Tory-controlled Kent County Council have threatened a public health specialist working for them with disciplinary action after she mentioned in a radio interview that the council’s pension funds invest in tobacco companies.
Investment in tobacco companies is not a recent revelation, nor is it restricted to the Kent region alone. In June 2013 it was revealed that more than £44m has been invested in tobacco firms by local councils in the West of England.
As such, local councils have faced charges of hypocrisy and been forced to defend the controversial shares. The former director of public health for the South West, Dr Gabriel Scally, called the investments an “impossible contradiction… How can you have a responsibility to improve the health of the population and yet be one of the owners of a tobacco company?”.
The public health specialist’s comments came during a pre-recorded interview with BBC Radio Kent earlier this month to highlight the dangers of smoking. Following the interview she was brought in front of her manager and an HR adviser and told her actions could either lead to a warning being placed on her record for 12 months, or face a full-scale disciplinary hearing.
The woman in question is a member of Unite, the country’s largest union, who have said the “freedom of speech” of public health specialists to speak out on matters of public concern – whether smoking, drug abuse or excessive drinking – is at stake. Unite regional officer Ian Methven has called on the council to withdraw the threat of disciplinary action immediately: “Health professionals should be allowed to conduct their work without these threats to their careers and livelihoods.”
The independence of Public Health professionals (who have responsibilities for promoting healthy living and other preventative health measures like vaccination programmes) has been a concern since the Health and Social Care Bill came into force in April 2013.
Professor John Ashton, President of the Faculty of Public Health, says: “We have seen with tragedies in hospitals and social services what happens when public sector workers are afraid to speak out about risks of harm. We need everyone in local authorities to work together so that public health professionals’ expertise is respected, particularly when it challenges the status quo. Otherwise, we risk creating a climate of fear that could do serious harm to people’s health.”
Since Lansley’s Act, responsibility for promoting the public health of the nation is now in the hands of local councils, as per Lansley’s reforms. Tory-controlled Kent has often been held up as a pathfinder for many of the government's health policies including those on greater 'integration'.
Earlier in the year in response to criticisms against council pension fund managers, Health Minister Anna Soubry admitted investment of council pension funds in tobacco is widespread, but told Parliament that this is a matter for local authorities. OurNHS, among others, have repeatedly raised concerns about how parliamentary accountablity for matters of health is being undermined.
The council itself has suggested that the discplinary procedures were due to the fact that the professional in question was not authorised to give press interviews.
However Kent's actions will inevitably raise questions as to whether councils are taking their new responsibilities as promoters of public health - and indeed whether local authorities have the health experience, expertise, and focus necessary to do the health service justice, a question that was raised by too by delegates at this week's Labour conference.
It has been argued that returns tobacco companies are a relatively steady source of income for pension funds’ investment managers in a time of economic uncertainty.
But the government has come under mounting criticism for being far too relaxed about the influence of the tobacco lobbying industry following the shelving of plain packaging for cigarettes earlier this year. David Cameron has repeatedly dodged the question of whether his election strategist, Lynton Crosby, lobbied him on the question of plain packaging after it emerged that Crosby’s company had worked for tobacco giant Phillip Morris.
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