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Pensions: Tax Relief

Volume 777: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what current plans they are considering with regard to pensions tax relief; and whether they are planning to introduce a pensions ISA.

My Lords, the Government held a consultation on pensions tax relief last year. Responses to the consultation showed that there was no clear consensus for reform. That lack of consensus, combined with the ongoing rollout of automatic enrolment, led the Government to conclude that it was not the right time for fundamental reform. As with all aspects of the tax system, tax relief for pensions is kept under review.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, but does he agree with me that pensions are very complicated? One way to resolve that problem could be with flat-rate tax relief for all, the two-for-one model. Some 80% of employers think it could encourage employees to save and invest more. It would work across defined pension contributions and would also be sustainable, giving both short-term and long-term benefits to the Treasury, compared with the costs that fluctuate now.

I have to say that pensions are a bit like the House of Lords: when you are young you do not understand them and do not want to get involved, and when you do get involved they are very complicated, but roll on 40 years and you are glad you have a pension, you are glad you invested it and you hope it will look after you through your remaining years—a bit like my noble friends in this House.

On which we had a very good debate yesterday. At the beginning of the noble Lord’s question, he suggested an alternative form of tax relief and incentives for pensions. That was part of the consultation that we engaged in last year. As I explained, there was no clear consensus in favour of the scheme that the noble Lord has proposed, which is why we decided for the time being to stay with the current quite popular system, where you get tax relief up-front and there is a tax-free lump sum at the end. I agree that pensions can be complex. That is why in 2019 we are going to introduce the pensions dashboard, which will enable people to see in one place all the pensions that they may have accumulated throughout their life, and they can take informed decisions about what they need to do for the future.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the ISA as it stands is an attractive vehicle for people to save for their old age anyway? A mixture of a pension, where tax relief is up-front but you pay tax on income, with an ISA, where there is no tax relief up-front but you get tax-free income when you retire, is a perfectly reasonable proposition. Why do we want to clutter it up with some other form of ISA?

The ISA is indeed an acceptable vehicle for savings. It does not have the advantage of the pensions regime, whereby your own contribution is topped up by that of your employer; to that extent, pensions may be a better vehicle for some people than the ISA. Also with pensions, as my noble friend has just said, you get the tax relief up-front, which you do not get with the ISA. The important thing is that there should be a variety of savings vehicles with different advantages and different flexibilities, and people should make an informed decision about which is the right one for them.

My Lords, surely the overwhelming case for a flat-rate approach is a distributional one. Pension tax relief disproportionately benefits the better-off in our society. At a time when the Government are cutting financial support for poorer people and saying, “We have no other choice because we have to save money”, surely they should be looking at this again.

The Government have consistently reduced the cost of tax relief on pensions by introducing the lifetime allowance, which has now been reduced to £1 million, and the annual allowance, which has been reduced to £40,000. This year we made further savings of up to £4 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament by saying that for those who earn over £150,000 the £40,000 relief is tapered. So we have made substantial savings in the cost of pensions tax relief.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the whole point of pensions investment is that it should be stable and not subject to sudden changes? Have the Government not interfered enough with the pensions regime? Do we not need a period of stability?

I am grateful to my noble friend for endorsing the decision I announced at the beginning of this exchange that, in view of the absence of a consensus for an alternative, we wanted to stay with the regime that we have at the moment, which as my noble friend has said, has many advantages.

My Lords, the current system benefits the wealthiest in our society. However, if tax relief were changed to match funding with thresholds aimed at lower savers and, for example, the first £500 was matched by the Government pound for pound, thereafter gradually tapering down, this would demonstrate the benefits of savings as it supports those on lower incomes getting the most. Does the Minister agree that reform to match funding, rather than tax relief, would give a greater incentive to save?

I give the noble Baroness the same response that I gave to her noble friend at the beginning of this exchange. We looked at alternatives to the current regime a year ago and because there was no consensus we decided to stay where we are. In view of the complexities of rolling out auto-enrolment, we decided that this was not the right time for fundamental reform.

As someone who worked in manufacturing in the steel industry, and would have had a pension, had I not left to become a full-time official of the union—I got a better one—I remember gatecrashing the pensions management committee, on which we had representatives. I shall come to my question in a second. This is a true story. The character running the pension scheme asked, “What are you doing here? You have representatives”. I said that I wanted to know what was going on. He said, “Everything is going on. Your members are paying in; we match it. They retire at 65, or 60 if they have enough years’ service, and they die seven years later”. Does anybody agree with that?

I very much hope that whatever the noble Lord’s history of employment, he is in receipt of a generous pension.