Ready. Aim. Hold fire! Osborne thinks again before targeting pensions

Published by Andy Leggett on

In our series of pre-Budget 2016 blogs, Andy Leggett shares his thoughts on what may, or may not be in the firing line for pensions this time around.

First we had the controlled leaks to the press, presumably to test the public’s reactions; possibly a bit of calculated scaremongering to make the real plan seem less harsh - perhaps even some false leads to throw former pension ministers. Whatever the motivations, one man must have been loving it: Gordon Brown.

Noisy hecklers are not always noted for pearls of wisdom, but three words from one – ‘Gordon Brown moment’ – seemed to bring sudden clarity to Tory MPs. They seemed to realise that whichever way they looked at it, this was a highly charged issue likely to cause lasting damage, and the remaining image at the forefront of the public consciousness would be that of George Osborne. Gordon Brown’s multi-billion pound tax raid on dividends would finally be replaced with a more vivid impression.

"For millions on the lower rungs of the employment ladder, a flat rate of pension tax relief might as well be any number. When their bills are paid, there's nothing left. They don't save."

We may never know what the Treasury’s actual, radical plans were, but the reaction of Tory MPs, to my mind, backs my instinct: it was to take away 40% tax relief for middle earners. All options seemed to be on the table, but there were arguably three big ones;

‘Tax free cash’, as the pension commencement lump sum is still popularly known, was simply too synonymous with pensions, too beloved by the public to be culled.

The ruse to tap into the public’s affinity for ISAs – and bring forward tax receipts in the process – by moving from EET to TEE (a translation* of which appears at the end) turned out to be too well understood and too thoroughly covered by the press, despite the apparent obscurity of the initials.

No, it is my belief that the real target was higher rate tax relief. Though the threat appears over for now, it is well worth understanding the debate and the implications of this option. It illuminates the value of pensions to ‘middle Britain’ and forearms us, should this option ever be revived again. Let’s not forget the choice of words – that ‘now is not the time’ – implying that later, it may be.

Tapered annual allowance

The removal of higher rate tax relief had great potential to be spun as doing us a favour. It must have seemed persuasive in Treasury debate on the options: tax relief does indeed go disproportionately to higher rate tax payers. However, this is no blank cheque. With the annual allowance having been hacked back from £255,000 to £40,000 and with the imminent tapering of the annual allowance for those with ‘adjusted income’** of over £150,000, the government has taken measures that are, in turn, reasonable and unnecessarily complicated to limit what is on offer.

Flat rate tax relief

A flat rate of tax relief in excess of 20% could be spun mercilessly as Tory help to the working man and woman, giving them more than just their 20% basic rate tax back and helping them save for retirement. Indeed, governments of all colours will need that to happen, as the current ‘triple lock’ on the state pension is unsustainable.

However, it won't work out like that in practice. The MPs knew it. Belatedly, the Treasury realised it. It is important that it is revealed to the public, too – especially ‘middle Britain’.

For millions on the lower rungs of the employment ladder, a flat rate of pension tax relief might as well be any number. When their bills are paid, there's nothing left. They don't save.

Middle earners hit the hardest

The people who will be hit hardest, if the Treasury divines a more opportune later time for the idea, are those not at the top of the earnings ladder, but those just high enough up to be 40% tax payers.

Once someone’s annual income currently exceeds £42,385, a doubling of the income tax rate from 20% to 40% makes such people the salmon of the tax system. Their key respite is 40% pension tax relief and for weighty numbers not far beyond the threshold, it's the level of their earnings which limits their contributions and what the Treasury ‘gives away’.

To be sure, the current system has its flaws. But this measure does not solve them. That was never the aim. There's a gaping budget deficit to plug, and a turn on the Prime Ministerial throne at stake. The trouble is, the hit on the masses in the middle paying 40% would be too hard to go unnoticed and the scraps thrown to those just below too few (and locked away until retirement) to be appreciated.

I rather suspect the Chancellor’s moment of clarity came when he realised where this particular explosive issue would go off: among the 4.6 million higher rate tax-payers. Their number has risen almost fivefold in the last three decades and they are concentrated at the beginning end of the scale. Now, who do you suppose they vote for?

*EET / TEE translated into English . . .

E = exempt from tax | T = taxed

Pensions are currently sheltered from tax upfront, and while they build up, and taxed when the money is taken out later on; hence the use of EET to describe this. The summer budget consultation suggested flipping this round to TEE, which is the same as for ISAs.

As many have observed, the next tempting political step after TEE is TET. Too many Ts will make the populace hyper (angry with their government); too many Es is an unsustainable high.

**Due to the way someone's income is determined for the purposes of tapering the annual allowance, it could affect people earning - according to what the person on the street might understand to be earnings - over  £110k each tax year. It's all very complicated!


Budget 2016: Pensions tax doesn’t have to be taxing… does it?


Malcolm McLean: Pensions a soft target for Chancellor with nowhere else to go


Tee! Hee! Hee!