Response to Treasury Consultation on abolishing Age 75 Annuity rule

by Dr. Ros Altmann

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The Government has issued a consultation on its proposals to reform the Age 75 rules for mandatory annuity purchase from pension savings and this document contains my response.

Executive Summary of my response:

55% tax relief recovery charge is unfair - it is a penal rate for those who only received basic rate tax relief on their pension savings. This rate will see the middle classes subsidising pensions for the wealthiest:

55% tax relief recovery charge is great for the wealthiest, with ASP rates coming down from 82% to 55%, but it is a big increase from current 35% tax on drawdown funds passed on by those who die before age 75

Current pension taxation policy is illogical - the regime of death benefit taxation does not fit with the stated objectives and rationale. This is a chance to rethink the application of taxation rules more fundamentally and make the system fairer, rather than less fair. Whether or not an income has been taken, surely some kind of tax relief recovery charge should apply.

Wealthiest pension savers can already escape paying tax on their pensions, with no tax relief recovery charge being levied on QROPS.

Treasury still failing to address problems of OMO - I first called for a radical overhaul of annuity selling in 2002 - it has still not happened: Having been closely and personally involved in the 2002 consultation by the previous Government - 'Modernising Annuities', it is deeply disappointing that there is still a massive failure of regulation when it comes to the annuity sales process.

These proposals are a classic example of the problems faced by the silent majority, who have inadequate representation. The wealthiest pension savers have advisers and industry lobbies but less well-off middle classes will suffer a potential tax increase if they die young and have already entered drawdown.

To ensure they do not 'fall back on the state' people will need to annuitise around £300,000 - £500,000 worth of pension savings (or have income from defined benefit schemes of an equivalent value) - this is only the top 1.5% of pension savers.

Beware: There is a serious risk that these proposals will cause annuity rates to worsen

Money back guarantees beyond age 75 is a good idea - I called for it in 2002 and it is long overdue.

Need more long-term thinking - long-term care is the next crisis. Government should consider incentivising long-term care provision, before the crisis hits us

Proper reform of state pensions would obviate the need for concern about annuitisation

Alternative proposals:

Tax relief recovery charge of 55% is too high - should not be levied on those who received only basic rate tax relief

Tax relief recovery charge should be levied on pension fund capital on either death or withdrawal, also on funds moved abroad

Retirees should not be offered a default annuity - annuity sales process must be urgently reformed to ensure OMO works in customer's interest not provider's

Pension tax regime should incentivise long-term care

People should not be required to annuitise to secure the MIR - allow a capital sum

Government should issue longevity gilts to alleviate worsening rates

The cost of pensions tax relief is around £37billion a year. Such huge sums represent an enormous benefit for top rate taxpayers in particular and the current tax regime already helps the wealthiest pension savers far more than ordinary workers. The proposals contained in this Consultation will improve the tax regime even further for the very wealthiest, but at the expense of those lower down the income or wealth scale. The proposals will not help those who need it most and far more is required to address the inadequacies of the annuitisation process for most of the nearly half a million people who buy an annuity every year.

What is the aim of this consultation and its proposals?
The Government states that it wants to reinvigorate pension saving and that the current pension rules are unnecessarily restrictive. Unfortunately, although the aim of reviving a savings culture and reducing restrictions is sound, the proposed measures will only address problems faced by a tiny minority of pension savers, while potentially worsening the position of millions of others.

The Government says the current rules are unnecessarily restrictive, but this is really only the case for the very wealthiest few percent of pension savers. For most people, the problem is very different and the proposals will not help the majority of pension savers. Indeed, for many, the proposals will result in worse outcomes, as they will increase the tax rates on those who cannot afford to leave their pension funds untouched until age 75 and die in drawdown, as well as risking worsening annuity rates if more people try to annuitise to secure their MIR at younger ages.

The principles of the Government's current pension tax policy are confused. For example, if the purpose of tax relieved pension savings is to provide income in retirement, why is the recovery charge only levied on those who do take some income, while those who can afford not to take income pay no tax at all on their pension fund on death? This tax free pension is offering free life assurance to the wealthiest but what about everyone else?

The current proposals benefit the wealthiest pension savers, but what about everyone else? On the figures in the consultation document, the reduction of tax on ASP and introduction of flexible drawdown with only income tax rates being paid on withdrawals above MIR, will benefit 8,000 people a year, which is just 1.5% of those buying annuities.

