Jeff PrestridgeJan 29 2020

Will Javid fix pension woes?

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Maybe I am showing my grand old age, but time seems to be flying by at a rapid rate of knots.

It does not seem a moment since I was reeling from a spot of food poisoning over the festive period, courtesy of some dodgy oysters consumed on Christmas Eve.

Now, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching on the horizon (please send all cards to Bracken House, EC4M 9BT) and it will not be long before the financial treat of the year is upon us – namely, the chancellor of the exchequer’s Budget on March 11.

All the more exciting this year for the fact that we have a new chancellor in place – Sajid Javid – who has a bit of charisma about him.

Lots of people have stopped saving into a pension for fear of falling foul of the taxman’s thickening rulebook

Let us be honest, you could not quite say that about his predecessor Philip Hammond, who was rightly nicknamed Eeyore – Winnie-the-Pooh’s donkey friend – as a result of his gloomy persona.

Unlike Mr ‘Eeyore’ Hammond, Mr Javid has a huge Conservative majority to embolden him, so it will surely be more smiles than pouts this time around.

And while everyone will be watching to see what he does to re-energise the economy and support the country’s creaking infrastructure (will he pull the plug on the HS2 project or carry on with it?), it will be interesting to see what he does in the areas that matter most to wealth managers and their clients.

By which I mean pensions and inheritance tax – two areas ripe for a root-and-branch overhaul, rather than the tinkering (or sitting on hands) that marked the chancellorships of Mr Hammond and George Osborne.

As our country’s magnificent doctors have recently discovered to their financial cost, the rules governing pensions are currently an almighty mess.

As a result of the never-ending introduction of yet more rules (restrictions), pensions no longer encourage long-term saving, especially among the ‘wealthy’.

Indeed, they discourage it and often penalise people with sudden tax bills they cannot pay.

I know of lots of people who have stopped saving into a pension for fear of falling foul of the taxman’s thickening rulebook. That does not feel right.

This panoply of perplexing rules is primarily a result of Conservative chancellors (Mr Osborne, the guiltiest of them all) and it is only right then that a smiling Mr Javid now takes an axe to all of this.

Out should go the pernicious tapered annual pension allowance – and while he is at it, he should scrap the lifetime allowance and the money purchase annual allowance.

Sadly, it seems the triumphant Conservatives have yet to wise up to the pensions mess they have created.

Yes, in response to the angry doctors, it seems they are now looking to increase the annual salary at which the taper starts biting like a rattlesnake, from £110,000 to £150,000.

Yet, as Helen Morrissey, pensions specialist at Royal London, said, this is merely “tinkering at the edges”.

She described the proposal as akin to using “a sticking plaster in place of major surgery”. 

Major reform is what is required, she said. 100 per cent spot on.

Other pension specialists have also come out of the shadows to vent their spleen.

In a splendid letter to The Times, Hargreaves Lansdown’s Tom McPhail described the pension tax system as a “bloated, inefficient mess”.

He concluded by stating: “The chancellor should announce a review of pension taxation in the Budget on March 11.” 

Again, spot on Mr McPhail.

Indeed, his letter sat alongside other contributions (no pun intended) on the same subject to The Times.

Consulting actuary Peter Tompkins said the government should “drive the pensions taper from the system”, while Gregg McClymont, a former Labour shadow pensions minister and now director of policy at B&CE, has called for a “comprehensive review that looks at the pensions tax relief system in its entirety”.

Mr Javid should heed these calls.

We just cannot carry on with a pensions system that only a few understand. It needs a dose of radicalism and simplification.

The same can be said of IHT.

Mr Osborne’s decision to introduce the residence nil-rate band from April 2017 has turned IHT into the proverbial quagmire.

Not helped, it must be said, by HM Revenue & Customs’ reporting requirements for possible inheritance bills that are cumbersome and frankly just not fit for purpose.

IHT is a form of double taxation. It should either be scrapped altogether – little chance, methinks – or the residence nil-rate band, currently £150,000, should be done away with in favour of a bumped-up standard nil-rate band (currently £325,000). £1m would do for starters.

Roll on March 11.

Jeff Prestridge is personal finance editor of The Mail on Sunday