On Tuesday I got to speak for the first time in the House of Commons, asking a question of Health Minister Steve Brine about when the Government plans to publish a tobacco control plan. Needless to say, his response was deliberately vague, but it gave me the chance to ask a supplementary question, which went like this: “Given the health responsibilities of local government, can the Minister tell this House what might be done to deal with the situation where advice to local government and other public sector pension schemes is that they are not at liberty to disinvest from tobacco stocks”.
It sounds a bit nerdy, but the fact is that hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of County Council and Borough Council employees’ money is invested in tobacco – while they try to promote public health they are helping to fund the industry that is leading to illness and death. And although I led calls on the County Council to disinvest its pension fund holdings in tobacco, and we won the motion in the Council Chamber, the Pension Fund Committee insisted that the legal advice was that they were not allowed to do so. Suffolk remains one of the most heavily-tobacco-invested Councils in the Country.
The Minister seemed genuinely surprised – this was not a question he was expecting and he appeared not to realise that there was an issue. And it is entirely possible that most of the Government’s health team were blissfully unaware that millions of pounds of public money are invested in the tobacco industry in this way. The East Anglian Daily Times has raised this issue, it has been raised at the Local Government level, but there are so many calls on a Minister’s time that it is all too easy for something like this to entirely pass them by.
There are other health-related issues where small changes at national level can make a real difference to people’s lives. We are already seeing the effects of a growth in the number of people suffering from Diabetes. It is particularly tragic to see young lives ruined by long-term illness and even the loss of limbs, especially when much of the Diabetes in this country is avoidable. I pledged during the election campaign, in response to requests from Ipswich residents, that I should champion the cause of Diabetes prevention if I were elected, and I intend to honour that pledge.
Another cause which is dear to my heart is the provision of mental health services for young people. Teenagers and college students are particularly vulnerable to unbearable emotional stress, and we desperately need better-funded counselling and psychiatric care attached to our schools and colleges. A good friend of mine, studying here in Ipswich, who helped me to understand social media, killed himself just the other year. I understand he had taken the first difficult step of asking for help, only to be told that he had to wait weeks before there would be someone able to see him. There is no reason to blame mental health staff – but there is every reason to question why there are not more of them.
It is impossible for me to know at this stage whether I will be able to create a change that will help save lives or enable people to be healthier. But I am inspired by a longstanding MP who told us new members at a training session today that in response to the family of Anthony Nolan, he was able to help in their campaign to secure additional bone marrow transplants on the NHS, and as a result around 20 children each year are able to lead full lives who might otherwise have died.
All changes in the law, in regulations, in procedures are joint efforts which take many people working together to achieve. But often it takes one person to keep pushing at a particular door before everyone else finally realises that they want it opened. I will remain focussed on Ipswich issues – I have no intention of seeking a front-bench role. But if I can keep up the pressure on the government to change the way legal advice is supporting the tobacco industry, and help to reduce the terrible damage done by smoking, and particularly if we can reduce the number of children who start smoking, then I will feel that I have been a useful cog in this huge and slightly intimidating machine of our national democracy.