Senior HSBC executives, including the BBC Trust chair, Rona Fairhead, have been ordered to appear before MPs for a fresh hearing on the bank’s Swiss operation.
The public accounts committee, chaired by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, has requested evidence at a hearing next Monday from a group of executives including the chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, the former head of HSBC’s global private banking division Chris Meares, and Fairhead, the former chair of the bank’s audit committee and current chair of its North American division.
Gulliver and Meares have confirmed their appearance before the committee, but at the time of publication, Fairhead had not.
All three are likely to face further questions on the extent of their knowledge of HSBC activities revealed by the Guardian, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Le Monde and others as the HSBC files.
Notably absent from the committee’s witness list was former HSBC chief executive and chairman Lord (Stephen) Green, who went on to serve for three years as a Conservative minister in the current government.
Green, who was in charge of the global bank during the time covered by the HSBC files, has yet to make a public appearance or statement on his knowledge or role of any of the Swiss bank activities. He was also not called to a previous hearing by the treasury select committee.
It has been reported that there is speculation in Westminster that Conservatives are eager to keep Green from attending a select committee hearing. Both David Cameron and George Osborne have declined to answer questions in parliament as to whether they ever discussed the HSBC Swiss documents with Green.
The reporting set out evidence of HSBC’s Swiss bank handing out bricks of cash to clients, setting up structures to help wealthy clients avoid tax, knowingly operating undeclared accounts, and providing banking services to those embroiled in allegations of corruption and money laundering, and to friends and families of dictators.
Gulliver issued a public apology from the bank through advertisements in the Sun, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times – though not the Guardian. In an extensive statement, the bank outlined the steps it had taken to change how it operates since the period covered by the disclosures.
Fairhead declined to respond to detailed queries from the Guardian on what she knew about the bank’s activities through her role heading its audit committee, which oversees compliance across the global bank.
The PAC also intends to hear evidence from current and former senior officials at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who led the UK investigation into the files since receiving them a week before the 2010 general election.
The committee has called Edward Troup, HMRC’s second permanent secretary and tax assurance commissioner, and Dave Hartnett, the former permanent secretary for tax who has taken a consultancy role with HSBC’s financial system vulnerabilities committee since leaving HMRC.
Hartnett has faced questions from the Guardian and others about his awareness and involvement in the agency’s handling of the HSBC documents, including what was discussed at a February 2010 meeting with the bank.
He has previously said that he had no hands-on involvement with the case, and declined to discuss the meeting. Hartnett’s appearance at the committee is not yet confirmed.
Troup had been due to appear at a PAC hearing last month, but was removed from the witness list at short notice, leading to testy exchanges between Hodge and the HMRC chief executive, Lin Homer, who has not been asked to appear at the fresh hearing.
Speaking to the treasury select committee last week, the HSBC chairman, Douglas Flint, appeared to lay the blame for the bank’s shortcomings in its Swiss operation with senior executives in the private banking group, including Meares and Clive Bannister, having said they “certainly bear fairly direct responsibility for what went on in the private bank during their stewardship”.
He also distanced the bank’s senior management in the UK from the Swiss arm.
“Most accountable, I think, are the management in Switzerland. It’s very difficult for people outside Switzerland to get any access to the detailed account-level information in Switzerland,” he said. “That’s something only the management on the ground can have access to for all the privacy and secrecy reasons.”
At that same hearing, Gulliver faced questions about his own offshore arrangements, which had included claiming non-domicile status, being employed through a Dutch subsidiary of HSBC, and being the beneficiary of both a Panama corporate structure and a Swiss bank account.
Gulliver told the committee that the structures were intended to protect his privacy and garnered him no tax benefit.
“I can understand how people find these kind of arrangements unusual and rather strange,” he said.
This article was written by James Ball, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd March 2015 13.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010