Switzerland is on course to share tax-related information with India by August 1 this year. The Swiss government put up the “revised Tax Administrative Assistance Act” on its website on Monday with the critical assurance that in no Swiss canton a “referendum has been called against the bill”.
The Act will make it possible for the Swiss government to override several provisions of secrecy rules that banks in the country deploy to keep ownership of their account-holders secret from prying countries. The last date for the cantons to give a notice for referendum is July 10 but as it requires signature of at least 50,000 people in a 100-day period, chances of the act falling through now, are considered slim.
The country has been under tremendous pressure from the international community, including India, to share information on these bank accounts many of which are often allegedly used by people and institutions to evade tax in their respective countries.
So long Zurich has taken the plea that while it is keen to help India it cannot transgress its domestic laws to share such information. India, for instance, asked for information it received on an alleged set of HSBC accounts obtained from third-party sources but the Swiss government maintained it cannot act on stolen data. This act will allow Zurich to by pass this restriction.
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The Swiss Tax Administrative Assistance Act, cleared by its Parliament, proposes to amend domestic laws in line with international standards for tax transparency. Through passage of this act “Switzerland will comply with the applicable international standard for administrative assistance in tax matters as well as (comply with) additional recommendation of the Global Forum on Tax Transparency”, it said on its website.
Under Swiss law, any change in a statute has to be cleared by the process of referendum. The last time its federal government passed a similar law, it was struck down in October 2013 as it “met with strong opposition during the consultation”, a Swiss finance ministry web post notes.
The development comes on the same day when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said he will write to the Swiss finance minister for information on tax evaders. “We are today writing to Swiss authorities with whom the ministry has been in touch so that details with regard to whatever information the authorities have can be expedited and the cooperation between the Swiss authorities and the government of India can bring fruitful results.”
He made the comments after Sunday’s PTI report that the government had shared new information with the tax department in India.
But the Swiss finance ministry despite promising help in India’s fight against tax evasion made it clear it has not shared any fresh information with New Delhi “since a high-level Swiss delegation met with its India counterparts in…February 2014”.
The response adds that “no further official meeting has taken place. There is no new development to be reported”.
In its first cabinet decision, the Narendra Modi government set up a special investigation team (SIT) to track black money abroad. The SIT headed by former Supreme Court judge MB Shah has asked the finance ministry to expedite information from tax havens on alleged Indian offenders. The problem for India stems from the fact that while Switzerland refuses to entertain requests based on stolen data, the double taxation avoidance agreement with the country revised in 2011 has only prospective effect. It does not allow India to ask for details of accounts already held there, since it violates existing Swiss laws.