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 Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.