Tories tainted by tax scandal

Bank records leaked to the media suggest that the Swiss arm of HSBC helped clients to conceal assets and evade taxes. Several thousand British customers who stored $21.7bn in Swiss accounts are included in the probe (although many of them may not have done anything wrong). The revelations are embarrassing for the Tories, since Stephen Green – who was chief executive and chairman of HSBC at the time – was subsequently given a peerage and a ministerial job by David Cameron.

Downing Street claims that the bank’s activities were “not widely known” at the time of Lord Green’s appointment, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. That doesn’t wash: “the government was told about them eight months before”. The former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson insists that Green “should have known what was going on”. This “tit-for-tat tiff” is not helpful for the government.

Even if this story is unlikely to move the needle electorally, it reinforces the idea that the Tories are still siding with the rich “at the expense of everyone else”, just as Labour is still seen as being unfit to run the economy. These are the “toxic underlying brands” that both sides are failing “spectacularly to shift”.

Labour is attempting to make political capital out of the storm. On Wednesday the opposition promised an “urgent crackdown” on tax avoidance, say Jim Pickard and Gavin Jackson in the FT, laying out plans to “close loopholes, increase transparency and toughen penalties”. This follows Ed Miliband’s claim on Friday that he was “serving notice” on the UK’s offshore financial centres that they would be put on a “tax haven blacklist” if they didn’t comply with new transparency measures.

“Not before time,” says Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. But Miliband must now follow through on these promises by “setting up an office of tax responsibility” to pursue investigations. When the party was last in power, it “shied away” from a clampdown, “afraid of offending business”. The same must not happen again.

Yet while this may embarrass the Tories, the “toughest grilling” should be saved for HM Revenue & Customs, says the FT. Its initial reaction to the HSBC revelations in 2010 was “pragmatic”. Faced with thousands of potential tax evaders, it offered a 30-day window to confess. That was understandable: criminal prosecutions are difficult and expensive; establishing a “fair line between honest mistake and deliberate fraud is hard”.

But recent revelations make a case for HMRC taking a more “aggressive” approach to “blatant criminal activity”. “The value of a successful prosecution lies as much in the chill it casts over other would-be offenders, and may be much greater than the money directly raised.”

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