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CERN Pensions: UK Tax Treatment

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I rise to discuss the UK tax treatment of CERN pensioners, but the subject goes rather wider than purely CERN. I mention CERN only because I have two or three constituents who are quite exercised by recent changes.

George Osborne brought in a change to do away with the concession whereby people with foreign pensions were taxed on 90% of their income, pushing that up to 100% in 2017-18. That has had a material effect on several of my constituents, but there must be people who worked for a number of organisations who are affected by the tax change when they land pensions back into the United Kingdom. I shall talk a little about CERN, but also about one or two other international organisations, because the more I look into this issue, the more complex it becomes.

CERN was set up by UNESCO in 1954 as an international organisation, based in Geneva, to carry out fundamental research in high-energy physics. The UK was among its 12 founding members; today, there are 22 member states. The host nations are Switzerland and France, and most of those who work at CERN on a day-to-day basis live in either Switzerland or France, in or around the vicinity of Geneva. CERN served as a model for successful European collaboration, and several similar organisations, working in fields such as space research, have since been created, based on its structure.

On retiring, CERN staff receive pensions in Swiss francs. They are not ungenerous pensions—some are in six figures—because these people are extremely able, talented scientists who have committed themselves to science. CERN staff can either stay in one of the host states or move elsewhere. Many member states offer favourable tax treatment to attract such staff to their country. They range from Austria, which allows CERN staff to retire tax-free, to Spain, Malta and Sweden, where low rates have been negotiated, typically in the order of 10%.

The UK never gave any kind of special privileges to CERN retirees, but there was provision under our tax law that 90% of foreign pensions would be taxed. If someone is on a six-figure pension and the first £8,000 or £10,000 is disregarded, bringing them down in all the various tax brackets, that concession is worth having. CERN pensioners, who are particularly bright, have to decide where they are going to land themselves and their families when they have finished working. Many wish to move back to the UK, and they previously saw the UK Government’s more modest concession as attractive enough for them to retire to places such as Poole.

I make one very important point about CERN pensioners: they have not benefited from UK tax concessions in any way. They do not get the 25% tax-free cash payment that a UK taxpayer gets. Effectively, they have earned their pension by working abroad for an international organisation in which we have a big interest. They have come back to the UK and then been given a slightly better tax position, probably in recognition of the fact that many people who have foreign pensions do not benefit from the reduced rate available to those who contribute to pensions in this country.

Pensioners of other international organisations that are similar to CERN do receive special concessions from the UK Treasury. I understand that there are organisations that represent those who have worked for the UN, or its various agencies, and that discussions are going on about the appropriate rate. I also know that there are discussions about pensioners from the World Bank. A number of European organisations work under similar terms and conditions as CERN. Known as the co-ordinated organisations, they include: the Council of Europe; the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts; the European Space Agency; the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites; the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The International Service for Remunerations and Pensions, which is based in Paris, is responsible for the pay and rations of all those bodies. As I understand it, the civil servants who work for these co-ordinated organisations are taxed on only 50% of their salaries.

There are therefore examples of concessionary rates for organisations in which Britain participates, and my constituents have a very simple request: if the UK Treasury is not going to tax them on 50% of their income, which I somehow doubt that it will, they wish to go back to the 90% rate with which they were happy. Many decided to move back to the United Kingdom on the basis of that proposition. I stress that, because some of the pensions are high, over 20 years, the amount in question represents probably a couple of million pounds’ worth of sterling. We should bear in mind that the money is landed back in the UK in Swiss francs, and that it is not only taxed but spent in the United Kingdom.

There is actually a very strong economic argument for making a pitch to people with good international salaries to come back to the UK to retire in order to feed the very important column that is UK invisible earnings. My constituents thought that they would be taxed at only 90%, but feel that the rules have changed, so they would like the UK Government to reconsider.

When I asked the House of Commons Library what happened to civil servants who retired from the EU, I was told very politely that the EU taxed them and kept the money. I am very surprised that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—it must be letting the side down—does not have any say over EU civil servants who retire back to the UK. I suspect that that is one of those fine points of detail that will be dealt with in the withdrawal negotiations. If those people were given a preferential arrangement, I would be extremely surprised if the UK Government were to change that and make those people’s pensions taxable at 100%.

This complex area involves a number of tax treaties and several international organisations, all of which operate to a different range of rules. My essential point is that a few of my constituents who worked hard in the scientific sector and earned good pensions thought that they had a proposition that meant that they were taxed at 90%, but now feel somewhat aggrieved that the previous Chancellor has pushed their rate up to 100%. As I have said, that was not the most generous tax proposition—those of other countries are far more generous—but that rate was attractive enough to get these people to move to places such as Poole. I hope that the UK Government will consider the options. Given that this is a complex area, I wonder if the Minister might be willing to meet me and a few CERN pensioners to discuss the matter more fully so that we can get to the bottom of whether they are being treated fairly and reasonably.

Finally, I congratulate the Minister on taking his post. He is among the Members on these Benches who I always thought was destined for high things. He had to start somewhere, and Economic Secretary to the Treasury is a fine and important post.

I can always count on my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) to put me in my place.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms) for highlighting this issue. I want to say how proud we are of the pioneering work carried out at CERN and of the work of all those who have retired and returned to the UK. Poole is a beautiful place to retire to, by the seaside.

It seems appropriate to be talking, if only tangentially, about CERN’s work in the week in which we lost that great physicist, Stephen Hawking. One of the few scientific bets that he lost in his career was that the Higgs boson would never be found, so even somebody of his genius can get things wrong every now and again.

