Pensions and Politics

Dafferns Wealth

Pensions have been a big topic in UK politics for some time, nevermore so than in an election year. That’s no surprise to us given their crucial role in the financial security of millions of citizens, but not everyone is as interested and engaged in pensions as we are! Here’s a quick summary of why pensions have been at the forefront of UK politics in recent years.

The UK is Getting Older
The UK, like many developed countries, is experiencing significant demographic shifts. The population is aging, with a growing proportion of retirees compared to working-age individuals. According to the Office for National Statistics, by 2042, the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to double. This demographic change puts immense pressure on the pension system, raising concerns about its sustainability and adequacy. The same can be said for social care. It also means that the average age of the electorate is getting older. The ‘grey vote’ has long been coveted by all parties, not just because of the increasing numbers, older voters tend to turn out and vote in greater percentage terms also. Securing the support of people over 60 is incredibly important for an election win.

The State Pension Will Come Under Pressure
The state pension is a critical component of retirement income for many UK citizens. However, debates around its adequacy and the age at which it should be accessed are heating up. The state pension has benefited from the ‘triple lock’ which has been incredibly valuable to pensioners at a time of high inflation, but many argue this is insufficient to support a comfortable retirement, particularly with rising living costs. On the other hand, questions have been raised about whether the triple lock can be maintained given its cost to the public purse, and there is ongoing debate about further increases to state retirement age to reflect longer life expectancy. These issues are central to voters’ concerns, especially for those nearing retirement age.

Tax Relief on Pension Contributions
This is always a contentious issue and viewed as a big vote winner. Higher-rate taxpayers receive more generous relief than basic-rate taxpayers, leading to debates about fairness and potential reforms. Counter proposals often include capping tax relief or introducing flat-rate relief to make the system more equitable and to increase government revenue. These proposals are met with mixed reactions, as they could impact higher earners’ incentives to save for retirement. There is also the question of how tax relief is equalised between defined benefit and defined contribution pension schemes. Any cuts to public sector schemes, for example, will also raise objections from public sector workers, even if they are just the same as the private sector. More recently there is fierce debate (at least amongst the financial services sector) about the contribution limits imposed for pension tax relief, both annual and over the course of a lifetime. These limits have seen a great deal of tinkering recently as it is probably politically easier to change them than make wide-sweeping change.

Pushing Investment Into the UK
There is a stated desire from both Labour and the Conservatives to change the rules on how we invest pension monies in a way that pushes more money into the UK economy. Diverting more institutional pension money towards the UK is central to their growth strategy, and whether you agree with this level of intervention into investment decisions, it clearly has some momentum now.

Private Pensions and Auto-Enrolment
Auto-enrolment, introduced in 2012, has been a significant policy success, bringing millions into workplace pensions. However, there are concerns about whether contributions are high enough to ensure adequate retirement savings. The current minimum contribution is 8% of qualifying earnings, but experts suggest this may not be sufficient. Political parties are discussing potential reforms, such as increasing contribution rates or expanding coverage to include more low-income and part-time workers. This has to be balanced against short term problems such as the cost of living crisis and wage inflation for employers.

Pension Freedoms and Flexibility
The pension freedoms introduced in 2015, allowing individuals aged 55 and over to access their defined contribution pension pots more flexibly have been widely popular. However, this flexibility has also led to concerns about people exhausting their pension savings too quickly, exposing themselves to financial insecurity in later life. Additionally, there are worries about the potential for scams and mis-selling, making regulation and advice crucial topics in the election debate.

Intergenerational Fairness
This is the counter argument to the policies pitched at current pensioners, with younger generations facing challenges such as high housing costs, student debt, and precarious employment. Many younger voters feel that they are at a disadvantage compared to older generations who benefited from more generous defined benefit pension schemes and stable employment. Political parties are being scrutinized on their policies to address these disparities, ensuring a fair and sustainable pension system for future generations.

Gender Pension Gap
The gender pension gap remains a significant issue, with women, on average having lower pension savings than men due to factors such as career breaks, part-time work, and the gender pay gap. Addressing this gap requires targeted policies, such as enhanced maternity leave contributions, better support for carers and measures to tackle the underlying causes of the gender pay gap. Political parties are under pressure to demonstrate how they will ensure that women are not disadvantaged in retirement.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Considerations
There has been growing interest in how pension funds are invested, with increasing emphasis on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. Some voters are now more concerned about the ethical implications of their investments and the role of pensions in promoting sustainability. However, there is also plenty of comment and opinion that this is less of a priority in a time when people have less disposable income and more immediate concerns. Political parties have been responding with policies that encourage or mandate the inclusion of ESG criteria in pension fund investment decisions, aligning retirement savings with broader societal goals. You only need look at the wide ranging policy making on fossil fuel consumption to see how polarised this debate has become.

In Summary
Pension policy is a critical issue for this and future UK elections, reflecting their fundamental role in ensuring financial security in retirement. All of the above points contribute to the complexity of the pension debate and as you can see there are opposing interests. No party is likely to pacify retirees at the same time as resolving the problems young people face. The need to win votes and take a short time view is one reason many in financial services are asking for an independent commission to be set up to take politics away from pensions in much the same way the Bank of England set interest rates, but it’s probably too important a topic right now right now for any Party to give control away.