Prepare for more pensions freedom

Pensions minister Steve Webb has proposed massive changes to annuities. Merryn Somerset Webb explains how they would work under the new scheme.

This is a big year for pensions. Whether they call it the "pension shake-up of a generation", a time of "far-reaching changes" or the "biggest and most popular reform" in 50 years, pretty much every commentator agrees that we all need to get a grip on the new rules and, as Josephine Cumbo puts it in the Financial Times, "prepare for pensions freedom".

We'll write more on this (a lot more) over the next few months. But for now, we want to look at the plight of those who missed out on the new freedoms those who have bought annuities in recent years.

Technically there has been no compulsion to buy an annuity for some time. Those with high incomes elsewhere have been able to enter "flexible drawdown". Those with less have had the "capped drawdown" scheme (which allows you to take a limited amount from your pot every year).

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But in practice, with not all schemes allowing this and the cap putting many off, there are, says pensions expert Ros Altman, still five to six million people in the UK "locked into" annuity deals they may never have taken had pension freedoms been in place earlier and which many thousands of them would love to undo.

Good news, then, that those thousands have just been thrown a possible lifeline by pensions minister Steve Webb. Webb has suggested that pensioners should be allowed to cash in annuities for a lump sum. That lump sum could then be treated as a pension subject to the new, rather than the old, rules.

How would it work? There has long been a market in life-insurance policies and this would be much the same. You would go to a provider or investor and exchange your lifetime entitlement to an income for cash.

The price would depend on your health (the sick wouldn't get much, given that the buyer wouldn't expect to get much), any inflation linkage (this is valuable) and whether it is a single or a double annuity (investors will pay more if the annuity is designed to pay out to a partner after your death). The question is then how that lump sum will be taxed.

It could be counted as income immediately and taxed as such or, if Webb is in his usual generous mood, the sum could be returned to a pension wrapper and then taxed as income on withdrawal as other pensions are to be.

There is huge room for exploitation here if it takes off there will be endless stories in the papers of the elderly being ripped off and ending their days in penury and it also isn't yet policy. However, this is a government clearly determined to make people responsible for their own finances in retirement, be it a good idea or not. So we rather expect that it soon will be.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.