According to a recent report in the Sunday Times, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are to breach the centuries-old principle of anonymity of Swiss bank accounts by ‘piggy-backing’ on a deal between the German and Swiss authorities which allows the former to obtain information from Swiss banks on monies held in bank accounts where there is a suspicion that a criminal offence has been committed.

HMRC have apparently agreed with the German tax authorities that where an offence is thought to have been committed by a UK citizen, the German authorities will make the necessary requests of the Swiss. In the UK, only quite exceptional tax offences are criminal offences, so there is no question (at this stage) that the agreement will be used as justification of a ‘fishing exercise’ for the hidden cash of tax evaders.

HMRC claim to be targeting only the hidden funds of organised criminals and fraudsters as well as those whose tax evasion amounts to fraud. However, it is said that there are ‘tens of thousands’ of British subjects with Swiss bank accounts. If this latest probe by HMRC yields significant results, the Government may be expected to put pressure on the Swiss government to allow HMRC direct access to details of British nationals and residents who hold of Swiss accounts.

HMRC are increasingly using the criminal law when dealing with cases involving large-scale tax evasion. If a successful prosecution is obtained, they can then apply for confiscation orders to seize the ‘criminal assets’ of the offender. It is probably only a matter of time before the first prosecutions are brought of people who have squirreled away ill-gotten gains in Switzerland.

Recently, HMRC announced that taxpayers holding funds in Lichtenstein would also come under scrutiny.

Taxpayers who 'came clean' under the amnesty offered in 2007 have been allowed to make very beneficial settlements, but over 20,000 taxpayers who registered with HMRC ahead of the deadline but failed to make a disclosure, are to be targeted by special teams of tax inspectors. HMRC are said to be preparing criminal proceedings against ten tax evaders and will be seeking prison terms where appropriate. In addition, a further 15 Litchtenstein banks and banks in the Channel Islands, Monaco, the British Virgin Islands and Panama are being put under pressure to reveal details of UK depositors.