Pension taxes become a battlefield for the budget

Two seperate groups are pushing for changes to how pensions are taxed in the budget, but could they

There have been two seperate calls recently for the budget to include major changes to the way pensions are taxed, each coming at the topic from a completely difference angle.

The Telegraph reported on a call from the Office for Tax Simplification, an independent body working under the aegis of Treasury, for the state pension to be made exempt from income tax.

James Kirkup writes:

In a report to Treasury ministers, the advisers said that there was a “patchwork of allowances and rules which many in their later years find very confusing” and that taxing the basic state pension made the system significantly more complicated.

"Many of those who do understand that it is taxable feel that this is unjust, given that they have contributed through the national insurance system through their working life," the report said. Among the options identified by the OTS was: "Exempt the state pension from tax altogether."

A full basic state pension is worth £5,311 a year. Exempting that sum from the 20 per cent basic rate of income tax would be worth around £1,060.

The recommendation is one of many in a report explicitly concerned with highlighting "problem areas and possible directions of travel for the future", but it has been leapt upon by the paper -- and it's readers, over 80 per cent of whom want pensioners to be exempt from income tax, according to an entirely unscientific poll on the site.

While one group is pushing for less tax on pensioners, another sees them -- or their pensions, at least -- as a potential source of revenue.

The Times reported (£) yesterday that, in exchange for dropping proposals for a mansion tax, the Liberal Democrats have secured a government review of the tax relief on pension contributions from top-rate taxpayers. Richard Murphy explains the logic in The Guardian:

If I decide to make a contribution to a pension (I'm self employed) I say to my pension company I want to pay £5,000 this year. There are two forms of tax relief: one is at source and one at higher rate. So if I decide to pay £5,000, I actually pay £4,000 and and get topped up 20 per cent in tax relief. If I'm higher rate tax payer then I put that payment into my tax return and as a result I get tax relief at 40 per cent so I get another 1k of tax saving. At the moment there are lifetime limits of around £1.4m. For those over £150,000 there is an annual limit to their contribution of £50,000. This means their tax bill goes down by 25k. People earning over £150,000 get a benefit of £25,000 at a time when the government is saying that the maximum any family can get in welfare benefits is £26,000.

When you come to retire, your pension schemes requires you to buy an annuity, a way of paying you back over your expected life. That's the money you paid in, plus interest. You get get taxed on those payments. The reason you get taxed is that you didn't pay at the time you earned it. It's deferred tax. But if you were liable to higher rate taxes when you earned it, you are likely to pay basic rate when you receive it.

As Murphy points out later, the problem with removing this relief is that it would lead to double taxation -- being taxed when you earn your wage, and then again however-many-years later when it is payed out as a pension. His response is that double taxation is a normal part of tax, since "we tax income then spending"; but if that is the case, then this change would lead to triple taxation.

Instead, these two measures would go nicely hand-in-hand. If the tax on pensions were removed at the same time as the relief on pension contributions is shrunk, then double -- or triple -- taxation would cease to be a problem. And it could still be a net increase in revenue, since it would trade income tax on pensions, which is almost always basic rate, with income tax on wages, which is often a lot higher.

George Osborne waves to delegates at the Tory Conference in 2011. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.