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Tax authority to expand probe into HSBC accounts

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Media captionHMRC chief executive Lin Homer was grilled about how information was handled

The UK tax authority will expand the scope of its investigation into Swiss tax accounts held with HSBC, the BBC has learned.

HMRC will meet with the police and the Serious Fraud Office later in the week.

The BBC's business editor, Kamal Ahmed, said the move to involve other law enforcement agencies represented a serious escalation of the matter.

Earlier, in an angry exchange, MPs accused tax officials of failing to deal with the matter adequately.

Top officials from HM Revenue & Customs were shouted down by MPs, angry at what they said was a lack of urgency in tackling the HSBC tax-dodging scandal.

Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, accused Lin Homer, HMRC chief executive, of a "pathetic response".

Ms Homer denied she had failed to take firm action against UK citizens hiding money in HSBC accounts in Geneva.

She said it was "absolutely not the case" she was failing the UK taxpayer.

Ms Homer, the chief executive of HMRC, explained why there had been only one prosecution of someone whose hidden accounts in Switzerland had been revealed.

She said that most of the information leaked via the French authorities in 2010, which involved about 3,600 UK individuals, was incomplete or "dirty" data.

Of these, 3,200 individuals had been traced and, of the 1,100 most serious cases - which HMRC had chosen to pursue - only 130 were now outstanding.

From the rest of those cases, £135m had been recovered, Ms Homer said.

"We were speedy and on the case," she told the MPs.

She explained that in fact, two-thirds of the total group of UK-based HSBC account holders "were found to be compliant" with UK tax rules, in some cases because they had non-dom status.

Furious interruptions

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mrs Hodge said tax officials had provided a "pathetic response"

In angry exchanges with the committee's chairwoman, Margaret Hodge, Ms Homer denied that she and HMRC had ignored information that had been offered to it as far back as 2008, or which had subsequently emerged in the public domain.

Struggling to deal with loud and persistent interruptions by the committee chairman and some of her colleagues, Ms Homer said: "There is no sense we ignored information."

Jennie Granger, a senior official at HMRC, rejected the idea that the UK tax authorities had ignored information offered to it in 2013 by media organisations such as the BBC's Panorama programme.

"We did look at it thoroughly," she said.

Rejecting the idea that HMRC was being slack compared to authorities in other countries, Ms Homer said that apart from Ireland, no other countries had launched any prosecutions or secured any convictions.

The supposed assurances given by HMRC enraged Mrs Hodge, who responded by shouting at Ms Homer.

She accused HMRC of a "pathetic response" in the face of the evidence from the HSBC files, which had been in HMRC's possession for five years.

HSBC's Swiss accounts in numbers

106,000

clients with Swiss bank accounts

203

countries involved

  • $118bn total assets held in Swiss accounts

  • 11,235 clients from Switzerland held $31.2bn

  • 9,187 clients from France held $12.5bn

  • 7,000 clients from UK held $21.7bn

Reuters

Mrs Hodge said that the tax authorities' apparently slow approach to dealing with the HSBC data had sent a out a "terrible message to British taxpayers", because it gave the impression that tax dodgers could get away with hiding money abroad with no real risk of prosecution.

Ms Homer and Ms Granger rejected this.

They told the committee that fining tax dodgers and reclaiming unpaid tax instead was the most effective route to recovering money, and that successful prosecutions depended on having sufficient evidence to meet a very high legal threshold, with a final prosecution decision lying with the Crown Prosecution Service.

Asked about whether or not it was planning to take action against HSBC bank itself, Ms Homer said HMRC would this week broaden the range of its enquiries and meet other UK authorities.

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