The pensions crisis and annuitisation problems affect mostly the middle classes, not the wealthiest and it is these people for whom policy should be ensuring pensions work better. The current proposals do not address the most significant failures of the existing system.

These proposals will not do anything to help people in the new NEST scheme or those auto-enrolled into pensions

Specific responses to consultation questions

A2 - Government's intended approach to reforming pensions tax framework is grossly unfair. It is inevitable that mandatory annuitisation will need to change, due to volume pressures in the annuity market, but the proposed tax changes represent a huge improvement for the very wealthiest pension savers, at the expense of those lower down the income scale. This is unfair.

A3 - 'Secure' income should include a capital sum, perhaps invested in index linked or other gilts, that is sufficient to annuitise up to the MIR level

A4 - An appropriate level for MIR would be that which takes people above means-testing limits and the capital sum needed would vary according to age

A5 - There should not be a different rate for individuals or couples, since single pensioners could marry in later life and there would be no safeguard against the surviving spouse falling back on the state

A6 - The MIR should be reviewed annually

A8 - There are huge regulatory barriers for all those outside the very wealthiest. Those who do not have access to an adviser are stuck with a wholly deficient regulatory sales process which urgently needs to be reformed. Consumers should not be offered a default single life level annuity - they should be forced to choose. At the moment, the industry has a captive at retirement customer base, too many of whom end up in the wrong product at a poor rate, partly because they do not understand, they only annuitise once in their life and their provider often makes it easiest for them to simply take the standard annuity offered in order to start getting their pension as quickly as possible. The FSA is at fault here and, despite numerous consultations and initiatives, the OMO is still not working in the interests of consumers. It is in the interests of providers, especially those who offer poor rates and take commission of 1-2% out of people's pension funds, even when they receive no advice. No other financial product is so poorly regulated - in fact there is virtually no proper regulation of annuity sales. All the customer has to do is sign a form and send it back, to get the wrong annuity at a poor rate. No risk disclosure, no advice, nobody ensuring they know what they are doing in this irreversible process. This failure often leads to increased poverty among older single female pensioners, whose husbands took single life annuities without realising the consequences until it was too late.

A9 - The CFEB and FSA can ensure individuals make more appropriate choices by forbidding the practice of offering default annuities. This will force people to make a choice and find out the necessary information before they buy an annuity. They will then have to consider the vital questions, such as whether to cover a partner, whether their health would mean an enhanced rate is available, whether to take the tax free lump sum and delay annuitisation, whether to take a ten year or lifelong guarantee instead of just five years, whether to consider inflation protection etc.

A10 These reforms may have the unintended consequence of worsening annuity rates, if people have to annuitise earlier than age 75 in order to be able to access the capital in flexible drawdown and benefit from just income tax rates, instead of the recovery charges or death rate.

Detailed Comments:

These proposals to reform the pensions tax framework are grossly unfair. 55% tax relief recovery charge is penal for those who only received basic rate tax relief on their pension savings. This rate will see the middle classes subsidising pensions for the wealthiest: I have serious concerns about the proposed reforms, although the Government claims that a 55% tax relief recovery charge is 'appropriate' this simply cannot be fair for basic rate taxpayers. It is only 'appropriate' for higher rate taxpayers, who are actually the minority of citizens. Those who receive top rate tax relief get £2 for every £3 they invest in a pension, which is a 66% benefit from tax relief. However, those on basic rate relief get only 20p for every 80p they invest, which is only 25% uplift. Thus a 55% recovery charge is unfair.

55% tax relief recovery charge is great for the wealthiest, with ASP rates coming down from 82% to 55%, but it is a big increase from current 35% tax on drawdown funds passed on by those who die before age 75: The 55% rate will increase death taxes on many middle class pensions of those who die before age 75, while vastly reducing the tax paid by those with the very largest pension funds who will be the wealthiest pension savers. This is a transfer of wealth and tax benefits from the middle to the top of the income distribution, which cannot be considered fair. Removing ASPs will simplify retirement options and tax treatment, but it will penalise all non higher rate taxpayers in the process.

Current pension taxation policy is illogical: The logic of current pension taxation policy is difficult to fathom, with confused objectives and inconsistent rationale. Surely this would be an ideal opportunity to reform pension taxation fairly, rather than merely improving the position of the top echelons of society at the expense, potentially, of those in the middle. Tax policy is supposed to ensure that pension savings are used to provide an income in retirement and that the tax relief is recovered later. The Government also stresses that pensions should not be a means of passing on wealth tax free. However, as long as an income has NOT been taken from the pension fund, it is passed on tax free on death. This means that those who are wealthiest and can afford not to take any income from their pension, can pass on their accumulated pension savings tax free if they die before age75, while those who need to take some income will suffer substantial tax on death. Such a regime does not fit with the stated objectives and rationale. This is a chance to rethink the application of taxation rules more fundamentally and make the system fairer, rather than less fair. Whether or not an income has been taken, surely some kind of tax relief recovery charge should apply.

