Press Release: Campaigners press government for action on pension tax relief

Published on 5 October 2018

The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) is calling on the Government to use the forthcoming Budget and Finance Bill to act on an inconsistency in tax rules which means that more than a million people on low incomes could be losing out on tax relief on their pension contributions.

LITRG makes the call in a Budget representation and also as one of the signatories of a letter sent yesterday (Thursday) to Chancellor Philip Hammond. The other signatories include NOW: pensions and two former pensions ministers – Steve Webb and Ros Altmann.

Members of relief at source pension schemes (RAS) who do not pay income tax, typically those earning less than £11,850 each year, are entitled to basic rate tax relief on pension contributions up to £2,880 a year. However, this tax relief is not available for non-taxpayers in net pay arrangement schemes (NPA). This means that somebody in NPA, earning £11,850, paying the minimum contributions required under auto enrolment, is missing out on £34.91 in the current tax year as compared to someone in a RAS scheme.

LITRG Chair Anne Fairpo said:

“Low earners are in a pension lottery through no choice of their own. Those whose employers use traditional RAS schemes receive basic rate tax relief on their contributions. Those – a majority – whose employers use the more recently created NPA schemes do not. This is unfair.

“The upcoming increase in pension contribution rates from three per cent to five per cent makes auto enrolment a much bigger consideration for the lowest paid. But many people on low incomes will not be able to obtain the government contribution promised to them to help make up the five per cent and this may act as a disincentive as it makes auto enrolment effectively 20 per cent more expensive for them."

In its Budget submission, LITRG suggests a solution that would see HMRC using PAYE Real Time Information (RTI) data to identify those making pension contributions under net pay arrangements. They could then provide tax relief (where appropriate) through an annual reconciliation process – whether that is through self-assessment or – as is more likely – the informal P800 process (the annual reconciliation HMRC perform to check whether those outside self-assessment have paid the correct amount of tax).

Anne Fairpo said:

“We recognise there are cost implications to putting NPA contributors on an equal footing with those using RAS but our understanding is that this is the basis on which automatic enrolment was originally costed. Parity of treatment is not only fairer, it is what was originally intended.

“We urge the Chancellor to take the opportunity to put things right for low paid pension savers as soon as possible and ideally, before the five per cent contribution increase hits in April 19. Otherwise there is a real risk that the benefits of auto enrolment will be undermined.”

The letter reads:

Dear Chancellor,

Automatic enrolment is a policy success story with nearly 10 million people saving into a workplace pension because of its introduction.

The government provides tax relief on pension contributions to help encourage people to save. But more than a million low earners are missing out on tax relief through no fault of their own.

We believe in two principles:

  1. The means by which tax relief is paid (net pay or relief at source) should not affect the amount of tax relief paid.

  2. Savers should receive this relief automatically, without having to ask HMRC for it.

Why does this issue exist?

There are two ways pension savers can receive tax relief – through either ‘net pay’ or ‘relief at source’ (RAS) arrangements.

Under net pay arrangements, the pension contribution is deducted before the tax is calculated. In RAS arrangements, the pension contribution is deducted after tax is calculated and HMRC later send the tax relief, at the basic rate (20%), to the pension scheme.

The vast majority of occupational pension schemes operate on a net pay basis while traditionally contract-based schemes have operated on a RAS basis.

Members of RAS pension schemes who do not pay income tax, typically those earning less than £11,850 each year, are nonetheless, entitled to basic rate tax relief on pension contributions up to £2,880 a year.

However, this tax relief is not available for non-taxpayers in net pay schemes. This means that the lowest earners in net pay schemes are having to pay 25% more for their pensions (by missing out on 20p for every £1 contributed, they need to pay 25% more to achieve parity).

Many are unaware of this, but we urge you to address the situation urgently for these low-paid workers who can least afford the added cost.

Figures from HMRC indicate that in 2015/16, 1.22 million people could have been affected by this issue – that includes those automatically enrolled as well as workers already in occupational schemes.

Somebody earning £11,850, paying auto enrolment minimum contributions, is missing out on £34.91 in the current tax year. By 2020/21, when the personal allowance is expected to have risen to £12,500 (and the minimum contribution rate has also risen to 5%), affected savers could miss out on nearly £65 per year.

HMRC is looking at solutions to resolve an issue which has arisen in RAS schemes as a result of devolved taxation, namely that 21% Scottish taxpayers are missing out on the 1% extra tax relief they are due. We urge government to use this opportunity to put things right for low paid workers in net pay schemes.

To prevent auto enrolment being undermined, it is essential that the government takes decisive action based on the two principles above. This needs a clause in the Finance Bill and utilisation of the system changes that are already underway in HMRC to tackle the devolution problem. We are very happy to work the details through with your HMRC colleagues to make sure all savers are treated equally.

Yours sincerely,

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director, Age UK

Baroness Ros Altmann, Chair, pensionsync

Troy Clutterbuck, CEO, NOW: Pensions

David Dalton-Brown, Director General, Tax Incentivised Savings Association (TISA)

Anne Fairpo, Chair, Low Incomes Tax Reform Group of the Chartered Institute of Taxation

Helen Hargreaves, Associate Director of Policy, Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP)

Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary, Trades Union Congress (TUC)

Nigel Peaple, Director of Policy and Research, Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA)

Henry Tapper, First Actuarial and Pension PlayPen

Steve Webb, Director of Policy, Royal London

LITRG’s Budget 2018 representation: Net Pay Arrangements for lower paid workers, can be read on our website.

(05-10-2018)

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