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Investment: Savers win by showing a social conscience

THERE IS a tradition in some investment circles of looking at the world in a fairly cynical manner. Okay, so a few companies might contribute a tad to global warning and sell a few ciggies too many but did you see their results last week? And look at those share prices.

The fact is, this approach does not correspond with the view expressed by those most affected by this fund management style: ordinary savers, who would like to see a social dimension applied to how their money is invested. This is even more the case in relation to pensions. According to a survey by the Ethical Investment Research Service (Eiris) 73 per cent of us would like our pension funds run on ethical lines.

Perhaps more surprisingly, almost a third of those questioned would also be prepared to accept some reduction in their pension benefits as a result.

In any event, this choice is denied to members of occupational schemes. Only the self-employed or those opting out of employers' schemes can choose to invest into "ethical" or "green" funds through a personal pension plan. Here the range of funds available is growing. Most providers already offer an ethical unit trust, and reproduce its asset allocation in their pension fund.

Examples include NPI's Global Care pension fund, which has shown better than 70 per cent growth over three years.

The Stewardship fund from Friends Provident grew by 40 per cent over the same period, coming second in the Balanced Managed fund category against mostly non-ethical competitor funds.

For members of occupational schemes seeking to top up their pension benefits most ethical pension providers also offer access to their funds through so-called free standing additional voluntary contributions (FSAVCs). Anyone contracting out of the state top-up scheme, Serps, can also choose to have higher National Insurance contributions paid into a contracted out "appropriate personal pension" (APP) investing in an ethical fund.

John Denham, the Pensions minister, is considering proposals that would require employers' pension scheme trustees to disclose whether and how non-financial considerations might influence their conduct in running these funds.

"This is an issue of key importance," says Karen Eldridge of Eiris, "because of the very large amounts of investment capital held in UK pension funds and mostly invested into British company shares."

Common sense suggests that if pension scheme members elect to have their fund contributions invested according to given ethical or ecological guidelines, they should be allowed to do so.

But Charles Scanlan, head of the pensions department at law firm Simmons & Simmons, says: "A pension fund is held in trust and run on behalf of its beneficiaries by trustees who are obliged to act in their best interests.

"Trustees could be held legally liable if they fail in their duties. Essentially, they must make investment decisions in the best interests of all scheme members. Also, in the case of defined benefit pension schemes - those set up to pay pensions which are equivalent to fractions of final salary - the employer company may be liable for any underfunding.

"One can argue that in certain circumstances comparing the [ethical] policies of two similar firms when deciding which one to buy shares in is wholly congruent with acting in the best interest of scheme members." This applies in what is called a "tie break" situation where a decision has to be made between two similar investments.

A Green Paper in December suggested pension scheme trustees should feel able to consider moral social and environmental issues. These could be laid out in a statement of investment principle.

But in a further consultative document in January that has been changed to a bare statement of whether trustees should be allowed to mention "any considerations other than financial ones" in their statement of the investment principles under which they run a fund. "Many of those making some contribution during this consultative process welcomed these proposals, but this change of wording amounts to a dilution of what was originally proposed," says Ms Eldridge.

"The question now is whether any substantive change for the better will come out of all of this."