Wealthiest pension savers can already escape paying tax on their pensions, with no tax relief recovery charge being levied on QROPS. QROPS represent another example of the illogicality and favourable treatment for the wealthiest, by current pension tax policy. Those who can afford to leave the UK are able to take their pensions without any tax relief recovery charge and will not even pay UK tax on the income they receive. They have been able to escape tax almost entirely in many cases and, again, these are the people with the largest pensions.

Treasury still failing to address problems of OMO - I first called for a radical overhaul of annuity selling in 2002 - it has still not happened: Having been closely and personally involved in the 2002 consultation by the previous Government - 'Modernising Annuities', it is deeply disappointing that there is still a massive failure of regulation when it comes to the annuity sales process. Given the numbers of people annuitising each year - which is approaching half a million people - and the ongoing switch from defined benefit to defined contribution pension provision, coupled with the demographic profile which sees a sudden surge in the numbers of 65 year olds over the coming decade, the need for improved pension outcomes is urgent. This consultation and its proposals do not really address the failings of the annuity sales process and the Open Market Option. There is a difference between allowing flexibility and choice and ensuring this. The current system may allow it, but in practice it works against those who have no adviser obtaining the best value for themselves from the irreversible annuity process.

These proposals are a classic example of the problems faced by the silent majority, who have inadequate representation. The wealthiest pension savers have advisers and industry lobbies but less well-off middle classes will suffer a potential tax increase if they die young and have already entered drawdown. Pressure for the wealthiest pension savers has delivered substantial tax reductions already, such as in these proposals to reduce tax rates from 82% to 55% - and even to 50% or 40% for those who pay only income tax rates.

To ensure they do not 'fall back on the state' people will need to annuitise around £300,000 - £500,000 worth of pension savings (or have income from defined benefit schemes of an equivalent value) - this is only the top 1.5% of pension savers! The MIR test, to be reliable, will need to ensure that both single and married people secure at least enough to reliably avoid means-tested benefit levels, including inflation linking. The level of the MIR should be revisited each year and the cost will vary with age, but the aim would be to ensure an index linked income of around £15,000 a year, including state pension. At the moment, a married couple would need around £500,000 at age 60 and perhaps £300,000 at age 70 to be able to buy an index-linked joint life annuity to secure this level of MIR.

Beware: There is a serious risk that these proposals will cause annuity rates to worsen: I also fear that the result of the current proposals will be a worsening of annuity rates, despite the suggestion that the opposite is more likely. Although, in theory, they should mean fewer people over 75 buying annuities with their whole pension fund, in practice, it is likely that more people under age 75 will buy annuities This will mean a rise in demand for annuities in the nearer term. Yes, it is possible that annuity rates may not worsen as much as they would under an unchanged tax regime, however the proposed 'Minimum Income Requirement' is likely to force more people to buy annuities earlier than age 75, in order to secure their 'Minimum Income' and this will place further pressure on the annuity market, which is already suffering from lack of volume at times now. In order to satisfy the MIR it is entirely possible that we will see a sudden rise in demand for annuities of around £300,000 from people in their 50's or 60's with large pension funds. As increasing numbers of workers reach retirement, which is inevitable in the next few years due to demographic pressures, there will be more demand for annuities, while supply is limited. In the nearer term, forcing people to annuitise at least part of their pension savings earlier than age 75 could add demand that would have been delayed for some years into the future.

Money back guarantees beyond age 75 are a good idea: The one sound proposal is that 'money back guarantees' will be permitted for annuity sales in future. Again, this is something that I was championing in 2002, but at that time the Treasury refused to permit anyone to receive the balance of capital if they died after age 75. There was no logical reason for that refusal and it is welcome to see the decision being reversed. However, a 55% tax relief recovery charge is very harsh and, indeed, grossly unfair for those who only received basic rate tax relief on their pension savings.

