Consumers go it alone as storm clouds gather

March 13, 2008

storms21.jpgThe dust has settled on Alistair Darling’s first Budget and consumers have been given little reason for celebration. The Chancellor, though announcing various measures designed to increase housing affordability, has done nothing to help the masses.

There were no moves to give a helping hand to hard-pressed householders, already struggling amid rocketing mortgage, food, fuel and tax costs, to ride out an impending recession. Darling did pledge to introduce a savings scheme targeted at low and moderate earners, often least able to save: the “saving gateway” will attract government matching for savings over the duration of people’s participation in the scheme. This has the potential to introduce up to eight million people into mainstream savings in the UK who otherwise might not make thrift a priority.

But the level of take-up of such a scheme, amid record personal debt levels and huge pressure on people’s purse-strings, is debatable. Other such government schemes to encourage the nation to save have hardly been a runaway success: think stakeholder pensions and child-trust funds (CTF). One fifth of parents currently let their CTF expire — the government can’t even give money away.

Individual savings accounts (ISAs), on the other hand, have flourished. They are one of the government’s true success stories. More than one in three adults hold an ISA and almost 215 billion pounds has been invested — making them far more popular than other savings initiatives.

Yet, the limits that savers can squirrel away into these tax-efficient vehicles have sorely failed to keep pace with inflation. The allowance will increase to 7,200 pounds from 7,000 pounds (3,600 pounds of which can be held in cash, up from 3,000 pounds) in the coming tax year — but that means the total threshold has risen by less than 3 percent since the accounts were introduced almost a decade ago. “Failing to increase ISA allowances further is a poke in the eye of savers who need encouragement to put away money,” says David Kuo, head of personal finance at Fool.co.uk.

Other changes to the ISA regime mean people will be able to switch cash holdings into stocks and shares — but the reverse will not be possible. And, once the switch has been made, there’s no turning back. The new rules raise the spectre of “another ghastly financial scandal”, according to Cliff Husband, research director at AWD Chase de Vere. “People could switch their ISA cash savings into investments unaware that they can’t switch back. This looks like another poorly delivered initiative from the government; it would be far fairer to all taxpayers if the switch between cash and investment within an ISA could be easily reversed.”

On pensions, too, there is little to encourage saving. While scrapping the 10 pence income tax rate and reducing the basic rate by 2 pence has done next to nothing to increase people’s take home pay, it has reduced the amount of tax relief they’ll get on their pension savings. The Chancellor has maintain higher level tax relief on gifts to charities, so why not for pensions?

“Frankly, while politicians have gold-plated final salary pensions, they can tinker with regulations which will have no real benefit for real workers,” says AWD’s marketing director Martyn Laverick. “If MPs did not have such generous pensions and they faced the same issues the majority of people in this country face about their pensions we would see more decisive action.”

So, it seems, consumers must face the headwinds and try to ride out the storm alone. From today, they should be tightening their belts.

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