Pensions Back on the Government’s Agenda Again!
The date that is etched in everyone’s mind at the moment is 23rd June, when the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU takes place.
However, if you still have pension benefits in the UK to claim, there is another date that you should be focused on – 16th March – the date of the UK Budget.
Last summer, the government launched a consultation on pension tax relief and this is what the Chancellor said ……….
“With increased longevity and the changing nature of pension provision, the government needs to make sure that the system incentivises more people to take responsibility for their pension saving so that they are able to meet their aspirations in retirement.”
Incentivising people to save for retirement? Well that’s not new. The current system of the tax-free Pension Commencement Lump Sum (PCLS) and tax-relief on pension contributions is already a good incentive, even though the latter has been capped and steadily reduced since 2006. So what more does the government think should be done?
The chancellor goes on to say ……..
“That is why the government is today publishing a consultation on pensions tax relief. If people are to take responsibility for their retirement, it is important that the support on offer from the government is simple and transparent, and that complexity does not undermine the incentive for individuals to save.”
Now “simple” and “transparent” are not words that appear in my dictionary on the UK pension system. On the other hand, “complexity” does, particularly as concerns the new State pension system coming into effect in April, something that I will cover in another article.
The most radical idea that the chancellor floated was the introduction of the Pension ISA, where all pension contributions would be paid on post-taxed income, but thereafter, no tax would be payable – either on the investments in the pension fund or on the pensions in payment. Definitely attractive to a cash-strapped chancellor who wants to at least ‘balance the books’ during the remainder of this government’s term of office, but hugely short-sighted for future generations, when demographic pressure on public spending and the need for tax revenues is likely to be more severe.
The system would also be hugely complex as, in effect, two separate pension pots would have to be kept – the old system ‘post-tax pot’ and the new system ‘pre-tax pot’. Maybe the government would introduce some transitional arrangements to convert ‘post-tax pots’ into ‘pre-tax pots’ and if so, for sure there will be some losers. Costs for administering the new arrangements would increase and for the dwindling number of remaining defined benefit pension schemes, this could lead to these ending up in the ‘pensions graveyard’ – who will pay the levies to the Pension Protection Fund then?
An alternative idea proposed is for pension contributions to be paid out of post-taxed income and for a flat-rate of tax relief to be paid by the government into the pension pot or into the defined benefit scheme. If the tax-relief is limited to the basic rate of 25%, higher tax rate payers will lose out – some incentive!
The government’s current thinking on this to incentivise people is – ‘if you pay into your pension, the government will top it up’. This is spin, the tax-relief at source already exists for occupational pension schemes and a delay in getting the government’s so-called ‘top up’ into the pension scheme would be detrimental for the pension member.
The effect on the employer of defined benefit pension schemes should also not be underestimated, where the employer is legally obliged to ensure that the pension assets can meet the liabilities. Any delay on getting the tax-relief due into the defined benefit scheme is in effect, an interest-free loan to the government. My pensions career started more than 40 years ago and I remember well how long we had to wait for National Insurance rebates to be paid by the government into occupational pension schemes. Another nail in the coffin, on route to the pensions graveyard?
I save the ‘best’ to last – the abolition of the tax-free PCLS. Of course, I am being cynical because there is nothing good that could come out of taxing the beloved PCLS and definitely not the best way of incentivising people to save more for retirement. Receiving a tax-free cash sum has been at the heart of the UK pension system for decades. To take this away now, when people have saved for years and planned for retirement on the basis that they would receive this tax-free PCLS is quite simply wrong.
Of course, the government could just tinker with the existing system more by reducing the maximum amount that people can pay into tax-relieved pension funds and perhaps also by no longer allowing employers tax-relief on National Insurance contributions. The latter would hurt employers, particularly with the abolition of contracting-out of the State Second Pension from April, which anyway results in increased National Insurance Contributions (another nail in the coffin?).
The first organised UK pension scheme can be traced back to the 1670s, when the Royal Navy put in place provision for its officers. Other public sector pensions followed over the centuries, but it was in the 1950s and 1960s that corporate pensions became a prominent part of the remuneration package. In the good old days of easily understandable pension schemes, we were encouraged to pay Additional Voluntary Contributions – after all you got tax-relief and so were incentivised to save more for retirement. When I started work, the maximum amount that we could contribute was simply limited to 15% of earnings – regardless of whether you were a basic rate or higher rate taxpayer.
Do you trust future politicians not to change the UK pension rules again?
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