County council pension bosses should not be “instructed” to reconsider their investments in tobacco companies, councillors have been told.

Earlier this month members of the council’s public health and prevention cabinet panel recommended that pension managers should be asked to review investments in tobacco companies as part of a drive to cut smoking in the county.

But at a meeting of the full county council on Tuesday (July 16), executive member for resources and performance Cllr Ralph Sangster told councillors this was solely the responsibility of the pensions committee.

He said it would not be constitutional for the cabinet or cabinet panels to give instruction to the pensions committee.

Cllr Sangster – who is also chair of the pensions committee – said: “The pensions committee is responsible for what are referred to as non-executive functions. ie matters that are not the responsibility of the cabinet.

“I have been advised that it would therefore not be constitutional for cabinet or cabinet panels to give an instruction or recommendation to the pensions committee in relation to pensions committee responsibilities

“Where this is done there is a risk that any subsequent decision by the pensions committee could be challenged legally, on the basis that the committee had not exercised its discretion properly and had fettered its discretion, to use the legal term.

“The cabinet could make a request to the pensions committee to consider a matter.

“But great care would need to be taken with the wording of any such request, to make sure that it could not be construed as effectively being an instruction.

“And it would be safer not to do this, particularly if the matter concerned was controversial.”

Cllr Sangster said there was a division of responsibilities which should not be crossed. And he said the pensions committee “has to take its decision by itself”.

“It has a fiduciary right to the pension holders and no instructions or otherwise should be received from the executive,” he said.

Cllr Sangster was responding to a question from Conservative Cllr Adam Mitchell, who is vice-chair of the pensions committee.