Stuart Gulliver, CEO at HSBC (Photo: Reuters)
Stuart Gulliver, chief executive of HSBC Reuters

HSBC has taken out a full page advert offering its "sincerest apologies" in several national newspapers, after allegations that its Swiss private bank helped wealthy clients avoid tax.

The advert reproduces an open letter by HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver, in which he describes as a "painful experience" of media reports about thousands of private documents detailing widespread tax avoidance schemes offered to wealthy clients were leaked by whistleblower Hervé Falciani.

"The media focus has been on historical events that show the standards to which we operate today were not universally in place in our Swiss operations eight years ago.

"We must show we understand that the societies we serve expect more from us. We therefore offer our sincerest apologies."

The UK's Treasury Committee is to conduct an inquiry into the allegations after Falciani claimed that the government should have known about the scandal in 2010.

However, Gulliver said that the media storm over the secret tax evasion programme needed to be "put into context".

"A former employee of the Swiss private bank stole data more than eight years ago.

"Major UK media outlets have focused on approximately 140 names included in the stolen data.

"Many of the people mentioned have been named simply because they are well known individuals. The vast majority of these 140 people are no longer clients.

"The media has been mentioning a number of 100,000 clients. At its peak, the Swiss private bank had about 30,000 accounts.

"We have absolutely no appetite to do business with clients who are evading their taxes or who fail to meet our financial crime compliance standards."

Falciani alleges that French authorities informed HMRC about HSBC's tax avoidance practices, which is when the British government should have found out.

Opposition leader Ed Milliband has pledged to launch an investigation into HMRC if Labour is elected to power in May's general election.