Plenty of controversy surrounds the decision to restrict auto-enrolment (AE) to workers earning £10,000 or more. For one, it tends to disproportionally affect women because they occupy more part-time jobs than men.
But is it right to encourage low earners to contribute to the future at the expense of the present? After all, the state pension may be sufficient to meet their needs. Or would they be better off budgeting for later life and protecting their future selves from potential deprivation?
Discussing these issues at the Westminster Employment Forum on 9 December, it became evident there was a rift between the views of pensions minister Steve Webb and the Pensions Policy Institute (PPI) director Chris Curry.
The pensions minister pointed out that many people on low incomes would get a high replacement rate from the state pension alone. Using the example of a person earning £7,000 per year, Webb pointed out they would receive a state pension of £7,500 at today's rate.
"So you have someone who's earning £7,000 - you enrol them into a pension scheme that they put pennies into to top up an income in retirement that's bigger than their income when they're working. I think that would attract derision," Webb said.
He described the disgruntlement small employers might feel at having to pay for the administration of a low income employee who would opt out because they needed all their earnings now. "What we're trying to do is strike that balance between enrolling the right people, but not excluding people who should be saving for a pension," he added.
The PPI's top man agreed that policymakers had a tough choice to make on setting the most appropriate threshold. But he said it was equally important not to exclude low earners who would benefit from the initiative.
Curry said: "If you're a lifetime low earner, if you're constantly in that group, then probably the state pension will be a good replacement for you. But we know that the labour market doesn't necessarily work like that.
"There are people at the start of their careers, [or] at the end of their careers, who during the rest of their working life will have a much higher income and probably will be automatically enrolled, and so will at some point be making new savings."
Research from the PPI has shown that saving as much, and for as long, as possible are among the best ways to build up a sufficient pot. This is complemented by tax relief and the employer contribution. Curry said: "Policy is really focused on people who we are fairly sure will definitely benefit from automatic enrolment but at the risk of missing out a group of people who might benefit."
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