British bank HSBC has admitted failings by its Swiss subsidiary, following media reports it helped wealthy customers dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars of assets. Ciara Lee reports.
It's been called the biggest banking leak in history - accusations that HSBC helped wealthy clients to dodge tax. Thousands of accounts at the world's second biggest bank reportedly show the lender's Swiss private banking arm offered deals to help tax dodgers stay one step ahead of the law. . The documents were downloaded by the bank's former employee, computer expert Herve Falciani in 2007. Investigations into the files were published at the weekend by media outlets in 45 countries. Fabrice Lhomme is a journalist at French newspaper Le Monde. (SOUNDBITE) (French) JOURNALIST AT LE MONDE, FABRICE LHOMME, SAYING: "The bank not only turned a blind eye, accepting money of a sometimes dubious origin, which was in any case hidden from national tax authorities." Allegations include clients being allowed to withdraw "bricks" of cash, often in foreign currencies, colluding to conceal undeclared accounts, and marketing tax avoidance schemes. HSBC has admitted failings by its Swiss subsidiary. But it says the country's private banking industry, known for its secrecy, has since undergone radical transformation. James Bevan is from CCLA. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHIEF INVESTMENT OFFICER AT CCLA INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT, JAMES BEVAN, SAYING: "These issues are of course deeply damaging to the premise that banks are to be trusted. But on the other hand these are events that stretch back to 2007. We know that the number of clients within HSBC Swiss Bank have fallen by around 70 percent since then and I fully expect that HSBC has put its house in order." The files reportedly contain details of more than 100,000 wealthy clients in more than 200 hundred countries. Several have launched formal investigations. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHIEF INVESTMENT OFFICER AT CCLA INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT, JAMES BEVAN, SAYING: "I think that international tax is one of the most significant issues to the global economy right now. Everybody needs to be pulling their weight, and clearly there are large numbers of entities and individuals who are seeking to avoid tax through arbitrage in terms of where they live and how they account." Catching tax dodgers has been a top priority for European governments. Switzerland has charged Falciani with industrial espionage and breaching the country's secrecy laws. He says he was just trying to help governments at a time when many need all the economic help they can get.