Pension tax relief is a way that the government uses the tax system to encourage employees to save for the future. With minimum auto enrolment pension contribution rates set to increase again from 6th April 2019, here is a useful guide for employees and employers to understand how tax relief works on pension contributions paid via payroll. There are 2 ways in which this works:
Pension contributions = £2,000.00 x 2.4% (i.e. 80% of 3%) = £48.00. HMRC top up the employee’s pension pot with the remaining 20% which is £12.00 (i.e. £2,000.00 x 0.6%). The employee ends up with £60.00 in their pension pot.
Tax at 20% = £2,000.00 x 20% = £400.00
Therefore, take home pay = £2,000.00 - £400.00 (tax) - £48.00 (pension) = £1,552.00
Pension contributions = £2,000.00 x 3% = £60.00
Tax at 20% = £1,940.00 (i.e. £2,000.00 gross earnings less £60.00 pension contribution) x 20% = £388.00
Therefore, take home pay = £2,000.00 - £60.00 (pension) - £388.00 (tax) = £1,552.00
Comparing the two, we see that both employees end up with the same amount in their respective pension pots and the same take home pay: Employee A pays £48.00 via payroll and gets a top up of £12.00 from HMRC while Employee B pays £60 into the pension and pays £12.00 less tax as a result.
On the face of it, it might look like it doesn’t make a difference to employees if a pension scheme uses “relief at source” or “net pay arrangement”. However, for low earners who earn above the auto enrolment trigger (£10,000.00 per annum or £833.33 per month) but at or below the normal tax threshold (£11,850.00 per annum or £987.50 per month for 2018/19), a “relief at source” pension scheme is a better option than a “net pay arrangement” one.
As an example, let’s take 2 employees on £950.00 per month and same tax code of 1185L M1 (tax-free allowance of £987.50 per month). Again, we will assume that pension contributions are paid on all gross earnings.
For Employee A who is in a “relief at source” pension scheme, pension contributions via payroll would be £22.80 i.e. £950.00 x 2.4% (i.e. 80% of 3%) and £5.70 would be topped up by HMRC. Total amount in the employee’s pension pot would therefore be £28.50 (i.e. £22.80 plus £5.70). Because the earnings of £950 are below the tax-free allowance, the employee pays no tax and their take home pay is £927.20 (i.e. £950.00 - £22.80).
For Employee B who is in a “net pay arrangement” pension scheme, pension contributions would be £28.50 i.e. £950.00 x 3%. Since the earnings are below the tax-free allowance threshold anyway, there is no tax to pay. The take home pay however is £921.50 (i.e. £950.00 - £28.50), which is lower than that for Employee A.
Because of this anomaly between the 2 types of tax relief for low income earners, there are growing calls on the government to change the rules to make it fair for everyone.