We need to address the ethnicity pensions gap

Gregg McClymont

Gregg McClymont

There can be very little doubt in anybody’s mind that auto-enrolment has been a thumping policy triumph so far - with 10m more people saving for a pension now than in 2012.

But the ability of the current system to deliver the promise at its heart - a workplace pensions system that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few - is under increasing scrutiny.

Inequalities in likely retirement outcomes – ‘pension gaps’ - have been identified, whether between men and women, the employed and self-employed, or the low paid and highly paid. 

Our new report Measuring the Ethnicity Pensions Gap adds, we hope, a new dimension to the debate about the under-pensioned.

Original calculations by The People’s Pension reveal that pensioners from ethnic minorities are on average £3,350 a year  - 24.4 per cent -  worse off than other pensioners.

The average state pension income gap is £600 per year, with lower occupational and retail pension entitlements and savings accounting for the greater part of the difference in pension income.

Gender inequalities are part of the story too.

The average female pensioner from an ethnic minority is 51.4 per cent worse off in income terms per year than a white male pensioner of the same age.

With the proportion of the UK population identifying as Black and Minority Ethnic projected to grow by about 50 per cent between 2011 and 2051 (from 14 per cent to 21 per cent), closing this pensions gap should be a priority.

The causes of the ethnicity pension gap are complex but crucial are labour market factors - lower than average earnings, variable employment rates, and the greater likelihood of ethnic minority workers being self-employed – and pensions policy.

In terms of the latter, removing barriers to ethnic minority workers’ participation in auto-enrolment is critical, because ethnic minority employees are on average more likely to be low earners and as such ineligible for enrolment,.

Dropping the annual earnings trigger for auto-enrolment from £10,000 to the lower earnings limit for National Insurance currently £6,136, would bring an extra 1.2 million workers into auto-enrolment on the latest figures - 15 per cent of whom would be from ethnic minorities.

Only 10 per cent of the current eligible auto-enrolment population is from an ethnic minority.

Policymakers also should act to make pension contributions count from the first pound someone earns rather than counting only on earnings above the current £6,136 threshold.

This was a recommendation of the government’s review into auto-enrolment in 2017 and to the extent that ethnic minority workers are more likely to be low earners – and they are – this will boost their share of total auto-enrolment-based based pension saving.

Beyond these immediate measures, a new independent pension commission could consider the wider structural labour market issues, in line with the roadmap set out by think tanks Bright Blue and the Fabian Society in their detailed paper, (Framing the Future) on how pensions consensus can be bolstered.