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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.