There are two main types of schemes

Defined contribution schemes

A defined contribution (DC) or money-purchase pension scheme is one that invests the money you pay into it, together with any employer’s contribution, and gives you an accumulated sum on retirement with which you can secure a pension income, either by buying an annuity or using income drawdown.

Occupational pension schemes are increasingly a DC, rather than defined benefit (DB), where the pension you receive is linked to salary and the number of years worked. As an alternative to a company pension scheme, some employers offer their workforce access to a Group Personal Pension (GPP) or stakeholder pension scheme.

 

External provider

In either case, this is run by an external pension provider (typically an insurance firm) and joined by members on an individual basis. It’s just like taking out a personal pension, although your employer may negotiate reduced management fees. They may also make a contribution on your behalf. GPPs are run on a DC basis, with each member building up an individual pension ‘pot’.

The amount you receive depends on the performance of the funds in which the money has been invested and what charges have been deducted.

Investment choice

Although your total pension pot usually increases each year you continue to pay into the scheme, there’s no way of accurately predicting what the final total will be and how much pension income this will provide. Unlike those who belong to a DB pension scheme, members of DC pension schemes have a degree of choice as to where their pension contributions are invested.

Many opt to put their money in the scheme’s ‘default fund’, but some will want to be more cautious, investing in cash funds and corporate bonds, while others may prefer a more ‘adventurous’ mix, with equity and overseas growth funds. GPPs also offer investment choice, often between funds run by the pension provider.

Defined benefit schemes

A defined benefit (DB) pension scheme is one that promises to pay out a certain sum each year once you reach retirement age. This is normally based on the number of years you have paid into the scheme and your salary either when you leave or retire from the scheme (final salary), or an average of your salary while you were a member (career average). The amount you get depends on the scheme’s accrual rate. This is a fraction of your salary, multiplied by the number of years you were a contributing member.

Typically, these schemes have an accrual rate of 1/60th or 1/80th. In a 1/60th scheme, this means that if your salary was £30,000, and you worked at the firm for 30 years, your annual pension would be £15,000 (30 x 1/60th x £30,000 = £15,000).

Your pay at retirement

How your salary is defined depends on the type of scheme. In a final salary scheme, it is defined as your pay at retirement, or when you leave (if earlier). In a career average scheme, it is the average salary you’ve been paid for a certain number of years.

Final salary and career-average schemes offer the option of taking a tax-free lump sum when you begin drawing your pension. This is restricted to a maximum 25% of the value of the benefits to which you are entitled. The limit is based on receiving a pension for 20 years – so for someone entitled to £15,000 a year, the maximum lump sum might be £75,000 (25% x £15,000 x 20= £75,000).

Scheme’s ‘commutation factor’

Taking a lump sum at the outset may reduce the amount of pension you get each year. The amount you give up is determined by the scheme’s ‘commutation factor’. This dictates how much cash you receive for each £1 of pension you surrender. If it is 12, for example, and you take a £12,000 lump sum, your annual income will fall by £1,000.

Closed to new members

Most private sector schemes have now been closed to new members and replaced by defined contribution schemes. A large number remain open to existing members who are still employees, however, or those who have left the firm but built up contributions while they were there and retain the right to a ‘preserved pension’ when they reach retirement age.

Many public sector pensions are still defined benefit schemes, underwritten by central government. This has caused them to be called ‘gold-plated’, as they offer a certainty that few private sector schemes can now match. But, even in the public sector, pension promises are being cut back with a shift from final salary to career average and increases in the normal pension age.