Tobacco divestment speech by Cllr Sandy Martin

The following is a copy of the speech given by Suffolk County Council Labour Group leader Cllr Sandy Martin to full council in proposing the motion to end investment in tobacco companies by Suffolk County Council’s pension fund.

[Check against delivery]

Mr Chairman, I will not explore any unpleasant details about the effects of smoking tobacco – suffice it to say that there are NO benefits to smoking; there is no safe level of consumption – unlike with alcohol – it is highly addictive, and indeed I can attest as a former addict myself that feeding the addiction is the ONLY reason the vast majority of smokers continue to smoke.

Suffolk County Council should not be investing in an activity we are trying to reduce – and if possible eradicate. There are no doubt Councillors in this room who, for reasons which they consider rational, will argue that the sole purpose of the Pension fund is to maximise its financial returns and that therefore no other consideration should have any sway. But the law states that the Fund should act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. Surely that must encompass all their interests – can it possibly be in their best interests for their fund to earn an additional 10p in every hundred pounds, if that also involves their grandchildren being more likely to take up smoking?

There is no area of human endeavour where it is right to ignore all consequences other than financial ones. There is nothing party-political about this – the same arguments, that we have to maximise financial profits to the exclusion of all else, have been made over and over again in our history, but thank goodness statesmen such as Lord Shaftesbury have stood up to them.

Our aim in bringing this motion is to see the Suffolk County Council Pension Fund disinvest from tobacco stocks.

Can it be done? Norfolk was advised by a lawyer in 2012 that the law was unclear. Without wishing to cast aspersions on either, asking a lawyer whether the law is clear is somewhat similar to asking the Pope whether Catholicism is optional. But how can anyone argue that it can’t be done if it has actually been done? Both LB Newham and LB Brent have passed motions which have led to their Pension Funds disinvesting their direct tobacco stocks. There is no possible reason why they could do this but we would be incapable.

LB Newham Pension Fund Committee altered their Statement of Investment Principles to read “Fund managers are instructed not to invest segregated elements of their portfolio in companies that generate over half of their income from tobacco products, on investment prospect grounds.” We know this wording works because it has worked.

But it is not up to me to instruct the Pension Fund Committee. I am not precious about the wording – this motion is not a legal decision to disinvest. The Pension Fund Committee will need to decide to amend their Statement of Investment Principles in such a way as to direct the fund managers to make the disinvestment. The details of how they do that are a matter for them. But let them be in no doubt that, whatever they may think the wording of our motion does or does not entail, the people of Suffolk will not forgive them if they do not get rid of their direct tobacco investments.

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