelations on BBC’s Panorama have sparked an explosive scandal: HSBC, the UK’s largest – and the world’s second largest – bank, has been caught facilitating industrial-scale tax evasion, committed by some of its wealthiest clients. Thousands of leaked bank account files obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the BBC, The Guardian and others show that between 2005 and 2007 the bank’s Swiss arm colluded with clients to conceal money and whole bank accounts from their respective domestic tax authorities, whilst also marketing aggressive tax avoidance schemes for its wealthiest customers. The accounts involved were worth an estimated $119bn.
In addition, the Swiss subsidiary has been found to have offered its services to so-called “high risk” clients (i.e. criminals), such as international arms traffickers, those connected with blood diamonds and bribery, and those with links to the toppled dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. It offered unconditional non-disclosure of its clients’ activities to national authorities, even though some of them had a track records of corruption and the bank had clear evidence that many accounts were undeclared to tax authorities.
High profile public figures are now facing tax-dodging allegations in connection with HSBC in Switzerland, including: King Abdullah II of Jordan, members of the Saudi, Bahrain and Omani royal families; musicians David Bowie, Tina Turner and Phil Collins; actors Christian Slater, Joan Collins and John Malkovich; several Formula One drivers, tennis player Marat Safin, model Elle MacPherson; and numerous business moguls, the late Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer among them. Three of the Saudi clients were also members of what US intelligence called the “Golden Chain”, a list of twenty names with close ties to former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Yet another banking disgrace
This story has caused an international news sensation and generated outrage from the British public; but it does not come as a surprise. HSBC’s criminal accounting in Switzerland is just the latest in the long line of repugnant banking crimes which have been uncovered since ordinary British taxpayers saved the banks in 2008.
HSBC itself has a precedent in the last three years. In July 2012, it was revealed that the bank’s US subsidiary had helped Mexican drug cartels, along with organisations and states on UN blacklists, to launder billions of dollars. $7bn had moved between the Mexico and US divisions of HSBC, while the bank’s staff themselves admitted that the majority was from drug-trafficking. In fact, HSBC’s anti-money laundering director testified that he thought “60% to 70% of laundered proceeds in Mexico” had gone through the bank! It was already being discussed in the US senate two-and-a-half years ago that HSBC was facilitating corrupt practices through its accounts, in particular in relation to criminal cartels and pariah states. The result? A $1.9bn slap on the wrist (amounting to less than 0.1% of the HSBC’s total assets) and the resignation of the bank’s head of compliance – no further action.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the Libor scandal broke in 2012, implicating a cartel of banks in the fraudulent manipulation of the average interest rate of London banks – a practice which the Financial Times claimed had been happening since 1991. And, in November last year, five of the world’s biggest banks – JP Morgan Chase, UBS, Citigroup, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and, once again, HSBC – were collectively fined $4.25bn by US, British and Swiss authorities for fixing foreign exchange rates. The scandal compelled Channel 4 Economics Editor Paul Mason to lament, as he stood outside RBS’ London headquarters, “Why do we have to keep coming [back here]?” The British banking system – along with rest of the capitalist establishment – seems embroiled in a never-ending series of scandals. In this case, again, no one was charged with any offence.
In fact, in the case of the current HSBC scandal, the French authorities intercepted the files in question from the IT expert who leaked them seven years ago, and they were passed onto the British government in 2010. In the five years since, only one out of the 1,100 wealthy British tax fraudsters has been charged! HSBC has never been prosecuted!
What is more, Hervé Falciani, the former HSBC employee who hacked customer accounts to leak these files, claimed this week: “This is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s more than [the thousands of pages] the journalists have. Several million transactions (between banks) are also in the documents I transmitted.
These figures could give an idea of what lies at the bottom of the iceberg.” Several hundred times what has been reported this week could be what lies at the bottom of this scandal. And this is only for one bank – one of the many which have been implicated in criminal activity over the last decade.
What this relatively small amount of evidence points to is the collusion of the global banking system, big business, wealthy individuals and the British government, among other governments and states, in the practice of money laundering and tax evasion on a colossal scale, beyond the wildest imaginations of the majority who are not part of this super-rich elite.
