Suffolk: County council set to vote against tobacco investment
11:45 09 July 2014
Suffolk County Council looks set to vote in favour of withdrawing its pension funds from tobacco companies.
The Suffolk pension fund – which manages the pensions of most county council employees and those of many other public sector workers in the county – currently has almost £37 million invested in tobacco companies.
That represents less than 2% of the total fund – but has provoked considerable disquiet, especially after many health professionals’ pensions were transferred to it after they became county council employees last year.
Now opposition leader Sandy Martin is to propose a motion to disinvest in tobacco firms at next week’s full meeting of Suffolk County Council.
The ruling Conservative group is offering its members a free vote on the issue – and the motion is being seconded by Tory Michael Bond, a member of the Pension Fund Committee.
Mr Martin said he was confident the move would be backed by the council: “It is clear there are people who feel this is the right thing to do.
“One of the points I am hoping to get across is that it is important that an organisation like the county council does the right thing – looking at more than just what brings the highest return.”
He said our highlighting the issue had prompted him to table the motion at this time: “This was always something that we were keen to tackle during the current year, but your reports on the fact that the investment had actually increased over the last year made us determined to bring it forward to this meeting.”
County council leader Mark Bee said it was right that the decision should be a free vote because it was a matter of personal choice. He would be voting in favour of ending tobacco investment: “My father contracted a smoking-related cancer so I shall be voting to withdraw the investment.
“But I do not see this as supporting a Labour motion – it is a non-political issue.”
Mr Bond said he was seconding the motion because he saw it as a moral, not a political issue: “You cannot have a situation where the council is urging people to live more healthy lives and then seeing pension funds invested in the tobacco industry.”
The vote is technically not binding – the pension committee includes representatives from district and borough councils and from UNISON which represents the members of the fund.
Ironically the committee is due to meet on Wednesday, the day before the county council meeting, and its next meeting is scheduled is scheduled for September 29 when withdrawing funds from tobacco companies is expected to be on the agenda.
Pension Committee Chairman Peter Bellfield said: “The final decision on our investment is up to the committee, not the county council although I would expect it to take account of next week’s decision.
“There are clear rules and we have to be sure that we are achieving the best return for the members. I have sympathy for this proposal, but it is not a simply matter.”
However Mr Martin was confident that the committee would follow the wishes of the full council: “This would be a clear statement of what the county council wanted to happen, and the county is by far the largest element of the pension fund. I cannot think the committee would ignore that.”