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Norfolk pension fund invests in drug firm accused of 'holding NHS to ransom' by health secretary

PUBLISHED: 17:38 26 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:14 27 February 2019

Stock photo of pension savings. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Stock photo of pension savings. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

A pension fund which covers many of Norfolk's public services invested more than £1m in a pharmaceutical firm which has been accused of "holding the NHS to ransom" by the health secretary.

The Norfolk Pensions Fund is run by Norfolk County Council but covers 370 employers and 90,000 members including staff at the district and parish councils, many schools, Norfolk’s police and crime commissioner, and other public organisations.

A freedom of information request claimed £3.4m was invested in Vertex Pharmaceuticals in 2017/2018, but a fund spokesman disputed this and said the figure was actually £1.6m.

It was part of total investments of more than £3.7bn ranging from tobacco companies, to recognisable names such as Nike, Walt Disney, and Aviva.

A Norfolk Pension Fund spokesman said the amount represented less than 0.1pc of the total investments and the investment strategy was set by the pensions committee and decisions were made by external professionals.

But it comes as Norfolk families have been part of campaigns to get access to Orkambi, a life-extending drug for people with cystic fibrosis.

Vertex makes the drug and Orkambi has been licensed in the UK for more than three years but the health service has refused to fund it due to its £104,000 a year cost, except in exceptional circumstances.

The NHS offered to pay £500m for the drug over five years, but this was rejected by Vertex.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, previously accused Vertex of attempting to “hold the NHS to ransom” and “rip off the taxpayer” over the tense pricing battle.

The fund spokesman added: “The pensions committee has a responsibility to maximise investment returns while taking an appropriate level of risk and in doing so minimise pension costs to the 400 plus participating scheme employers and the 29,000 active scheme members who work in a wide variety of organisations across the public and private sector.”

Rebecca Hunt, vice-president corporate affairs international at Vertex, said: “Vertex confirms that we will be participating in the forthcoming public hearing of the Health and Social Care Committee (HSC) of the House of Commons in England, on March 7, 2019.

“The hearing will discuss the availability of our cystic fibrosis medicines.

Out of respect for the parliamentary process, we will not be providing further updates at this time. Vertex welcomes the committee’s interest in access to cystic fibrosis medicines and we look forward to continuing to support its inquiry into this important issue.”

She added: “We have been seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care since July last year. We are pleased that Mr Hancock has agreed to meet and that a date has now been fixed – the earliest possible date that both parties can make.”

Who could Orkambi help?

One of those who would benefit from Orkambi is one-year-old Esme Ives, from Attleborough.

Esme’s parents Claire and Mark Ives were told the drug could give their daughter an extra 23 years of life as it slows the deterioration of the lungs.

Mrs Ives said: “As a family I think we are able to look forward to a longer future with Esme if she can take Orkambi. If she is able to take the drug from a young age before too much lung damage it will really help her chances.”

But she said the NHS had a part to play. She said: “Vertex have offered a pipeline of drugs to NHS England at a lower cost than anyone else, however it’s still been rejected as too expensive despite us having the fifth largest economy in the world and being available in most other European countries, even at a higher price.”

• A petition to make the drug available has been started at petition.parliament.uk/petitions/231602

Money also invested in tobacco firms

The list of investments also revealed the Norfolk Pensions Fund was still investing in tobacco companies, despite calls to stop in 2012.

More than £17m was invested in British American Tobacco in 2017/18, more than £3m in Philip Morris - makers of Marlboro - and £600,000 in Japan Tobacco.

Previously there were conflict of interest claims against the county council, which manages the fund, but also urges people to stop smoking under its public health responsibilities.

A Norfolk Pension Fund spokesman said: “Direct investments in tobacco companies total £7.7m, representing around 0.21pc [of total investments]. Independently of the Pension Committee, Norfolk County Council’s Public Health service commissions a wide range of tangible, practical – often face to face – interventions on the front line which are designed to directly achieve a reduction the number of people smoking in Norfolk and bring positive health and lifestyle benefits to people in our communities in our county.”

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