PensionsJan 14 2020

Will we get pension tax simplification in 2020?

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Predicting what will happen in 2020 is a bit like trying to catch smoke.

It’s difficult, what with Brexit, ongoing tensions between Donald Trump and various people, and the UK’s main political parties shifting further left and right.

But in among this cacophony, a series of events has led us to the point where significant pension tax relief reform feels closer than ever before.

NHS annual allowance "taper-gate" has forced the government to actually think about what impact the pension tax system has on real people.

Because we have reached the point where the complexity embedded in the rules for higher earners is putting lives at risk. 

A short-term fix for senior doctors turning down shifts for fear of a huge annual allowance tax bill was cobbled together just before the election, with the NHS promising to make good any annual allowance tax charge through a commensurate increase in retirement benefits.

Radical simplification of pension tax rules would be a huge step in the right direction 

This feels like a sticking plaster to cover an arterial wound, however, especially as health secretary Matt Hancock warned the arrangement may risk being viewed as tax avoidance by his good friends at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. 

Having won a massive majority, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have pledged to review the way the pension tax taper operates, although it is worth noting the party’s manifesto stopped short of backing scrapping the taper altogether – the only obvious solution to the current problem. 

The political optics of increasing the pension tax relief available to higher earners – something which has been anathema to the Treasury for the past decade or so – are clearly tricky. 

Many therefore believe the most likely outcome of the NHS pensions crisis, coupled with the planned review of the net pay problem which means many low earners miss out on tax relief altogether, will be a wider examination of retirement saving incentives. 

Given it has been almost 14 years since pension simplification at A-Day – a period during which the UK’s pension infrastructure has been radically altered by auto-enrolment and pension freedoms - a reassessment of the pension tax system feels overdue. 

Indeed, politicians from across political divides have already suggested a review of automatic-enrolment could be necessary to ensure the policy remains on track.

It would make sense to consider tax relief alongside this.

Radical simplification of pension tax rules would be a huge step in the right direction, making it easier for a generation of savers to plan for their future.

No sane person would design the current system – with three annual allowances and a lifetime allowance that punishes strong investment performance – from scratch.

At the very minimum the Government should look to ditch the taper and Money Purchase Annual Allowance, instead controlling tax relief costs through a single annual allowance and lifetime allowance. 

Over the longer-term there could also be an argument for splitting the allowances so DB costs are controlled by the lifetime limit only, with DC savers subject to an annual limit. 

This would have the benefit of drastically simplifying the rules for the majority, although it could get messy if the government wants to prevent DB savers arbitraging the system by shifting their funds to DC.

Whatever happens, policymakers need to break the habit of a lifetime when it comes to pensions taxation and think long-term.

Lack of saving remains one of the central challenges facing governments around the world, so encouraging more save for retirement has to remain the central focus.

Tom Selby is a senior analyst at AJ Bell