HMRC targets taxpayers with Swiss bank accounts

Hundreds
of wealthy UK taxpayers have been sent letters by HM Revenue & Customs over
possible large-scale tax evasion, the BBC has learned.

It is
understood HMRC has acquired a list of high net-worth individuals with accounts
at the Swiss division of HSBC.

The list
was stolen by an employee and passed to the taxman by the French authorities.
The bank is not accused of any wrongdoing.

The
campaign comes after the government announced a crackdown on tax avoidance.

Chief
Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told the Liberal Democrat conference
in Liverpool it was hoped closing loopholes and ensuring wealthy people pay the
full top rate of tax would generate an estimated £7bn a year by 2015 in
additional income tax revenue.

Secrecy
laws

Tax
evasion and avoidance cost the Treasury an estimated £14bn a year and
successive governments have vowed to take action against it.

BBC
business correspondent Joe Lynam says the letters sent out by the HMRC are
known as Code of Practice 9 and advise the recipients that they
are suspected of committing illegal tax evasion which may lead to a criminal
conviction.

HMRC
hasn’t been able to stay out of the headlines of late. September started with
the embarrassing revelation it had miscalculated the tax affairs of nearly six
million people, 1.4m of whom would face additional tax.

Now a
week after its political boss, Treasury secretary Danny Alexander, said there
would be a clampdown on evasion, hundreds of “high net worth”
individuals have been sent the kind of letter which could see some of them end
up in jail.

This may
prove to be a rich seam of income for the taxman as no-one is likely – in
public at any rate – to support people who have broken the law in an attempt to
minimise their tax bill.

But it
may encourage some of the super-rich to take their entire tax affairs offshore,
denying the UK billions in revenue at a time when it is needed most.

A HMRC
spokesman said: “The days of hiding money offshore to evade tax are now
over.”

Due to
its secrecy laws, Switzerland has long attracted the very wealthy as a place to
save their money.

This is
changing in light of a worldwide clampdown on “offshore” tax havens
ordered by the G20 last year.

It also
follows similar efforts by Germany in 2008 against wealthy residents suspected
of using banks in neighbouring Liechtenstein, another tax haven.

Germany’s
finance ministry paid an informant a reported 5 million euros (£4.2m) for a
stolen computer disc containing the names of hundreds of clients at a wealth
management firm.

In the
HMRC case, a former staff member at HSBC’s Swiss division stole highly
sensitive data belonging to 15,000 high net-worth account holders earlier this
year and fled to France.

The list
was passed to the French authorities, who in turn handed the relevant details
to HMRC.

HSBC
fired the employee and the Swiss authorities are pursuing criminal action
against him but cannot extradite him from France for legal reasons.

No more
than 10% of the list of suspected tax evaders pertained to any one country.

HSBC
said it had no comment to make on the matter.

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