James Coney  

Pre-Brexit Budget avoids the 'P' word

James Coney

James Coney

There is a particular conspiracy theory that is gaining more traction every year.

It is nothing to do with alleged Russian spies visiting Salisbury, but rather it is the likes of Hargreaves Lansdown, Royal London and AJ Bell who are responsible for the annual Budget hysteria on pensions tax relief.

Okay, I know I sound like a loon, and I promise I am not sitting here wearing a foil hat in case GCHQ are tuning in.

But what other explanation could there be for the now annual predictions of doom?

I have covered about 30 Budgets now (if you include pre-Budgets), and there have not been many where the question of the introduction of flat-rate tax reliefs on pensions has not been raised.

Since the financial crisis, the din around the subject has become so loud that it drowns out any common sense debate.

And of course nothing ever happens. The reason for that is that there is no real appetite for reform in Westminster.

So the conspiracy theory goes that this is all some kind of ruse dreamed up by the companies that would benefit the most from some sudden spike in pensions contributions from higher-rate taxpayers.

Twice since 2016 the Treasury has officially said that flat-rate relief is off the table because there is no consensus on reform – and that does not even cover the nightmare implementation of such a policy.

My real concern about this annual hysteria is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more everyone talks about flat-rate relief, the more acceptable it seems.

We should all be thankful that there was no tinkering with pensions in the Budget – in fact the ‘P’ word never came up in the speech.

It was a very good Budget indeed for well-off pensioners. While a rise in the personal allowance and higher-rate tax threshold were offset for workers by similar increases in national insurance thresholds, this latter issue did not affect wealthier people above state pension age.

As a result, married pensioners earning above £80,000 will see their incomes rise by approximately £360 a year – not bad.

After the giveaways, and the inevitable silence on pension tax relief, it was disappointing that once more a chancellor did little for savers.

Britain is desperately in need of a national strategy for savings. We have auto-enrolment; now we need to turn generations into better investors.

What is noticeable is that despite the personal allowance almost doubling since the Tories took office, the savings ratio has slumped. It now stands at just 3.9 per cent, down from 9 per cent.

If you look at the money held in cash Isas, that has collapsed as well, the data show.