Need more long-term thinking - long-term care is the next crisis. Government should consider incentivising long-term care provision, before the crisis hits us: Reform of pension taxation and annuity requirements also offers an opportunity to think ahead to the next crisis of old age that is looming for the next twenty or more years. Long-term care will be the crisis to follow our pensions crisis. Not enough is being done to provide funding for future long-term care expenditure. One in five of pensioners will need long-term care, but almost none has made provision for this. If Government wants to plan for the long-term then it needs to ensure that both pension income and long-term care needs are catered for. There is a long way to go on this! Having allowed the pensions crisis to develop, without putting in place appropriate or adequate policies to avert it in time, surely it would be wise to consider how best to use pensions and other savings or insurance to ease the pressure of funding long-term care in future.

Proper reform of state pensions would obviate the need for concern about annuitisation: Finally, if state pensions were properly and radically reformed, to provide a decent basic minimum social welfare payment, without additional mass means-testing, the Government would not need to be so concerned about people falling back on the state and pension savings could be freed to be used more flexibly as individuals wanted or needed.

Detail on Alternative Proposals:

Tax relief recovery charge of 55% is too high - Government should look for ways to raise revenue from pensions elsewhere to allow the rate to come down.

55% tax relief recovery charge should not be levied on those who received only basic rate tax relief. The rate is far too high for such people and should not be more than 35%.

Tax relief recovery charge should be levied on pension fund capital on either death or withdrawal. At the moment, it is illogical and unfair that those who can afford not to take any income out of their pension funds before they die can pass on their whole pension fund, tax free, while those who have needed some income before age 75 (in other words not those who are wealthiest), will have to pay even more tax on death - the rate will increase from 35% to 55%. If the aim of policy is to provide tax relief in order to ensure people have an income in retirement, then surely the tax relief recovery should be made from those who do not actually take an income! At the moment, the tax regime on death for those who have not yet started drawing an income neither provides income nor recovers the tax relief.

Tax relief recovery charge should be levied on funds moved abroad that would otherwise not repay any of the tax relief received. Current QROPS rules allow the very wealthiest often to avoid UK tax altogether. This is another example of how the current pension tax rules benefit the very wealthiest the most. In order to improve fairness and help improve tax revenues, this situation needs to be urgently addressed.

Retirees should not be offered a default annuity. If not default annuity is offered, then people will have to make a choice that suits their circumstances and engage with the process to consider the vital questions they need to answer before committing to a lifelong annuity. The current annuity sales process is not working in the interests of consumers, it is in the interests overwhelmingly of providers. Since the 'Modernising Annuities' consultation in 2002, I have been trying to help the FSA and Treasury understand that the current OMO process is failing and needs radical reform. So far, this has not happened. People who buy annuities do not understand the issues involved, often receive no help or advice with their annuitisation decision, feel forced into buying the annuity and once bought, it can never be changed. The FSA has failed to understand that annuities are a high risk product for many people. Yes, they can secure a lifelong income, but it may be the wrong level or the wrong type of income. By allowing the default offer from providers to be a single life, level annuity with only a 5-year guarantee, individuals are often annuitising without covering their spouse, which could aggravate the problem of female pensioner poverty in future. In addition, they will have no inflation protection and they may be entitled to an enhanced rate but not receive it. They may also obtain a very poor rate for their annuity from their existing pension provider, but once bought, they cannot change their annuity. They are stuck with it for life. The provider should not be allowed to sell an annuity, or deduct commission, unless the customer has signed that he or she has considered the important questions that will help determine whether they are buying the right kind of annuity and getting a good rate. Standardisation of forms and processes should also be insisted upon by the FSA.

Pension tax regime should incentivise long-term care. Pension funds should be convertible into long-term care funds or insurance options, with tax incentives. This could help avert the looming care crisis, which will inevitable follow our pensions crisis as the ageing population reaches older ages.

People should not be required to annuitise to secure the MIR - allow a capital sum. If more people under age 75 suddenly have to annuitise to secure their MIR, there could be a negative effect on annuity rates. Therefore, it would make sense to permit a capital sum should be set aside, rather than forcing annuitisation, with the amount determined by index-linked annuity rates. If the Government wants to ensure that this capital sum is secure - as well as perhaps helping the fiscal deficit somewhat - this amount could be required to be invested in index-linked gilts, as an alternative to forcing people to buy annuities.

Government should issue longevity gilts - must take the volume issues seriously. There is a serious risk of annuity rates continuing to worsen. As more employers switch from defined benefit to defined contribution and as a result of Solvency II legislation, as well as the increasing trend of closed defined benefit schemes to buyout or buyin with annuities, the pressure on the annuity markets will increase.


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