Annual allowance: tapered reduction

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 9th June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Rosindell; it is a delight to see you in the Chair.

I start by saying that we are at the point in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” where we are about to enter the slough of despond, and I apologise to all colleagues that the slough is a rather extended period of technical amendments. I can promise them that in due course we will enter the place of deliverance, although possibly not for some time.

Clause 21 raises both pensions tapered annual allowance thresholds by £90,000 each and also lowers the minimum annual allowance to £4,000. The Government provide tax relief on pension contributions. To give some background, in 2017-18 income tax and employer national insurance contributions relief cost £54 billion, of which 60% went to higher and additional-rate taxpayers.

The Government therefore impose limits on pensions tax relief. One of these limits—the tapered annual allowance—has affected some senior clinicians in the national health service and also some individuals in other public service workforces. This measure is the outcome of the Government’s manifesto commitment to carry out a review of the impact of the tapered annual allowance on the NHS. That review built on another review of the effect on public service delivery more widely, which was announced last August. Roundtable discussions with public service stakeholders, including representatives of the health professions, were held as part of these reviews. These reviews concluded at the Budget on 11 March.

In the last tax year, in recognition of the impact that the tapered annual allowance was having on some doctors, NHS England announced a special arrangement, for 2019-20 only, in which doctors in England could use that arrangement to ensure that they would not be worse off as a result of taking on extra shifts. As health is a devolved matter, that special arrangement applied only to England, but we are aware that the Welsh and Scottish Governments also put similar arrangements in place during 2019-20 for NHS staff.

Raising the two thresholds at which the tapered annual allowance applies by £90,000 each is the quickest and most effective way to solve this issue for senior doctors and other clinicians. It delivers a tax solution, which has been the British Medical Association’s primary request, and it comes into effect from 6 April, which is the beginning of the current tax year.

The changes made by clause 21 mean that no one with income below £200,000 will now be caught by the tapered annual allowance. The annual allowance will only begin to taper down for individuals who also have total income, including pension accrual, above £240,000. We estimate that this will take up to 96% of GPs and up to 98% of NHS consultants outside the scope of the tapered tax allowance, based on NHS earnings alone.

As this is a tax change, these measures will apply both to clinical and non-clinical staff across the whole UK, and they will apply in the same way to all workforces. These measures will also apply equally across public and private sector registered pension schemes. However, to ensure that the very highest earners pay their fair share of pension tax, the minimum level to which the annual allowance can taper down is reducing from £10,000 to £4,000 from the beginning of this tax year. This will affect only those with a total income, including pension accrual, of over £300,000. These measures will cost over £2 billion over the next five years.

The changes demonstrate that the Government are committed to ensuring that hard-working NHS staff do not find themselves reducing their work commitments as a result of the interaction of their pay, their pension and the tapered annual allowance tax regime. This meets the Government’s commitment to allow doctors to spend as much time as possible treating patients, and supports vital public services while ensuring that the very highest earners pay their fair share of tax. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

It is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Chair this morning, Mr Rosindell.

The Opposition welcome the Government’s efforts to resolve the issue. Hon. Members will know that the primary function of introducing the tapered reduction of the annual allowance in 2016 was to prevent tax avoidance in the private sector, but whatever the original intention of the tapered annual allowance threshold, its impact was not properly considered. The result has been damaging to our NHS: as the Financial Secretary says, it has led to a situation in which senior practitioners have refused to undertake extra shifts because of the tax impact, and in many cases have taken early retirement.

According to a British Medical Association survey, just under a third of doctors have reduced the number of hours they spend caring for patients because of actual or potential pension taxation changes, while 37% of those who have not yet reduced them plan to do so in the next year. That is perhaps unsurprising considering the nature of the tapered annual allowance: as the BMA sets out, it creates a tax cliff edge whereby doctors effectively pay to work. Although the Treasury and HMRC have repeatedly stated that tapering affects only people with earnings over £150,000, in defined benefit schemes it has created a tax cliff at the income threshold of £110,000, which means that those in defined benefit schemes may face additional tax charges of up to £13,500 if they exceed the tax threshold income by just £1, while some could face effective tax charges greater than 100%.

Of course, we should recognise that that is not the only factor contributing to the real problem of staff retention in the NHS. Aside from the impact of coronavirus, hospitals and A&Es have been overstretched for years, increasing numbers of people are waiting too long for operations, and key performance targets are being missed month after month. We also face a chronic lack of family doctors; as the Nuffield Trust has highlighted, we have seen the first sustained drop in GP numbers in 50 years, which adds to the pressures on remaining staff. The problem is particularly acute in certain parts of the country: in Sunderland and the wider north-east, we can see the same picture at a much bigger level, where we face a real challenge to recruit and retain family doctors.

The doctors I speak to are always striving to do the best they possibly can in challenging circumstances, but we must acknowledge that the stress they have been placed under, due to the underfunding and neglect of our NHS by this Government, has made the situation even worse. The pension situation that many have faced since 2016 has no doubt proved to be the final straw, as doctors have opted not to take shifts, or to retire early. As we have seen, that is complicating efforts to retain such important NHS staff.

The situation would be unsustainable even if we were not facing the impact of coronavirus, but the additional pressures on doctors, many of whom will have taken on extra shifts, make resolving the issue more pressing than ever. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to those NHS staff who have put themselves on the frontline, in harm’s way, to do all they can in the national interest at this very difficult time for our country.

