Robert Syms – 2018 Speech on CERN Pensions

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Robert Syms, the Conservative MP for Poole, in the House of Commons on 15 March 2018.

I rise to discuss the UK tax treatment of CERN pensioners, but the subject goes rather wider than purely CERN. I mention CERN only because I have two or three constituents who are quite exercised by recent changes.

George Osborne brought in a change to do away with the concession whereby people with foreign pensions were taxed on 90% of their income, pushing that up to 100% in 2017-18. That has had a material effect on several of my constituents, but there must be people who worked for a number of organisations who are affected by the tax change when they land pensions back into the United Kingdom. I shall talk a little about CERN, but also about one or two other international organisations, because the more I look into this issue, the more complex it becomes.

CERN was set up by UNESCO in 1954 as an international organisation, based in Geneva, to carry out fundamental research in high-energy physics. The UK was among its 12 founding members; today, there are 22 member states. The host nations are Switzerland and France, and most of those who work at CERN on a day-to-day basis live in either Switzerland or France, in or around the vicinity of Geneva. CERN served as a model for successful European collaboration, and several similar organisations, working in fields such as space research, have since been created, based on its structure.

On retiring, CERN staff receive pensions in Swiss francs. They are not ungenerous pensions—some are in six figures—because these people are extremely able, talented scientists who have committed themselves to science. CERN staff can either stay in one of the host states or move elsewhere. Many member states offer favourable tax treatment to attract such staff to their country. They range from Austria, which allows CERN staff to retire tax-free, to Spain, Malta and Sweden, where low rates have been negotiated, typically in the order of 10%.

The UK never gave any kind of special privileges to CERN retirees, but there was provision under our tax law that 90% of foreign pensions would be taxed. If someone is on a six-figure pension and the first £8,000 or £10,000 is disregarded, bringing them down in all the various tax brackets, that concession is worth having. CERN pensioners, who are particularly bright, have to decide where they are going to land themselves and their families when they have finished working. Many wish to move back to the UK, and they previously saw the UK Government’s more modest concession as attractive enough for them to retire to places such as Poole.

I make one very important point about CERN pensioners: they have not benefited from UK tax concessions in any way. They do not get the 25% tax-free cash payment that a UK taxpayer gets. Effectively, they have earned their pension by working abroad for an international organisation in which we have a big interest. They have come back to the UK and then been given a slightly better tax position, probably in recognition of ​the fact that many people who have foreign pensions do not benefit from the reduced rate available to those who contribute to pensions in this country.

Pensioners of other international organisations that are similar to CERN do receive special concessions from the UK Treasury. I understand that there are organisations that represent those who have worked for the UN, or its various agencies, and that discussions are going on about the appropriate rate. I also know that there are discussions about pensioners from the World Bank. A number of European organisations work under similar terms and conditions as CERN. Known as the co-ordinated organisations, they include: the Council of Europe; the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts; the European Space Agency; the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites; the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The International Service for Remunerations and Pensions, which is based in Paris, is responsible for the pay and rations of all those bodies. As I understand it, the civil servants who work for these co-ordinated organisations are taxed on only 50% of their salaries.

There are therefore examples of concessionary rates for organisations in which Britain participates, and my constituents have a very simple request: if the UK Treasury is not going to tax them on 50% of their income, which I somehow doubt that it will, they wish to go back to the 90% rate with which they were happy. Many decided to move back to the United Kingdom on the basis of that proposition. I stress that, because some of the pensions are high, over 20 years, the amount in question represents probably a couple of million pounds’ worth of sterling. We should bear in mind that the money is landed back in the UK in Swiss francs, and that it is not only taxed but spent in the United Kingdom.

There is actually a very strong economic argument for making a pitch to people with good international salaries to come back to the UK to retire in order to feed the very important column that is UK invisible earnings. My constituents thought that they would be taxed at only 90%, but feel that the rules have changed, so they would like the UK Government to reconsider.

When I asked the House of Commons Library what happened to civil servants who retired from the EU, I was told very politely that the EU taxed them and kept the money. I am very surprised that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—it must be letting the side down—does not have any say over EU civil servants who retire back to the UK. I suspect that that is one of those fine points of detail that will be dealt with in the withdrawal negotiations. If those people were given a preferential arrangement, I would be extremely surprised if the UK Government were to change that and make those people’s pensions taxable at 100%.

This complex area involves a number of tax treaties and several international organisations, all of which operate to a different range of rules. My essential point is that a few of my constituents who worked hard in the scientific sector and earned good pensions thought that they had a proposition that meant that they were taxed at 90%, but now feel somewhat aggrieved that the previous Chancellor has pushed their rate up to 100%. As I have said, that was not the most generous tax proposition—those of other countries are far more generous—but that rate was attractive enough to get ​these people to move to places such as Poole. I hope that the UK Government will consider the options. Given that this is a complex area, I wonder if the Minister might be willing to meet me and a few CERN pensioners to discuss the matter more fully so that we can get to the bottom of whether they are being treated fairly and reasonably.

Finally, I congratulate the Minister on taking his post. He is among the Members on these Benches who I always thought was destined for high things. He had to start somewhere, and Economic Secretary to the Treasury is a fine and important post.