Government of the bankers, by the bankers, for the bankers
David Cameron would do well to recycle his campaign slogan from the last general election: “We’re all in it together.” This time maybe it wouldn’t ring so hollow; it would be very clear what he means. It is easy for most people to see that the Tory government, the banks and big business are all in it together, as they always have been. The Independent reported last week that 27 of the richest 59 hedge fund managers in Britain had donated a combined £19m to the Conservative Party, including £10m since 2010. These incredibly wealthy businessmen are essentially buying their say in the government’s policies, including their right to evade millions of pounds in taxes each year.
We have already seen this Tory government’s propensity for hiring criminals, as well as its ability to play down or cover up crimes in which it could be implicated, with the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Andy Coulson was editor of the News of the World until 2007, when he resigned amidst allegations of phone-hacking engulfed him before Cameron duly appointed him Downing Street Director of Communications. He has now been released early from prison after being convicted of phone-hacking, Downing Street’s fall guy as only thirteen others of the 104 arrested on suspicion of being involved in that highly-organised criminal operation were convicted. The rest got off scot-free, including David Cameron’s personal friend Rebekah Brooks.
Similarly, not only has this government failed to bring the perpetrators of this HSBC scandal to justice, but they employed as a Trade Minister the man who was Executive Chairman of HSBC Group from 2006 until 2010, for a whole eighteen months during the period the scandalous evidence was recorded. Lord Green, who was appointed a Tory life peer in 2010 and acted as Minister of State and Investment for two government departments between 2011 and 2013, has refused to make a statement since the scandal broke this week. He previously came under scrutiny when he was part of the government as the money laundering scandal involving HSBC’s US and Mexico subsidiaries broke in 2012. At the time he said that he “shared” in the “regret” that the bank professed to have, whilst also affirming how “proud” he was of his banking career.
Likewise, leading cabinet ministers have been thoroughly unrepentant this week over the government negligence involved in the scandal and the employment of Green. The Prime Minister himself jumped to Green’s defence on Monday, describing him as “an excellent Trade Minister”. He spent Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions shirking any blame the government deserved for having known about the scandal for five years and managing to keep the whole thing quiet whilst avoiding the prosecution of any of their wealthy friends.
And why would any of them repent? The line was drawn from the very beginning: this is the government of the financiers and big business, not of the people. Turning a blind eye as billions of pounds are swindled from the public purse is what these politicians are there to do; it is how they earn their £13m a year in private donations to the Tory party and cushy board positions after they retire from public life.
Indeed, in 2011 the government negotiated a deal with Switzerland apparently meant to “tackle offshore tax evasion”, which included immunity from prosecution for HSBC bankers. The man who brokered this deal, Dave Hartnett, at the time Permanent Secretary for Tax at HMRC, later stepped down from his post after being accused of making “sweetheart deals” with multinational firms, giving them huge tax cuts. In January 2013, he was then given a job as a special advisor at HSBC!
For workers’ control of the banks and big business!
Even if bank bosses are not fully aware that super-rich Saudis with direct links to Al-Qaeda or Mexican drug cartels have been laundering money through their accounts, or that more than $100bn went missing from tax revenues around the world in just three years, which is highly dubious, their negligence is born out of the system – a system that their friends in the Tory Party are there to defend. Their insatiable drive for profit, for broadening the quantity of assets at their disposal, the number of fingers they have in the number of pies, makes all other concerns incomparably secondary. HSBC bosses didn’t care who their Swiss bank was catering for, as long as the flow of capital was greater and they were getting richer. This is a symptom of the disease of capitalism: regulation can never be a priority where there are profits to be made.
Ed Miliband is right to draw attention to the Tories’ close ties with big business and the banking sector; Labour MPs are right to put questions about Lord Green to the Prime Minister. But if these things are to beyond the pantomime charades typical of Parliament then there must be calls for the nationalisation of the banks under democratic workers’ control. It has already been established that the ground swell of public opinion in Britain is in favour of re-nationalising rail and energy companies.
In the wake of these latest galling revelations there has never been a better opportunity to place this opinion on a concrete basis: to demand that the banks and their assets become property of the people; that account books are opened to the general public, and those found to have broken the law are brought to justice; and that the vast sums of wealth currently being withheld by these private institutions and individuals be taken into public ownership and reinvested in a better society for the majority to whom these scandals are completely alien and repulsive.