It is important to note that the problem is not exclusive to staff within the NHS; the annual allowance is a problem in other defined benefit schemes, including for the armed forces. As the Forces Pension Society states,

“in 2018 almost 4,000 serving military personnel, including those in non-commissioned ranks, received notification that they might have exceeded their annual allowance limit and for many a significant tax charge followed—well ahead of receiving any of the future benefit on which the tax is levied.”

The society argues that

“unless action is taken, there is a real risk to retention and operational effectiveness”— a concern also highlighted by the Ministry of Defence.

We all owe it to those in our public services and our armed forces, who do so much to care for us, protect us and keep our country safe, to make sure that they are treated fairly and can plan effectively for their pension and later life. It is clear that that has not happened as a result of the changes implemented by the Government in 2016. The proposed measure does at least promise to address the issue in part and in the short term and the BMA has stated that the vast majority of doctors are now removed from the effect of the taper. However, there are still concerns, and I hope the Minister will be able to respond to them.

The proposed tax change would take effect only from 6 April 2020; as the Minister will know, the additional pressures created by covid-19 began before that point. As the Chartered Institute of Taxation has identified, that means that doctors who took on extra shifts during this period face the risk of being hit by higher tax bills later. What consideration has been given to the issue of medical staff who have made extra efforts during this crisis, but before 6 April 2020? Has any analysis been undertaken of the scale of the problem and will any measures be necessary to address it?

Given that the purpose of the clause is to reduce and reverse the trends with doctors not taking shifts and retiring early, I would also welcome confirmation from the Minister that the Government intend to monitor the impact of the clause on an ongoing basis, to ensure that it is having its intended effect.

We have concerns more broadly because, as the Minister said, the proposed change would benefit all high earners, not just NHS staff and those in our armed forces that the clause ostensibly targets. Monitoring the effect on taxation revenue will also be critical, because the Opposition want to see fairness right across the system. Although the measure seems to address the issue in the short term, the Minister will be aware of the wider concerns about whether the tapered annual allowance is appropriate in general.

The Office of Tax Simplification has suggested removing the annual allowance from defined benefit pension schemes, and that move was supported by the BMA. As it said in its response to the 2020 Budget, although it welcomed the Government’s proposal in part, problems remained, given that many doctors with incomes far below the new threshold will face tax bills as a result of exceeding the standard annual allowance, which remains at £40,000. That can happen simply following a modest rise in pensionable pay—for example, when receiving a pay increment, taking on a leadership role or being recognised for clinical excellence. The BMA has added that there is no change to the lifetime allowance and many doctors will still need to consider taking early retirement.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that the former Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann, has similarly warned that just raising the threshold of earnings at which the tapered annual allowance starts will certainly not solve the underlying problem. She has called for fundamental reform to provide those in defined benefit schemes with greater certainty into the future. The Opposition support that call for broader consideration of the issue.

All that brings us to wider considerations around pension tax relief and whether the system as it operates works as well as it could. The Chartered Institute of Taxation, among others, has said that a review of how tax relief applies to pension savings should be considered, given that the solution that the Government have presented here has only been achieved at significant cost to the Exchequer and to the benefit of many higher-earning people, beyond our medical and armed forces staff. Will the Government consider such a review and think more widely about creating a simpler, fairer and more sustainable pensions system?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks and for welcoming these measures. She expresses what I know will be the universal sentiment in this Committee: a sense of profound gratitude to the NHS for the astonishing way in which it and all the public services around them have responded to the crisis posed by coronavirus. I certainly echo that.

The hon. Lady talked about underfunding of the NHS. I really do not recognise that at all: the NHS has been very well funded, with continuous above-inflation funding settlements. In relation to coronavirus alone, public services have received over £16 billion, the NHS central among them. However, that only underlines the point that extraordinary work was being done by the NHS before, and it throws into greater relief how flexibly, energetically and effectively it has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. I think that shows the inner resilience of the organisation.

The hon. Lady asked about people somehow being deterred from taking extra shifts in the NHS. She will be aware that NHS England put in place its own measures for last year, and we understand that parallel measures were implemented in Scotland and Wales.

The effect of the change, which begins in April, is to give a sufficiently generous increase in the annual allowance thresholds so that up to 96% of GPs and up to 98% of senior medical staff will be out of scope of the tapered annual allowance as regards their NHS earnings. It is interesting to note that, as the hon. Lady rightly acknowledges, that has been widely recognised by the key institutions. The BMA said:

“The vast majority of doctors are now removed from the effect of the taper and will no longer be in a situation where they are ‘paying to go to work’” as they see it. NHS Employers said:

“Employers across the NHS will welcome this significant step in reforming pensions taxation.”

That is all to the good.

The hon. Lady asked whether we will monitor the clause’s impact. The Treasury will of course monitor it as we do the effects of taxation across the piece. This reform will retain a certain political currency and therefore, I think, support and enthusiasm across the Committee. She also asked about fairness across public services. She will be aware that one of the benefits of a tax reform is that it offers fair treatment across those public services, irrespective of how people work.

The question of whether the allowance taper should be removed has been scouted by some. Of course, unless it was replaced by some other approach, it would have the effect of there being no corresponding reduction in the capacity to add pensions relief. The absence of a taper would therefore create precisely the cliff edge that the hon. Lady warned against.

The hon. Lady mentioned the idea of a review. She will be aware that the Treasury had a review only a short number of years ago, which was inconclusive. We continue to reflect on this complex and difficult area of taxation and will do so as we ponder the future fiscal effects. With that in mind, I hope the Committee will agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to

Clause 21 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.