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Pension tax relief works on the principle that contributions made to someone’s pension fund are exempt from tax, while the income paid out from the fund is liable to tax. Pension contributions made by individual employees are usually paid out of pre-tax salary, so tax relief is received at the individual’s marginal tax rate. The main limits that apply are the lifetime allowance (LTA) and annual allowance (AA).  At introduction in 2006, the AA was set at £215,000 and the LTA at £1.5 million (Finance Act 2004, s218 and 228). Both were set to increase in stages, with the LTA reaching £1.8m and the AA £255,000 by 2010 (Budget 2004, para 5.45). However, since 2010, both allowances have been reduced:

  • The standard LTA reduced from £1.8m to £1.5m in April 2012, then to £1.25 million in 2014. It was then reduced to £1 million in April 2016, to then rise in line with inflation from April 2018. However, in Budget 2021 the Chancellor announced that it would be frozen at its current level of £1,073,100 until April 2026 (HM Treasury, Budget 2021, March 2021, para 2.77). Legislation for this is in the Finance (No 2) Bill 2019/21, s28
  • The standard AA reduced from £255,000 to £50,000 (April 2011) and to £40,000 (April 2014).
  • People who have flexibly accessed a defined contribution (DC) pensions pot are subject to a lower money purchase annual allowance – initially set at £10,000 but reduced to £4,000 from April 2017.
  • From April 2016, there is a tapered AA for individuals with ‘adjusted income’ over £150,000. Changes to mitigate its impact – increasing the threshold levels of income at which it applies – and a reduction in the minimum AA were legislated for in the Finance Act 2020,

Since 2016/17, the cost of pension tax relief as a proportion of GDP has remained broadly flat. Auto-enrolment, which saw approximately 10 million people brought into pension savings via their employer, placed an upward pressure on costs. Restrictions to pensions tax relief for higher earners – through the annual allowance, tapered annual allowance and lifetime allowance – is reflected in the downward shift from 2015-16 to 2016-17. (HMRC, Estimated cost of tax reliefs, 30 October 2020, p23).

However, commentators in the pensions industry have expressed concern about the impact of repeated changes in the AA and LTA on the complexity of the system and people’s capacity and confidence to plan for retirement (see Budget responses from ABI; PLSA; ACA, 3 March 2021).

Concerns about the impact of the tapered annual allowance on some higher earning public servants, in particular senior NHS clinicians, and the changes made in Budget 2020, are discussed in more detail in Pension tax rules – impact on senior NHS clinicians and GPs, Library Briefing Paper, Commons Library Briefing Paper, CBP 8626, March 2020.

The debate on wider reforms and information on the cost and distribution of pension tax relief is in Library Briefing Paper CBP 7505 Reform of pension tax relief


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