There are two ways pension schemes can collect the tax relief that savers benefit from when contributing to a pension: net pay and relief at source.
NOW: Pensions operates a net pay arrangement and this means the pension contributions are collected before income tax. This means for taxpayers, full tax relief at the highest rate is automatic and no income tax is paid on the money being contributed to a pension.
The alternative system is called relief at source. Here, employers take 80% of an individual’s pension contribution from their take home pay, i.e. after income tax has been deducted. The tax relief is then reclaimed from HMRC by the pension scheme, who send in a monthly request and get the cash back about six weeks later. HMRC only send back the basic rate of tax, namely 20%.
Where an employee in a scheme operating relief at source is a higher or additional rate taxpayer they can claim back the rest of the tax relief themselves from HMRC either by writing to them separately or through their annual self-assessment tax return.
In a net pay arrangement, employees who don’t pay tax, do not get tax relief on their pension contributions from the government.