Tobacco investment battle not yet over, says county councillor

Suffolk County Council has been told it would be illegal to disinvest in tobacco firms.

Suffolk County Council has been told it would be illegal to disinvest in tobacco firms. - Credit: PA

Suffolk County Council’s pension fund is to retain its controversial investment in tobacco companies, despite last year’s overwhelming vote by the authority to get rid of the shares.

The fund is administered by the county council – but its members include staff from other public sector and charitable bodies as well.

Tobacco shares have performed well over recent years and the pension fund has a duty to maximise the returns to ensure it has enough money to pay its members.

There have been calls to axe the investment since the council took on responsibility for promoting public health three years ago – with critics claiming a clear conflict of interest.

Earlier this month the pension fund com mitee received advice from top lawyer Nigel Giffin QC who warned: “I think that it would clearly be unlawful for the council as administering authority to disinvest from the tobacco sector, however exactly that sector might be defined.”

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Committee chairman Peter Bellfield said that if the committee had rejected the advice, it could have laid itself open to a legal challenge from one of the employers who were part of the pension fund.

However, they said the decision on disinvesting in tobacco would be re-examined by the committee on an annual basis.

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The decision angered opposition leader Sandy Martin who has led the calls for the council’s pension fund to disinvest in tobacco companies. He said there had been other legal advice conflicting with that from Mr Giffin and felt the committee should have accepted the democratic wish of the council.

He said: “We are not going to give up the fight to get the Suffolk pension fund to disinvest from tobacco.

“Conservative councillors are clearly not going to listen to anything we say to them on this, so they will need to hear from the people of Suffolk.”

Last July members of the county council voted by 49 votes to 10 to ask the pensions committee to disinvest from tobacco companies if other investments could be found.

County council leader Mark Bee has said it is an issue that should be taken up with central government to try to find a way around the strict interpretation of the rules.

And Central Suffolk MP and health minister Dr Dan Poulter said: “(To me) it is wrong that the county council, which has a duty to promote public health, is still investing pension money in tobacco companies.”

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