Swiss Finance Minister says banking secrecy intact

Swiss banking secrecy will remain intact, the Finance Minister said Thursday, but there were ongoing talks about how to develop the laws in the light of recent events, most notably the UBS tax fraud investigation in the United States, dpa reported.

"Banking secrecy remains intact and has to remain intact," said Hans Rudolf Merz, who also fills the largely ceremonial role of President.

"It protects privacy but in no way does it protect tax fraud," he added.

He said there was consideration in the Federal Council, the executive branch, about the future of the distinction between tax evasion and tax fraud in the Swiss law books. Currently, only the latter is a criminal offense.

"Banking secrecy in Switzerland is not absolute and does not apply in the event of criminal prosecution," the minister told reporters.

He said there would be a meeting next week with Austria and Lichtenstein, two other countries with bank secrecy laws, to discuss the road ahead.

Switzerland is said to house about a third of the 7 trillion dollars held offshore. Swiss bankers, who profit from the system, say the collapse of banking secrecy could halve the financial sector, which currently makes up about 12 per cent of GDP.

Switzerland has set up a ministerial body, made up of Merz, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, to look into the banking secrecy laws and determine their future development.

UBS, under orders from the Swiss regulatory body, handed over last month some data on clients who allegedly committed tax fraud to US authorities.

The bank told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that it would not hand over more data owing to Swiss banking secrecy laws. The US is demanding information on thousands of clients, while the bank is reported to have transferred unspecified data on only a few hundred.

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