Fifty or so years ago, when Panorama kicked off, it was a respected programme. The edition I saw last night covering HSBC’s customers who may prefer not to pay tax (there’s a surprise) was pure garbage.
As it happens, wearing my accountant’s hat, I used to do back tax cases and know a bit about this game: the test of a credit to a bank statement, absent any other evidence, is the balance of the probabilities – income tax liable or free of tax. It is simple and well understood. This ruling of fact stands at the High Court.
The customers of HSBC elected to keep their cash in a Swiss bank account. Many would have been uncertain as to their residence status for taxation; others would have been uncertain as to their domiciliary status. Some could even have supposed that keeping cash in an offshore bank account meant that, even though such a credit to a UK bank account would generate a tax charge, tax would thus be avoided. Certainly, I once did the tax affairs of a very prominent comedian and he claimed to believe that keeping his money in a NatWest account in the IoM because NatWest said that interest credited to the account was free of tax (it was in the sense that no tax was deducted prior to the interest being credited to the account) meant that no tax was payable in respect of such interest credits. Some readers will laugh but as a defence that, at the criminal level, the taxpayer never intended to evade tax it has its merits – of course, he would be and indeed was liable to back tax.
Anyway, it seemed that HSBC, besides opening accounts for people who do not like paying tax, undertook to courier cash into the UK. In a sense, that is an odd, because very expensive, method for a person to handle his/her money. But it is not unlawful and it is not unlawful for HSBC to comply with its customers’ wishes.
In short, the Panorama journalists failed to engage in responsible programme making. This is partly because they are childishly ignorant of law and partly because they merely seek to be sensationalist.