Lord Green, the man who headed HSBC during the period when its Swiss bank helped wealthy customers dodge millions in tax, said he was “plainly not” asleep at the wheel in fresh extracts from his first public comments since the scandal broke.
Channel 4 News has published further details of an interview obtained after the broadcaster confronted Green during a lecture on banking ethics at a City of London church on Wednesday night.
Green, a Tory peer and ordained Church of England minister, argued that the bank he ran from 2003 to 2010 was one of the strongest in the country. “HSBC was the company that was a tower of strength in the crisis. It never took taxpayer money. It continued to pay its taxes and its dividends. It was supporting the markets through difficult periods of 07-08. Does that sound like being asleep? Plainly not.”
When the Guardian first published details of undeclared accounts and a revolving door of customers collecting bricks of cash from HSBC’s Geneva branch, Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, accused Green of either being “asleep at the wheel” or of being involved in “dodgy tax practice”. Until Wednesday night, Green had declined to respond. He left HSBC with a £19m pension pot after seven years as chief executive and then chairman of the bank, but has refused all interviews and avoided appearing alongside other HSBC managers and directors during hearings by two separate parliamentary select committees.
Green played a leading role in building HSBC’s private banking operations in Geneva and around the world. He was the board member responsible for private banking from 1998, and was afforded an even closer view as chair of the Swiss bank’s holding company from 2005 until he left in December 2010.
David Cameron and his ministers have steadfastly refused to answer questions on whether they discussed tax evasion at HSBC Suisse with Green before or after he joined the Conservative benches in the House of Lords in November 2010. The tax office, HMRC, received a copy of the leaked files that exposed wrongdoing at the Swiss bank as early as April 2010.
In unbroadcast extracts from an interview filmed on a mobile phone in the parish church of St Michael’s Cornhill, Green was asked by Channel 4 correspondent Alex Thomson: “Margaret Hodge … said: either you were incompetent because you didn’t know it was happening and so you were asleep on the job. Or the opposite – you knew it was going on and you were deeply involved in dodgy and indeed illegal tax avoidance and evasion?”
Green replied: “As my colleagues plainly have said to both the select committee hearings, they did not know what went into these files and their contents. And certainly does that follow that we fell asleep? Certainly not. This is a large, broad, complex company with a major series of activities. And I might remind you it’s in the middle of a financial crisis.
“And HSBC was the company that was a tower of strength in the crisis. It never took taxpayer money. It continued to pay its taxes and its dividends. It was supporting the markets through difficult periods of 07-08. Does that sound like being asleep? Plainly not.”
George Osborne on Thursday refused to comment on whether Green would have been punished under new measures introduced in his 2015 Budget to deter evasion. The chancellor has announced what he called “tough new criminal powers” to punish avoiders and the advisers that profit from helping wealthy customers hide their money.
Asked whether Green would have been caught under the new measures, Osborne told the BBC’s Today Programme: “Of course I’m not going to discuss an individual. You are perfectly fairly repeating some of the very serious allegations that have been made about HSBC Swiss. One of the things we are doing today is saying if you are a bank that is helping people to evade their taxes, then you face criminal charges and you face very heavy fines … Most well-off people of course pay their taxes but the few who avoid their taxes or evade their taxes in the way I have described – we are coming after them.”
Green has written and lectured extensively on business ethics. In his 2009 book GoodValue: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World, he said company directors should carry the can for failings in their organisations. “For companies, where does this responsibility begin?” he asked. “With their boards, of course. There is no other task they have which is more important. It is their job – and one which by its nature will never be complete – to promote and nurture a culture of ethical and purposeful business throughout the organisation.”
Speaking in the City on Wednesday, Green made similar points, saying company directors had to ensure that the responsibilities of their businesses were “clearly articulated and understood throughout the organisation – and indeed, not merely understood, but accepted and lived throughout the organisation”.
This article was written by Juliette Garside, for theguardian.com on Thursday 19th March 2015 18.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010