Wednesday 11 March 2015

Lord Green headed HSBC at the height of its wrongdoing. He must face MPs

Like my constituents in Grimsby I'm constantly amazed as the HSBC horror banking story unfurls to discover how many people at the top were paid so much to not know what was going on. It's even more amazing to find that they face no sanction at all beyond the embarrassment of appearing before select committees to justify the way they've profited by turning a blind eye to what amounts to criminality.

It's vital, to maintain the credibility of both the banking and the tax system, that wrong doing should be exposed and punished, and that those responsible shouldn't profit from it. In the US with its tougher regulation perps are punished and rough justice works. So in 2012 HSBC was fined $1.9 billion because its "blatant failure to implement proper anti-money laundering controls facilitated the laundering of at least $881 million in drug proceeds" and the bank "accepted responsibility for its criminal conduct and that of its employees"

Here in Britain we're much nicer. Chaps rule and regulate other chaps while HMRC tries to maintain good relations with the big corporations. So when yet another HSBC scandal was forced on the reluctant attention of our regulators with the leaking by Herve Falciani of a list of clients of HSBC's private bank in Switzerland who'd been using Swiss accounts to evade tax with the active support of the bank the matter was handed to the revenue not the courts or the regulators.

In Britain the management assumption must be that pennies come from heaven...The bank profited from criminality, the directors, on bonuses and profit related pay, benefitted, yet no director, non-exec director, audit committee member, or auditor fulfilled even the minor responsibility driven them under the Corporate Governance Codes to "comply or explain" and none of them brought matters to public attention. No one at the bank has suffered any sanctions. Only one tax evader has been indicted and the shake out of the evaders on the long list has produced less for the revenue than the smaller list of evaders in France and Spain. As for the man who was chief executive from 2003 to 2006 then chairman from 2006 to 2010 and therefore in charge of the whole operation, Lord Green, he hasn't even had to suffer a tongue lashing from Margaret Hodge the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Instead he was put into the Lords and made a Minister when he retired from the bank. Saint he may be, but a Trappist one

Tory members of the PAC and the Treasury committee don't want him to appear, though I'm not sure whether it's because we shouldn't call peers, priests or ex ministers. The Government clearly doesn't want him grilled. I'd guess that if he did have the decency to fulfil his responsibilities and explain his position Lord Green would use the same excuse as those HSBC executives who have faced up to a select committee grilling, which is to say "I might have drawn big money and bonuses for being in charge but I certainly didn't know what was going on. Someone should have told me but no one did"

There's none so blind as he who will not see may or may not be a good excuse for evading the responsibilities of directors under the Companies act of 2006 to discharge their fiduciary duties towards the company. It doesn't convince me. It's either really a statement that directors were drawing huge amounts of pay for doing nothing in which case they are being paid under false pretences, or an admission that the bank was too big to manage and should be broken up.

Either way it's perfectly possible that HSBC was not a unique case and that other banks were doing much the same things. We do need to know but the only way to restore faith in the system now is if Lord Green has the integrity to explain his role and both he and the others who ran HSBC but failed so badly to fulfil their responsibilities to customers, shareholders and the law faced sanctions rather than well upholstered retirements.

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