The Government are committed to a fair and consistent tax system. This is especially important in pensions, as the Government promote saving through tax incentives and allowances. We want those incentives to work and to be fairly distributed. My hon. Friend outlined the history of the issue before us today. As he said, the Government reviewed this regime at autumn statement 2016, and announced that the UK tax treatment of foreign pensions would be changed to be closely aligned with that of UK pensions. Following that, the Finance Act 2017 legislated so that, with effect from 6 April 2017, 100% of income from foreign pensions has been liable to UK tax; it was previously 90%. This aligns the tax treatment of UK pensioners with the treatment of those who earn their pension overseas, ensuring a fair system. At the outset when contributions are made towards a pension—whether that pension is UK or foreign—they are usually free of any tax paid in the UK. With this change, the tax treatment of contributions and payments are now consistent.

My hon. Friend raised a series of points on which I hope to provide some clarity. He was kind enough to speak to me before this debate and mention a number of international organisations where British citizens work and make a valuable contribution, including the OECD, NATO, the United Nations and others. My hon. Friend noted that pensioners from these international organisations or organisations of a similar type are reimbursed, for example, 50% of their income tax payments. It important to say that this does not arise as a result of any country’s tax rules. It is not because of a particular deal made by the United Kingdom with any of these organisations, but because of the specific provisions within the pension scheme of that international organisation.

It would be CERN’s decision whether it wanted to make a similar provision in its pension scheme either for the future, or to reopen and reassess their past practice for CERN pensioners who had retired, were drawing on their pensions and are now my hon. Friend’s constituents. Any payments received by UK residents are subject to UK tax, including reimbursement. That is the case for all international organisations. I will return to the EU, which, as is so often the case, has special treatment.

The UK only supports special tax treatment for international organisations when the employees have worked for the organisation in the UK, which I hope my hon. Friend will understand is a somewhat different situation for tax purposes. Aside from the EU, the UK has no bilateral agreements in relation to the tax treatment of international organisations with other countries. We do with the EU, which is our only exception, and that is common practice across the Union.

My hon. Friend mentioned international comparisons. We understand that other major economies are typically taking a similar approach to the UK with respect to taxing pensions. Countries such as France, Germany and Switzerland all tax occupational pensions such as CERN’s and the foreign income of their residents. There may be other examples such as those that he raised and spoke to me about earlier. Of course, I am happy to look into that. It may be a topic that we could discuss were we to meet. Certainly, our major international competitors and the countries from which, one presumes, a majority of CERN’s employees are drawn take an approach similar to the one that we have taken.

In our correspondence prior to this debate, my hon. Friend suggested that the Government could introduce a 25% tax relief on CERN pensions to mirror the tax-free lump sum. I understand that that would be an attractive proposition for CERN pensioners. However, the tax-free lump sum is not an allowance. If a qualifying lump sum is not paid, this relief is not available. These lump sums can be paid free of UK tax whether built up in a foreign or a UK pension if the qualifying conditions are met. Allowing for 25% tax relief outside of these circumstances would, we believe—I hope that my hon. Friend will understand this—undermine these qualifying conditions, which apply to all pensioners.

I hope that my comments have at least explained the rationale behind the Government’s policy. I appreciate the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. I assure him that the Government have not sought to target individuals unfairly or to impact on the work undertaken by those at CERN or, indeed, by any other of our citizens who choose to live and work abroad. As he says, this is an incredibly important and increasingly prevalent aspect of the modern labour force, with increasing globalisation and a global market for the most talented individuals, certainly in the scientific and research world.

The changes we made in 2017 stopped people from transferring their pensions abroad to avoid UK tax. That was a consideration, but it was not the primary motivation. Our primary motive was to do this as part of a wider move towards consistency and fairness in pensions and taxation. The Government recognise that those in receipt of foreign pensions do face additional costs in accessing their pension. That was the original motivation behind the 90% rate that was introduced, I believe, in the 1970s. However, we have taken the view that it is not for Government to compensate these individuals for their choice to work outside the UK or to enable them to use this as a UK tax break. It is the Government’s role to encourage a fair and sustainable tax regime in the UK. The changes that we made have equalised the system, from which only overseas-based employees were previously able to benefit.

I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I also thank his constituents and others who may be paying attention to this debate for the ground-breaking work that they have done at CERN, which the Government and, I think, all Members are rightly proud of. We are proud that UK citizens have played a part in that and that they have chosen to return home to the UK for their well-earned retirement. The Government are delighted to welcome home British expatriates who have worked abroad to spend their retirement in places such as Poole. We recognise that that plays an increasingly important part in our economy.

I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will appreciate the Government’s rationale for making these changes over the past few years. We took a decision to treat all UK pensions consistently. Such judgments are difficult ones, and do involve winners and losers, but we appreciate the views of his constituents, and I would be happy to meet him and them in person, if it would help to further the conversation, and to listen to their specific concerns and see what, if anything, we can do.

I thank the Minister for that offer. This is a complex area, and I think that my constituents would be grateful for at least a brief meeting just to go through some of their concerns, outside the public spotlight.

I thank my hon. Friend. This is a complicated area. I hope that my comments today have provided some answers to him and his constituents, but of course I would be happy to meet him and to bring along Treasury officials, who might be able to shed further light on this matter and answer their questions in greater detail. They are understandable and important questions, because they concern the financial security his constituents can enjoy in later life.

I hope that this evening’s debate has provided some answers and that the meeting that follows will provide more. We believe that the previous approach was fair. It was driven by a desire for consistency and fairness for all British pensioners, and we hope that right hon. and hon. Members can support that as a principle. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.