Dominic Thomas
Jan 2023  •  6 min read

Golden handcuffs…

For many employees, a key reason to remain with their employer is because of pension benefits, however the playing field of employer pension schemes is far from level and the cynic in me questions whether Government tax policy is deliberately attempting to reduce the cost of pensions to employers, particularly the State employers such as the NHS.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the two basic types of pension. The clue to what they are is in the unusually straight-forward name.

1 – Defined Benefit (DB) or Final Salary Scheme

Your pension (benefit) is based on your final salary when you leave the scheme, whenever that is at the scheme normal retirement date (NRD).

The amount you get is a fraction of your final salary, your membership of the scheme and work for the employer builds your entitlement. So a scheme with a 1/60th rate of “Accrual” 25 years of membership would provide 25/60ths  (41.6%) of your final salary. This will be inflation-linked within parameters set by the scheme.

The amount you receive has nothing to do with how much you contribute, that can be any amount (sometimes nothing). It is your employers duty to honour the agreement not simply for the remainder of your life but likely the remainder of your spouse’s life as well.

According to ONS data to 2019 (the most recent at the time of writing) there are about 7.6m active members (people still building benefits)  of DB schemes, of these 6.6m are in Public Sector schemes.

2 – Defined Contribution (DC) or Money Purchase Scheme

These schemes are more straightforward in that they are investment-based schemes and the only guaranteed definitions are how much the employer is going to contribute as a percentage of pensionable salary (and the employee). How much this is ultimately worth will depend on how well the money is invested and the charges applied. Many employers use fairly cautious investment strategies in the misguided belief that this is better, yet as most people will save for their retirement for three or four decades, this will be rather like driving with the handbrake on.

The Auto Enrolment pensions that were introduced to automatically add staff to a pension rather than ask them if they wanted to join are essentially defined contribution schemes. They have been a success in the sense that more people are now saving into a pension.

The majority of employers do not offer a DB scheme, in fact hundreds have been closed over the years. There are barely any open DB schemes in the private sector, because they cost an awful lot to run and provide. There are roughly 10.4m people drawing a pension from a DB scheme and it’s fairly evenly split between private and public sector pensions. Remember that these are pensions payable for many years with a degree of inflation-proofing. Back in 2006 there were about 3m members of private sector DB schemes, half of them were closed, but by 2019 only 0.6m members were actively building benefits due to the number of closed schemes, deemed too expensive. Contrast this to the 0.9m members of open private sector DC schemes in 2006 which has risen to a whopping 10.6m.

To put a little more ‘flesh on the bones’ of the open private sector DB schemes, employers contribute a weighted average of 19.1% with employees adding a further 6.5%. Compare this to the weighted average private sector DC scheme where employers contribute 3.5% and employees just 1.6%. It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that its much cheaper (by a country mile) for employers to provide a DC scheme, for which they pay annual contributions when their member of staff works for them and not a penny more thereafter.

Stating the obvious, if you are running any business, profit is what sustains a future; reducing costs increases profits (or should). The Public Sector cannot generally make quick and substantial changes like this. Generally the approach has been to alter existing DB schemes, with pensions starting later (65, 67, 68 as opposed to 60). Member employee contribution rates have increased – doubling in many cases. Finally, the rate of accrual has also been changed, often dressed up as better, but invariably forfeiting other benefits such as a lump sum. This is where most Union and legal challenges have been directed.

So taking a typical doctor who began their career paying 6% into a 1/80th pension scheme that would provide a pension for life from age 60 and a one-off tax-free lump sum. If they started working without any career breaks they might build 36 years of service (36/80ths) providing a 45% pension of their final salary (say £130,000) of £58,500 a year and a one off lump sum of £175,500.

If we exclude inflation, a same salary doctor will need to work an extra 7 years to get their pension at 67. They pay closer to 13.5% of salary to the pension and build it as 43/54ths of 79% of their salary (no lump sum)… but the Government was smarter than that, the maths isn’t really 1/54th of final salary, it’s of each year … the term ‘career average earnings’ captures this.  A doctor starting out is obviously paid substantially less than one at the peak of their expertise and career earnings – so it’s nothing like a final salary but an average salary over 43 years.  Taking the midpoint as an example, 21 years into a career – or retiring on a salary that you had 21 years ago. In fairness it isn’t quite like that, there is some inflation-linking, but this is detail you don’t need to know right now. The principle is how pensions in the Public Sector have been sliced and diced to save money.

When you add in draconian Government/HMRC rules about the Lifetime Allowance (a tax charge of 25% or 55% for those with pensions valued at over £1,073,100 and the Annual Allowance formula used, (which for many triggers a substantial tax on a pension income they have not yet had), it is very hard to conclude anything other than a deliberate strategy to remove higher paid long-term employees … like doctors.

So quite apart from the awful treatment medics often get in the media and utterly fictional suggestions of Consultants barely breaking from a round of golf to turn up for work occasionally, there is little wonder that most of them feel betrayed by a nation that they chose to serve. I can certainly tell you that from three decades of working with NHS doctors, I’ve not met any that became multi-millionaires through their work within healthcare. Some are certainly more entrepreneurial than others, but most of them simply love medicine and get satisfaction making a real difference in people’s lives, more likely describing it as a ‘calling’.

The reasons for the NHS being in crisis are complex and many, but part of the reason is that many doctors are being forced to reduce the number of sessions that they work or retire early so as to avoid a scenario where they are essentially paying more tax than the income they earn … actually paying to work. It is down to the Government and policymakers to have an adult approach to pensions and scrapping many of the really very badly thought through self-defeating rules.

You can read more articles about Pensions, Wealth Management, Retirement, Investments, Financial Planning and Estate Planning on my blog which gets updated every week. If you would like to talk to me about your personal wealth planning and how we can make you stay wealthier for longer then please get in touch by calling 08000 736 273 or email