Tax Avoidance (HSBC)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 9th February 2015.

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Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:34 pm, 9th February 2015

I welcome the opportunity to respond to this question and to the information released today in respect of an HSBC subsidiary’s involvement in facilitating tax evasion during the course of the previous Parliament.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a long-standing approach to tax evasion that is based on collecting the tax and interest due, changing taxpayers’ behaviour to discourage them from evading in future, and enforcing the most appropriate and effective penalties. Overwhelmingly, this means providing disclosure facilities to encourage tax evaders to sort out their affairs, backed by civil penalties to fine them for the offence. This has been the consistent approach under Governments of all parties. This Government have supported HMRC’s approach by increasing investment in its enforcement capacity and by strengthening its powers, including increasing the maximum fines for hiding money in tax havens to 200% of the tax evaded.

This approach has been very successful in tackling tax evasion, whether by plumbers, barristers and medics in the UK or by the wealthy hiding money in offshore accounts. HMRC has collected more than £1.6 billion from 57,000 disclosures as a result of a wide range of UK and international initiatives. Internationally, since 2010, HMRC has brought in about £2 billion in previously unpaid tax as a result of the UK’s agreement with Switzerland on a withholding tax on Swiss bank accounts, and the international Liechtenstein disclosure facility. In a small number of cases, HMRC will institute criminal investigations into serial tax evaders and those who deliberately conceal information from it, but in most cases disclosure and civil fines are the most appropriate and effective intervention. That is how HMRC has approached the receipt of data from leaks and whistleblowers, including the Swiss HSBC data that were shared with the department in May 2010.

Using the civil disclosure approach, HMRC has systematically worked through all the HSBC data that it has received and has brought in more than £135 million in tax, interest and penalties from tax evaders who hid their assets in Swiss HSBC accounts. HMRC received data from about 6,800 entities, and that, after removing duplication, resulted in information on 3,600 businesses and individuals. Of those cases, over 1,000 were challenged and the cases were settled. HMRC believes that the remainder are compliant but continues to monitor their activities.

HMRC is examining whether it has all the same data that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has, and that we have seen reported today, and it will be asking the ICIJ for any data that we have not already been given. HMRC received the HSBC data under very strict conditions that limited the department’s use of it to pursuing offshore tax evasion and prevented HMRC from sharing the data with other law enforcement authorities. Under these restrictions, HMRC has not been able to seek prosecution for other potential offences such as money laundering. However, the French authorities have today confirmed that they will provide all assistance necessary to allow HMRC to exploit the data to their fullest.

HMRC’s powers to crack down on international evasion are being further strengthened by the new international common reporting standards, which more than 90 countries have agreed to as an extra tool for closing down the options for tax cheats to pursue this increasingly high-risk practice. This has been as a consequence, in part, of the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the G8. This is further evidence of progress made by this Government—[Interruption.]