Pensions minister Steve Webb. Photo: Getty
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How are the government going to build a pension system that works?

Most people want to “give their money away to someone whom they can trust will use it wisely to generate a income when they retire”.

The budget announcement allowing savers to choose how they spend their retirement savings may look a political coup. But to suggest it addresses the issue of how we provide pensions is a misuse of the English language. In fact it begs this question, “if people do not buy annuities, how are they to able to provide for themselves throughout their retirement?” Because an annuity is a pension; that is “a regular payment made during a person’s retirement”.  So, if you don’t buy a pension when you retire, how are you to ensure you have enough to look after yourself as you grow older?

Let us be clear. The Chancellor had good reason to abandon annuities, because they are such poor value for money. Today, someone retiring at the age of 65, who had saved £100,000, and wanted to buy a pension annuity which kept pace with inflation, would only be paid about £3,600 a year. In other words they would need to live until they were 93 just to get their money back. Fifteen years ago, they would have received much more. But the combination of low interest rates, and destructive competitive forces put pay to that. Annuities are bad value, and the government had no wish to face a grey electorate, which it had forced to purchase them.

But it doesn’t address the core problem. Because if you don’t buy an annuity how do you know that you will be able to look after yourself in retirement? For those in the public sector the answer is easy. Their pension savings is designed to generate an income for life. That used to be the situation in the private sector as well. But successive, and sometimes well intentioned regulation, has resulted in that pension system slowly being abandoned.  The government’s latest announcement is just another nail in the coffin. Retirement savings no longer need to be used to buy a pension - they are rather a pot set aside to give yourself a golden handshake when you stop work.

So let’s consider the prudent hard working person who retires, at the age of sixty five trying to plan for their future. If they don’t buy an overpriced annuity what do they do? What happens when, in their late 80s having done everything by the book, they discover they are running out of money. What future do they face, when, despite their playing everything by the book, their savings have run out? Is that the best we can do for people who have worked hard, been prudent, planned and saved?

And that is assuming that they have negotiated their way around the siren voices of financial advisors who will doubtless have gone on a spree of “innovation” to help invest the savings of those who are no longer buying annuities. Those who remember the last attempt to “free pensions” in the 1980s will also remember the ubiquitous pensions’ mis-selling scandals which followed.

What is needed is a pension system which works. In all the research which the RSA has done, most people want to “give their money away to someone whom they can trust will use it wisely to generate a income when they retire”. That simple system, a comprehensive private pension system, is lacking in the UK.

However, across the North Sea, in Holland and Denmark, they have a private pension system that works on that basis. You set aside your money each year and receive a pension in retirement. Indeed their simple well designed systems mean that, if a typical Briton and a typical Dutch person, both save the same amount, have the same life expectancy and retire on the same day; the Dutch saver will get a 50 per cent higher pension than the Briton.

That is the challenge for the government. Not the further abandonment of the inadequate British pension system, but the building of a new one that works. There is no perfect solution, but there are approaches which are far better than those we are pursuing in the UK today. They are systems which have gained political consensus, and stood the test of time. They were not built by surprise announcements in the budget. Such announcements about the pension system, made in haste, and spun as a political coup, are often ones which old people, many years later, repent at leisure. So let’s make sure that the Chancellor’s announcement is not a further retreat from a broken pension system, but rather that it clears the space for a new system that works.

David Pitt Watson is Director of the RSA Tomorrow’s Investor programme. He is an Executive Fellow in Finance at the London Business School, and founder of Hermes Equity Ownership Service, the largest shareholder stewardship programme of any fund manager in the world

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.