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Tax breaks on pensions fuel rich-poor divide, new figures show

Top earners each receive 20 times more tax relief on pensions than ordinary workers

It is rather perverse to give the most tax incentive to people who need it least

Ros Altmann, director general, Saga

Top earners are receiving tax breaks on pension contributions worth on average 20 times those of ordinary workers, according to analysis by Exaro.

People in the UK earning more than £150,000 a year who also pay into pensions attract tax relief averaging £12,000 annually. This compares with just hundreds of pounds for the typical pension saver.

In some cases, top earners are pocketing tax relief for pension contributions worth £25,000 a year – close to average gross earnings in the country.

Exaro used government figures to calculate the 20-times multiple in average tax savings for the UK’s highest earners.

The analysis shows that tax relief on pension contributions is expected to total around £20 billion in this financial year. Some £3 billion of this will go to a maximum of 250,000 people earning more than £150,000 a year.

However, around 11 million basic-rate taxpayers are projected to share about £7 billion of this year’s total tax relief for pension contributions.

Specialists in the field say that the difference in average tax savings revealed by Exaro’s analysis – described by one as “stark” – shows that pension relief for top earners is ripe for reform.

John Whiting, director of tax policy at the Chartered Institute of Taxation, said: “Pensions are the last, great tax shelter, so it would hardly be surprising if covetous eyes were looking at this.”

Reform to tax relief on pension contributions could net the Treasury billions of pounds a year.

Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, told his party’s conference in September that there was a “legitimate debate” to be had about the cost of pension relief for rich people.

Talking at the conference about his party’s call for the wealthy to pay more tax, Clegg said: “Tax relief does not come free. It is other taxpayers paying their taxes to provide a tax relief for people who are much richer than them.”

The extreme difference identified by Exaro in the value of tax breaks is fuelled by top earners’ ability to claim a higher rate of relief for their pension contributions.

About one in 100 people in the workforce has annual earnings above £150,000, the starting point for income tax of 50 per cent. But such people are also entitled to pension relief at up to 50 per cent.

By contrast, basic-rate taxpayers receive relief at 20 per cent.

Dr Ros Altmann, a leading pension campaigner, said: “It is rather perverse to give the most tax incentive to people who need it least.”

Altmann, director general of Saga, which provides travel and financial services for the over-50’s, said that higher-rate relief for pension contributions might well be seen as “low-hanging fruit” by a government that wants to reduce its deficit.

In the run-up to this year’s budget, Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, proposed allowing only a basic rate of tax relief. The cost of the extra relief for people paying income tax at 40 or 50 per cent totalled £7 billion a year, he said.

Despite the proposal reportedly being “the most live of all budget discussions” in government at the time, tax breaks for pension contributions were left unchanged. But George Osborne, chancellor, hinted in his budget speech at tighter restrictions in future.

The Conservative-led coalition government has already brought in pension reforms to cap tax benefits for the rich.

Since April 2011, annual pension contributions on which tax relief can be claimed are limited to £50,000.

Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at Hargreaves Lansdown, a leading financial-services company, said that this cap – even though it includes employer contributions – was of concern only to a minority of top earners. The £50,000 limit was “more than acceptable” for most, he said.

And from last April, the government cut to £1.5 million the ‘lifetime allowance’ limiting the size of an individual’s pension fund that qualifies for tax benefits.

The Treasury forecast that these reforms would raise extra tax of £2.3 billion in 2012-13 and £4.4 billion the following year.

The government is also cutting the top rate of income tax – and, accordingly, pension relief – from 50 to 45 per cent from next April.

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