Cashing in pensions, the Baby Boomers inheritance tax, and the bad maths of student fees

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

Loan voice: minister for universities David Willetts at the Conservative Party Conference 2013. (Photo: Getty)
Loan voice: minister for universities David Willetts at the Conservative Party Conference 2013. (Photo: Getty)

In 1744, two Church of Scotland ministers, Robert Wallace and Alexander Webster, considered the consequences of premature death among their fellow clergy. They decided that dependants could be provided with annual incomes or annuities if ministers paid yearly premiums during their lifetimes and the money was invested. They just had to get their figures right: costs, investment returns and, crucially, average life expectancy of ministers and their wives. Nothing like it had been done before but the two clergymen got their estimates right to within £1 and, as Niall Ferguson observes in his book The Ascent of Money, modern actuaries still marvel at the precision of their calculations.

This was the origin not only of the Scottish Widows that pays an annuity to me and millions of others but of all modern life insurance – including pensions, which, drawing on the same principles and mathematics, protect us against the risk of longevity. Scottish Widows and other financial outfits have strayed far from their Presbyterian origins and now give most annuity holders a poor deal. However, that is an argument for better regulation, not for destroying, as George Osborne has, a model that has worked well for most of the past 270 years.

The acclaim for Osborne’s Budget announcement that in future people will be able to cash in pension funds at retirement rather than taking out annuities shows how little anybody now understands the principle of mutuality. People complain that they may not “get back” what they put into a pension fund. They are missing the point. You may not get back what you put into car or house insurance; indeed, you hope not to. A pension annuity meets the costs of long life at the expense of those who die early, just as car insurance covers the costs
of accidents at the expense of those who avoid them. It is responsible collective risk-sharing, just like the original Scottish widows scheme, which all 930 ministers then alive agreed to join. Osborne prefers irresponsible individualism.

He says that we can all be trusted to use our money wisely. If so, why have banks – with payment protection schemes, missold pensions, bogus benefits on fee-paying current accounts, and so on – found it easy to rip us off? Osborne offers financial advice for everyone at retirement. Perhaps he should require them to sit a test to show they’ve understood it.

Better off dead

Far from spreading enlightenment on financial matters, the Tories’ habit is to propagate ignorance. Inheritance tax, David Cameron says, “should only really be paid by the rich”. He therefore proposes that the threshold for inheritance tax should rise from £325,000 (in effect, £650,000 for a couple) to nearer £1m (£2m for a couple). The tax was paid in 2010-2011 by only about 6 per cent of estates. At a £1m threshold, the proportion would fall to 1.5 per cent.

Is this another example of an Old Etonian being out of touch with how little most people have? Probably not. It is in the Tory interest to pretend that a tax that hits an elite affects, in Cameron’s words, “people who have worked hard”, a category that almost everybody will think includes them.

Light debts

References to graduates carrying a “debt burden” as they pay back their £9,000-a-year course fees have always irritated me. Though students technically receive “loans” to cover the fees, the government, in practice, pays upfront and later levies a graduate tax that, like most taxes, has a threshold (£21,000 a year), below which there is no liability. If you carry on earning little enough for long enough, your debt is written off. Not many debts work like that; last time I looked, Wonga wasn’t excusing repayments because debtors’ incomes were too low.

Now David Willetts, the universities minister, admits the proportion of graduates who will never repay their full “loans” is approaching 48 per cent. This is bad news for the government, because at that level the benefits of raising fees to £9,000 are cancelled out and ministers show themselves to be worse at maths than 18th-century Scottish clergymen. Surely everyone can now see that graduates don’t carry a debt burden.

Lost cause

A Channel 5 film crew left a seven-year-old and a five-year-old alone and apparently lost in a busy shopping centre to see if adults would come to their aid. With one exception, none did. Is that because we’re uncaring or because we’re scared of being branded as paedophiles? Neither, I suggest. We’ve all learned that if we see something odd in the street it’s most likely some TV or advertising stunt.