The inequality of public sector, defined benefit pensions

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THU, 28 OCT 2021

A colleague made a presentation recently, which covered the disparity between defined benefit and defined contribution pension arrangements.

He considered the differing treatment between the two, particularly with regard to the annual allowance and the lifetime allowance.

It is apparent when comparing DB and DC schemes, that there is significant advantage, and I personally think there is unacceptable inequality, in the treatment of the former over the latter.

One scenario covered in the presentation was of two directors of a company. One was a member of the DB scheme, due to the member’s length of tenure, and the other a member of the DC scheme, having joined after the DB scheme was closed to new members.

In this scenario, the presumption was that the funding level of both schemes was set at 10 per cent from the employee and 20 per cent from the employer; the pensionable salary was £180,000 with a non-pensionable bonus of £35,000; the first director had 21 years’ service at the end of the pension input period, and neither had any other source of income or pension arrangements.

Both retained the full AA, as they had threshold incomes of £197,000 (£215,000 – £18,000 (£180,000 x10 per cent)). However, the first director’s pension input amount was just £38,405, while the second’s was £54,000.

So, the first director had a PIA of £15,595 less than the actual monetary amount, and unused AA of £1,595 to carry forward.

The second director exceeded the AA by £14,000, and without enough carry forward of unused AA would be subject to a tax charge of up to £6,300.

There are actually very few open DB schemes in the private sector any more, primarily because of the increasing liability of meeting the obligation to pay a guaranteed index-linked pension for the life of the member and any dependent survivors.

Yet it is still the accepted norm for public-sector pension schemes, with schemes remaining open to new members.

The received wisdom is that the reason for maintaining DB arrangements for the public sector is the lower salaries on offer. Without getting into the politics of this, a quick search of average salaries across some public sector roles can quickly dispel this view.

In Q2 of 2021, the average salary in the UK was £26,266, whereas across several local authority roles I looked at, the average was around £34,000. In education, the median for a teacher is about £31,000, and for a lecturer the average is in the low £40,000s.

For ‘leadership-group’ teachers, the salary scale ranges from approximately £42,000 to in excess of £117,000, with slightly higher amounts for those in inner London.

Coincidentally, around the time of my colleague’s presentation, I happened to be catching up with a bit of reading and came across an article by John Ralfe, an independent pension consultant.

By his estimates, the average cost of all UK public-sector pension schemes for 2021 was 63 per cent of salaries, with employee contributions averaging 8 per cent, and the balance of 55 per cent from the employer, who is ultimately the taxpayer.

The public-sector pensionable payroll totals around £175bn, meaning the annual taxpayer’s cost is about £95bn.

Comparing the funding level of public sector DB schemes with that of private sector DC arrangements, the disparity further manifests itself.

It is estimated that for the larger private sector DC schemes, the employer funding level is around 10 per cent; bear in mind that with auto enrolment, the obligation is set at just 3 per cent.

Coming back to the myth of lower public sector salaries, if we aggregate salary and the average for pension funding, then for the local authority roles I reviewed, the ‘package’ is not £34,000, but an estimated £52,700.

This contrasts with the package for someone in a private sector role on the same salary and a member of a DC scheme, of just £37,400.

To put it another way, to have a comparable total package, the individual in the private sector would need to receive a salary of £47,910, which is fast approaching the higher-rate tax threshold in England and Wales.

There is much made of the overall cost of tax relief for pensions to the Treasury.

In the past I have certainly called into question the government figures that are cited, as for one thing they include the ‘lost’ national insurance, because the money is being directed to pension, rather than being paid as salary.

Equally, the largest portion of tax relief is enjoyed by employer contributions to DB schemes.

Therefore, in summary, are we meant to conclude that due to the majority of funding of public sector DB schemes ultimately coming from the taxpayer that we, the taxpayers, are the beneficiaries of this largesse?

Now, that is a different way of thinking about how we personally benefit from pension tax relief.

This article first appeared on FTadviser

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