Money: As sound as a pink pound

Financial firms are slowly realising that it pays to target the gay community - not to alienate it. Stephen Spurdon reports

The high street has finally woken up to the power of the "pink pound". Last week NatWest announced it is to sponsor the lesbian and gay lobbying group Stonewall's annual dinner. The move is clearly aimed at increasing market share and approval rates among the 6 million people thought to make up the gay and lesbian community. And NatWest may be on to something: a recent report showed 77 per cent of gays and lesbians are in the desirable ABC1 economic groups - and they have a collective disposable income estimated at pounds 10bn.

NatWest says its sponsorship fits in with its non-discrimination policies for employees and customers. Application forms for joint accounts or credit cards, for example, simply ask for details of "your partner" without making assumptions about your sexuality. The bank is also reviewing its benefits package for staff and now gives healthcare and pension scheme rights to same-sex and common-law partners.

This is all good news, but the gay community is still ignored or stigmatised by most big financial firms. The Bank of Scotland showed how little it cared about offending gay customers when it linked up with anti-gay US evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

Guy Hooker, an independent financial adviser, who is director of The Ethical Investment Co-operative (EIC), says: "Pat Robertson is so markedly extreme that it is breathtaking for the Bank of Scotland to claim that this won't harm its UK business."

Indeed, according to Mr Hooker: "Eiris, the ethical investment research service, has removed Bank of Scotland from its approved list because of this. So far I have been involved in the sale of more than pounds 1m in shares in Bank of Scotland and in the closure of pounds 750,000 of bank accounts - and that is just through me."

Gays are learning to exercise their financial clout. Ethical investment screening is starting to become sophisticated, and if you do object to companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians, or which do not operate equal opportunities programmes, then you should be able to tailor your financial plans and investments to exclude offending firms.

For example, the area that gives rise to the most anger among advisers to gay consumers is mortgage applications. Advisers complain of unpleasant deal ings with some banks over mortgage-linked life cover. Even NatWest, despite its much-vaunted efforts at equality, puts a premium loading on its life cover for gay men. A specialist IFA should be able to find you a much better deal, without a heavily loaded premium.

In the US pro-active screening is well established. The Gay Financial Network website, gfn.com, is devoted to reporting on public companies and their gay-related practices. The site includes listings of Standard & Poor's 500 companies' attitudes to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The same screening techniques are coming to the UK next month. The Murray Johnstone Ethical World Fund launches on 1 June. This fund has social analysis and screening conducted in consultation with Calvert Group, a US-based firm of analysts. Calvert is famed for more than just screening out the socially undesirable companies: it influences companies to change policies.

Jon Lickerman, a Calvert director, says the group actively questions companies about their sexual orientation employment policies and attitudes. "If a company has a history of discrimination on this issue we will avoid them," he says. Calvert's team of analysts has strong links with the US lesbian and gay community and the company has issued a brochure for them on Calvert's social market funds.

The Murray Johnstone fund will be set up as an open-ended investment company (Oeic) and can be held in an individual savings account. Minimum investment is pounds 30 a month.

Having sorted out your investments to exclude bigoted practices you can also place your pension, mortgage and insurance business with a gay-friendly company. Phil Carvosso, boss of IFA Carvosso & Co, has set up the first pension aimed at gays - The Equality Pension, underwritten by Scottish Mutual. Mr Carvosso also has plans for a travel cover policy called Equality Leisure, commercial cover for gay premises like pubs and nightclubs, and a mortgage service.

So lesbians and gays do have the power to hurt financial institutions who ignore them. Those financial institutions that do take their concerns into consideration are also likely to benefit in more than monetary ways. Kevin Waite, co-ordinator of the Gay Business Association, says: "We know from marketing that gays and lesbians are a loyal market. Companies sponsoring gay events tend to get a better profile. But what would really annoy people is companies sniggering at us behind our backs while taking our cash."

n Contacts: Ethical investment Co-operative, 01325 267228; Gay Financial Network, www.gfn.com; Murray Johnstone Ethical World Fund, 0800 289978.

Specialist gay IFAs: Carvosso & Co, 0800 096 9012; Massow Financial Services, 0171-539 7777; Lee Financial, 0171-680 3410; Rainbow Finance, 0800 3280625.

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