Automatic pension enrolment timetable
- 2 February 2012
- From the section Business
Reforms designed to get more people saving for retirement have been pushed back so many times that the latest delay scarcely made the news.
It will now be October 2018 before minimum employer contributions to workplace pensions are fully phased in. Previously, this was supposed to happen by October 2017 - and before that by 2016, and before that by 2015.
The government says it is taking things more slowly because economic conditions have made contributions less affordable.
Nonetheless, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) insists it will adhere to the latest timetable regardless of whether the economy improves.
Under the new laws, employees will be automatically enrolled into a pension scheme with employer contributions if they are aged between 22 and the state pension age, earn at least £8,105 a year, and are not already in a scheme that meets minimum standards.
Once enrolled, employees can opt out. But saving in a pension will be the new default setting for anyone who does not express a choice.
Eventually, the automatic level of contributions must be at least 8% of the individual's "qualifying earnings". This includes 3% that must come from the employer.
Qualifying earnings include payments like overtime and commission, not just salary. But an individual's first £5,564 of earnings will not count, and nor will any earnings above £39,853. So 8% of qualifying earnings will always be less than 7% of total earnings - and often far less.
These minimum rates are being phased in. Initially, just 2% of qualifying earnings must be contributed - including at least 1% from the employer. Depending on the employee's income, that is between £51 and £686 a year.
Minimum contributions increase to 5%, including at least 2% from the employer, in October 2017, with the full rates introduced 12 months later.
Employers can set higher contribution rates if they prefer. They will also have the option of basing contributions on more straightforward definitions of pay, which would usually increase the amount due.
Big employers first
If you are not already in a workplace pension scheme, when you will be enrolled depends on how many people are in your employer's Pay-As-You-Earn tax arrangement.
The automatic enrolment regime applies to the very largest employers from October 2012.
Progressively smaller employers will then be brought on board month by month until February 2014, when all employers with 250 or more staff will be within scope. Firms with 250 to 2,999 people on the payroll will not now get extra breathing space, as had been hinted in November.
Employers with between 50 and 249 staff will have compliance dates ranging from April 2014 to April 2015.
For firms with fewer than 50 employees, these deadlines fall between June 2015 and April 2017, unless whoever wins the intervening general election offers them a further reprieve.
From these dates, employers will generally be able to defer automatically enrolling eligible staff for up to three months. That is also the maximum deferral period that can be applied when someone new joins, or when an existing employee turns 22 or starts earning more than £8,105.
Finding the money
Giving up the employer contribution can be tantamount to accepting a pay cut. Although this will not always trump other considerations, it is a powerful reason not to opt out of pension saving.
But where will employers find the money to pay for these pension contributions? The answer might be that they have to keep wage growth subdued.
Employers who already offer high pension contributions have another calculation to make. Do they expect the people who stay in their scheme after being automatically enrolled to value it as much as the smaller number who would have actively signed up?
If not, will they just spread the pensions jam more thinly through lower contribution rates for all new scheme members, or can they identify those who are motivated by pensions in other ways?
Sixteen years will have elapsed between the government establishing a commission to look into the UK's pension problems and its key recommendation being fully implemented. The recent repainting of the Forth Bridge only took 10 years!
It sometimes feels as though much of that time has been used to introduce new levels of complexity into the rules around auto-enrolment, causing more disruption for employers than they ever would have anticipated.
Nonetheless, we will end up with millions more people putting something aside for retirement. That is a huge change.
The problem is that they often will not be putting much aside. Government intervention was only ever intended to achieve a bare minimum level of pension provision. Bringing this in more slowly means first-time savers will have more catching up to do.
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