UK Budget 2018: will higher earners face further cuts to pension tax relief?
Higher earners could face further cuts to valuable pension tax perks in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s November 2018 Budget following cross-party calls to limit tax breaks for the well-off.
A report published last month by the Treasury Committee of MPs concluded that the Government should “give serious consideration to introducing a flat rate of [tax] relief”, among other changes, some of which might also disadvantage higher earners.
Controversy over tax relief on pension contributions – which costs the Exchequer approximately £40 billion per year – last surfaced in a 2015 public consultation undertaken by the Treasury. No substantial changes were subsequently introduced, however. Now the issue has surfaced again as the public finances come under increased strain.
All Britain’s major political parties have indicated or stated a wish to curtail tax relief. The current system allows (within limits, see below) tax relief to apply to pension contributions at the saver’s highest marginal rate.
This proves extremely valuable, particularly as the rules allow a quarter of the eventual pension to be drawn free of further tax. Some wealthy savers are choosing not to draw their pensions at all but to bequeath them to their heirs – effectively deferring or reducing a tax liability even further.
Further to go? Pension tax relief is already much reduced for top earners
“While we talk about the likelihood of future cuts to tax relief, we mustn’t overlook what’s already been done to limit tax reliefs in the form of falling allowances,” says James Gladstone, Head of Wealth Planning.
The annual allowance – the maximum anyone can invest in a pension per tax year – has fallen by more than 80% in under a decade. It stood at £255,000 in 2010 and is now £40,000.
The lifetime allowance – which caps the value of an individual’s pension fund over a lifetime – has dropped from £1.8 million in 2010 to £1.03 million in the current tax year.
The introduction by the Conservative Government in April 2016 of the tax relief “taper” – which scales back the £40,000 annual allowance where earnings exceed a set threshold – was a further blow.
As well as being extremely difficult to administer, it has resulted in significantly reduced contributions for some. The highest earners face a further maximum reduction of £30,000, giving an annual allowance of £10,000. In practice, many people in this bracket have limited their pension savings purely to avoid any possibility of miscalculating their permissible contributions.
Overall, the share of income tax relief paid to the very highest earners (those earning in excess of £500,000) has fallen 40% since 2010, according to research published by the Treasury Committee of MPs.
Capitalising on relief while it remains available
Higher earners with the ability to contribute one-off sums should consider doing so now as a precaution against reliefs and allowances being cut further.
“There is a possibility that any announced changes to the pension system may become effective immediately, which is why planning ahead would seem prudent,” said James Gladstone.
The primary way in which higher earners can add significantly to their pension funds is by carrying forward unused allowances from previous years. The unused allowances of the past three tax years are permitted to be “carried forward” in this way, but the interaction of the carry-forward rules and the taper rules complicates the process.
It is possible, however, that high earners who are limited by the taper in this tax year (2018-19) could still benefit from carrying forward unused allowance from the 2015-16 year - which was the final tax year in which the taper did not apply. For subsequent years unused allowance can be carried forward only subject to the taper.
Who is calling for a cut in higher-rate tax relief – and how likely is it?
A number of high-profile individuals and lobby groups from across the political spectrum have voiced support for a system where higher-rates of relief are replaced with a flat rate. This would represent a reduction in benefits for earners currently paying marginal rates of 40% or 45%.
The idea of reducing reliefs for higher earners also has general support from all of Britain’s major political parties.
- Baroness Altman, pensions minister in the government of David Cameron, said in evidence to the Treasury Committee in March this year that her “preference would be for everybody to get the same incentive for the same contribution”
- Sir Steve Webb, the pensions minister before Baroness Altman, has long favoured a flat rate of relief. He proposed in 2015 that a standard rate of relief for all contributors be set at between 25% and 33%
- The influential conservative think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, founded by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, has suggested this year that existing tax relief structure be replaced by “a bonus structure disconnected from your tax-paying status”
- The Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto cited as a positive achievement their introduction from 2016 of rules limiting tax relief to those earning more than £150,000 (see “tapering”, above)
- The Labour Party’s manifesto of the same year pledged to “restrict tax relief on pension contributions for the highest earners” to subsidise university tuition fees
- The Liberal Democrats in their 2015 and 2017 manifestos said they would “consider the case for introducing a single rate of tax relief for pensions”
Does that make the reduction in pension tax relief inevitable?
There is no certainty that the upcoming Budget will usher in any changes. But over time it is likely that tax relief will be subject to further cuts.
“There is a growing consensus that pension tax relief is due for reform - and in most conceivable scenarios this will result in higher earners being worse off. Reducing the cost of tax relief is something that many chancellors have longed to do for many years. The least politically risky way of doing it is by further targeting big earners.”
There is another obstacle, however, which could deter governments from a significant overhaul: complexity. The existing system is already fiendishly complicated and to expose a wider group of people to the taper will be logistically challenging for all concerned, including HM Revenue & Customs.
James Gladstone, Head of Wealth Planning, said: “We have had a series of cuts to allowances and reliefs going back many years, some of which are still bedding in. The tapering of relief for those earning £150,000-plus is proving very challenging to manage, especially for those who have variable compensation arrangements. There are some very loud voices warning of the consequences of radical change in this area.”
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