OpinionFeb 21 2023

Pensions need simplifying and more fairness introduced into the rules

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Pensions need simplifying and more fairness introduced into the rules
Photo: Envato

It feels like every time we approach a Budget or a Spring or Autumn Statement, the pensions industry and media whips itself up in a frenzy over pensions tax relief. 

The current favourite rumour – the introduction of a single rate of tax relief – is initially appealing, but would struggle to work in practice, especially with respect to defined benefit schemes.

IHT is one tax people dread paying (although relatively few are charged)

This probably makes it a non-starter. But that does not prevent most commentators reaching for it. 

So, the Institute for Fiscal Studies' latest thoughts on this area were like a breath of fresh air.

It quickly dismissed the single-rate idea and instead put forward a package of other proposals to help shift the parameters of pensions tax relief to make it fairer.

True, there was an initial stumble when it proposed capping tax-free cash.

This is one of the few parts of the retirement system the majority of people both understand and value.

As such, any attempt to remove or cap the available tax-free cash would risk undermining the fragile savings culture being built under auto-enrolment.

It would also be deeply unpopular – a key factor given a general election is drawing near. 

However, other proposals are worthy of further thought. 

There are inconsistencies when it comes to how income tax and national insurance contribution relief are treated under pensions.

The IFS suggests individuals’ contributions should receive upfront NIC relief, and instead pension withdrawals should be subject to NIC.

Although this makes more sense – NICs are just a different form of tax – it is hard to imagine this would not spark fury among older voters.

It would need a transition period as it would be unfair for those not receiving relief upfront to also be taxed on the way out.

Employer pension contributions receive NIC relief, but some employers do not pay NICs. So instead, the IFS proposes introducing a new subsidy on all employer pension contributions. The potential challenge is what to set that rate at, and whether that is equivalent – or lower – than today’s rate of NIC relief.

The IFS would like to scrap income-tax-free benefits on deaths before age 75 and bring pensions into the scope of inheritance tax.

There is no doubt pension death benefits are very generous; however, this could be a politically bitter pill to swallow. IHT is one tax people dread paying (although relatively few are charged).

An alternative may be to keep the IHT shelter but apply income tax on pension withdrawals, perhaps after state pension age.