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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder