UK – The proportion of UK employees now contributing to an occupational pension has dropped to its lowest level in at least 15 years, official data show.

In 2012, membership in workplace pension schemes fell to 46%, the lowest level since 1997 when the set of data was first collected, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported.

In its 2012 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, the ONS said the fall in the proportion of employees with a workplace pension between 1997 and 2012 was mainly driven by the fall in membership of defined benefit occupational pension schemes.

This dropped to 28% from 46% during the period.

Yet, despite the decline, in 2012, defined benefit schemes still comprised the largest category of workplace pension, with 60% of employees with a workplace pension having this type of pension.

Membership in defined contribution workplace schemes also fell, though only to 7% from 9%, the ONS said.

Membership in group personal and group stakeholder pensions stood at 10% in 2012, up from 1% in 1997 – before stakeholder pensions had been introduced.

The data also highlight the difference between public and private sector pension provision in terms of defined contribution and defined benefit.

Last year, 91% of public sector employees with workplace pensions had a defined benefit pension, but only 26% of private sector workers had this type.

Conversely, defined contribution pensions – occupational, group personal or group stakeholder – were more common in the private than in the public sector.

However, the overall gap between public and private sector occupational pension provision was marked, the ONS revealed.

While 83% of people working in the public sector were members of a workplace pension scheme, just 32% of their private sector counterparts belonged to such a scheme.

Among public sector staff, there was also a clear change in the number of people contributing at least 7% to their pension.

According to the 2012 data, 37% of public sector employees saved 7% or more of their pensionable earnings in a workplace scheme, compared with just 11% having done so in 2011.

The data for the survey was collected in April last year, before the reforms on automatic enrolment of staff in workplace pension schemes were implemented from October 2012.