National Insurance (NI) is a fundamental component of the welfare state in the United Kingdom. It acts as a form of social security, since payment of NI contributions establishes entitlement to certain state benefits for workers and their families.
Introduced by the National Insurance Act 1911 and expanded by the Labour government in 1948, the system has been subjected to numerous amendments in succeeding years. Initially, it was a contributory form of insurance against illness and unemployment, and eventually provided retirement pensions and other benefits.
Currently, workers pay contributions from the age of 16 years, until the age they become eligible for the State pension. Contributions are due from employed persons earning at or above a threshold called the Lower Earnings Limit, the value of which is reviewed each year. Self-employed persons contribute partly through a fixed weekly or monthly payment, and partly on a percentage of net profits above a threshold which is reviewed periodically. Individuals may also make voluntary contributions to fill a gap in their contributions record and thus protect their entitlement to benefits.
Contributions are collected by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). In respect of employees, this is done through the PAYE system along with Income Tax, repayments of Student Loans and any Apprenticeship Levy which the employer is liable to pay. National Insurance contributions form a significant proportion of the UK Government's revenue.
The benefit component includes several contributory benefits, availability and amount of which is determined by the claimant's contribution record and circumstances. Weekly income and some lump-sum benefits are provided for participants upon death, retirement, unemployment, maternity and disability. In order to obtain the benefits which are related to the contributions, a National Insurance number is necessary.
The current system of National Insurance has its roots in the National Insurance Act 1911, which introduced the concept of benefits based on contributions paid by employed persons and their employer. The chosen means of recording the contributions required the employer to buy special stamps from a Post Office and affix them to contribution cards. The cards formed proof of entitlement to benefits and were given to the employee when the employment ended, leading to the loss of a job often being referred to as being given your cards, a phrase which endures to this day although the card itself no longer exists.
Initially there were two schemes running alongside each other, one for health and pension insurance benefits (administered by "approved societies" including friendly societies and some trade unions) and the other for unemployment benefit which was administered directly by Government. The Beveridge Report in 1942 proposed expansion and unification of the welfare state under a scheme of what was called social insurance. In March 1943 Winston Churchill in a broadcast entitled "After the War" committed the government to a system of "national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave."
After the Second World War, the Attlee government pressed ahead with the introduction of the Welfare State, of which an expanded National Insurance scheme was a major component. As part of this process, responsibility passed in 1948 to the new Ministry of National Insurance. At that point, a single stamp was introduced which covered all the benefits of the new Welfare State.
Stamp cards for class 1 (employed) contributions persisted until 1975 when these contributions finally ceased to be flat-rate and became earnings related, collected along with Income Tax under the PAYE procedures. Making NI contributions is often described by people as paying their stamp.
As the system developed, the link between individual contributions and benefits was weakened.
The National Insurance Funds are used to pay for certain types of welfare expenditure and National Insurance payments cannot be used directly to fund general government spending. However, any surplus in the funds is invested in government securities, and so is effectively lent to the government at low rates of interest. National Insurance contributions are paid into the various National Insurance Funds after deduction of monies specifically allocated to the National Health Services (NHS). However a small percentage is transferred from the funds to the NHS from certain of the smaller sub-classes. Thus the four NHS organisations are partially funded from NI contributions but not from the NI Fund. Less than half of benefit expenditure (42.1%) now goes on contributory benefits, compared with over 65% in 1978-79 because of the growth of means-tested benefits since the late 1970s.
An actuarial evaluation of the long-term prospects for the National Insurance system is mandated every 5 years, or whenever any changes are proposed to benefits or contributions. Such evaluations are conducted by the Government Actuary's Department and the resulting reports must be presented to the UK Parliament. The most recent review was conducted as at April 2015, with the report being published two years later.
The contributions component of the system, "National Insurance Contributions" (NICs) are paid by employees and employers on earnings, and by employers on certain benefits-in-kind provided to employees. The self-employed contribute partly by a fixed weekly or monthly payment, and partly on a percentage of net profits above a certain threshold. Individuals may also make voluntary contributions, in order to fill a gap in their contributions record and thus protect their entitlement to benefits. Contributions are collected by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) through the PAYE system, along with Income Tax and repayments of Student Loans and Postgraduate Loans.
People in certain circumstances, such as caring for a child, caring for a severely disabled person for more than 20 hours a week or claiming unemployment or sickness benefits, gain National Insurance credits which protects their rights to various benefits.
National Insurance is a significant contributor to UK government revenues, with contributions estimated to comprise 18% of total income in the 2019/2020 financial year.
National insurance contributions (NICs) fall into a number of classes. Class 1, 2 and 3 NICs paid are credited to an individual's NI account, which determines eligibility for certain benefits - including the state pension. Class 1A, 1B and 4 NIC do not count towards benefit entitlements but must still be paid if due.
Class 1 contributions are paid by employers and their employees. In law, the employee contribution is referred to as the 'primary' contribution and the employer contribution as the 'secondary', but they are usually referred to simply as employee and employer contributions.
The employee contribution is deducted from gross wages by the employer, with no action required by the employee. The employer then adds in their own contribution and remits the total to HMRC along with income tax and other statutory deductions. Contributions for employees are calculated on a periodic basis, usually weekly or monthly depending on how the employee is paid, with no reference to earnings in previous periods. Those for company directors are calculated on an annual basis, to ensure that the correct level of NICs are collected regardless of how often the director chooses to be paid.
There are a number of milestone figures which determine the rate of NICs to be paid. These are the Lower Earnings Limit (LEL), Primary Threshold (PT), Secondary Threshold (ST) and Upper Earnings Limit (UEL), though currently the PT and ST are set to the same value. The cash value of most of these figures normally changes each year, either in line with inflation or by some other amount decided by the Chancellor. The PT is normally indexed to inflation using the CPI, while other thresholds remain indexed using the RPI..
As indicated above, the rates at which an individual and their employer pay contributions depend on a number of factors. Consequently, there are many possible sets of employer/employee contribution rates to allow for all combinations of the various factors. HMRC allocate a letter of the alphabet, referred to as an 'NI Table Letter', to each of these sets of contribution rates. Employers are responsible for allocating the correct table letter to each employee depending on their particular circumstances.
Each tax year, HMRC publish look-up tables for each table letter to assist with manual calculation of contributions, though these days most of the calculations are done by computer systems and the tables are available only as downloads. In addition, HMRC provide an online National Insurance Calculator.
Class 1A contributions were introduced from 6 April 1991, and are paid by employers on the value of company cars and certain other benefits in kind provided to their employees and directors, at the standard employer contribution percentage rate for the tax year. Class 1A contributions do not provide any benefit entitlement for individuals.
Class 1B contributions were introduced on 6 April 1999 and are payable by employers as part of a PAYE Settlement Agreement (an arrangement whereby the employer meets the tax liabilities on certain benefits). Class 1B contributions are paid at the same rate as Class 1A contributions and do not provide any benefit entitlement for individuals.
Contribution rates are set for each tax year by the government.
The general rates for the tax year 2019/2020 are shown below. For those who qualify for the mariners rates, the employee rates are as shown below and the non-zero employer rates are 0.5% lower than those shown below.
Class 2 contributions are fixed weekly amounts paid by the self-employed. They are due regardless of trading profits or losses, but those with low earnings can apply for exemption from paying and those on high earnings with liability to either Class 1 or 4 can apply for deferment from paying. While the amount is calculated to a weekly figure, they were typically paid monthly or quarterly until 2015. For future years, class 2 is collected as part of the tax self-assessment process. For the most part, unlike Class 1, they do not form part of a qualifying contribution record for contributions-based Jobseekers Allowance, but do count towards Employment and Support Allowance.
Class 3 contributions are voluntary NICs paid by people wishing to fill a gap in their contributions record which has arisen either by not working or by their earnings being too low.
Class 3 contributions only count towards State Pension and Bereavement Benefit entitlement. The main reason for paying Class 3 NICs is to ensure that a person's contribution record is preserved to provide entitlement to these benefits, though care needs to be taken not to pay unnecessarily as it is not necessary to have contributions in every year of a working life in order to qualify.
Class 4 contributions are paid by self-employed people as a portion of their profits. The amount due is calculated with income tax at the end of the year, based on figures supplied on the SA100 tax return.
Contributions are based around two thresholds, the Lower Profits Limit (LPL) and the Upper Profits Limit (UPL). These have the same cash values as the Primary Threshold and Upper Earnings Limit used in Class 1 calculations.
Class 4 contributions do not form part of a qualifying contribution record for any benefits, including the State Pension, as self-employed people qualify for these benefits by paying Class 2 contributions.
People who are unable to work for some reason may be able to claim NIC credits (technically credited earnings, since 1987). These are equivalent to Class 1 NICs, though are not paid for. They are granted either to maintain a contributions record while not working, or to those applying for benefits whose contribution record is only slightly short of the requirements for those benefits. In the latter case, they are unavailable to fill "gaps" in past years in contribution records for some benefits.
The benefit component comprises a number of contributory benefits of availability and amount determined by the claimant's contribution record and circumstances. Weekly income benefits and some lump-sum benefits to participants upon death, retirement, unemployment, maternity and disability are provided.
Benefits for which there is a contribution condition:
Historic benefits for which there was a contribution condition:
In order to administer the National Insurance system, a National Insurance number is allocated to every child shortly after their birth when a claim to Child Benefit is made. People coming from overseas have to apply for a NI number before they can qualify for benefits, though holding a NI number is not a prerequisite for working in the UK.
An NI number is in the format: two letters, six digits, and one further letter or a space. The example used is typically AB123456C. It is usual to pair off the digits - such separators are seen on forms used by government departments (both internal and external, notably the P45 and P60).
National Insurance contributions for all UK residents and some non-residents are recorded using the NPS computer system (National Insurance and PAYE Service). This came into use in June and July 2009 and brought NIC and Income Tax records together onto a single system for the first time.
The original National Insurance Recording System (NIRS) was a more archaic system first used in 1975 without direct user access to its records. A civil servant working within the Contributions Office (NICO) would have to request paper printouts of an individual's account which could take up to two weeks to arrive. New information to be added to the account would be sent to specialised data entry operatives on paper to be input into NIRS.
NIRS/2, introduced in 1996, was a large and complex computer system which comprised several applications. These included individual applications to access or update an individual National Insurance account, to view employer's National Insurance schemes and a general work management application. There was some controversy regarding the NIRS/2 system from its inception when problems with the new system attracted widespread media coverage. Due to these computer problems Deficiency Notices (telling individuals of a possible shortfall in their contributions), which had been sent out on an annual basis prior to 1996, stopped being issued. The (then) Inland Revenue took several years to clear the backlog.