Page 3, 30th November 1979

30th November 1979
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Page 3, 30th November 1979 — Why delay discussion on the investment guidelines?
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Why delay discussion on the investment guidelines?

"WHAT is needed for the avoidance of crisis is a regular, continuing two-way relationship between a company and its shareholders." That is what the Watkinson Committee of the Confederation of British Industry said in 1973 about the responsibilities of British public companies.

The quotation is included in the report of the joint working party set up two years ago at the request of the bishops by the Theology, Laity and Justice and Peace Cornmissions to look into Church investment.

The report is still under official wraps more than a year after being submitted to the bishops. The delay in publication has led to considerable speculation including the rumour that it has been shelved because its contents are too radical.

Mgr David Norris, secretary to the bishops' conference, declined again this week to give the reasons for the delay on the grounds that the report is still confident ial.

The report has been passed on to a new group of some financial secretaries and some members of the original working party with instructions to use the points made in the report to make new recommendations to the bishops.

Meanwhile time passes with little public debate on the issue. Yet when the working party submitted its findings to the bishops last summer, it called specifically for "informed public discussion' of diocessan investments, involving all members of the Church. Its report aimed to do little more than provide a sound basis for such discussion and to suggest three practical ways in which the debate could be advanced (see panel).

Far from being an angry manifesto for total disinvestment it accepts that "for most Christians investment is legitimate as long as there is some possibility of monitoring the purpose and performance of the operation made possible by investment."

The report is rooted in the theological concept of stewardship. It upholds the right to ownership, including the ,ownership of private property, and sees investment as having power "for constructive, creative change." Shareholders who play a part in the creation of wealth are asked to consider for whom, at what cost, for what purpose, and with whose consent that wealth is created.

As the report notes, that moderate concept is in line with a general shift in attitudes towards business which has occurred throughout the western world in the last decade.

However, the churches in Britain, and the Catholic church in particular, have failed to keep pace with this development. The working party comments: "The churches ought to be in a strong position to comment on the norms which ought to instruct the conduct of business. In practice, however, they have so far failed to elaborate a moral framework relevant to modern business enterprise . . .

"Its theology on the deployment of capital and business ethics has not kept pace with the development of the joint stock company, the market economy, the institutional investor and centralised state capitalism: Both the Church itself and the individual Christian are caught up in an economic system to which they are having to respond in an ad hoc way." It contrasts the British situation with America and devotes con siderable space to a description of the work of the US-based Interfaith Centre for Corporate Responsibility (1CCR), a "coordinating and facilitating body" with an annual budget of £120,000 and a staff of ten researchers.

The report also sets out in detail the policies of the other major British churches towards investment. It shows that all except the United Reformed Church differ from the Catholic Church in examining the position on a national rather than on a diocesan basis and reveals a varying degree of concern about the social effects of investment. Those which lay down explicit moral guidelines tend to deal more with negative prohibitions than with positive recommendations. For example the Church of England eschews investment in companies operating "wholly or mainly in armaments, gambling, breweries and distilleries, tobacco, newspapers and South Africa." Similar prohibitions are upheld by the Methodists and the Church of Scotland.

The URC is the Most specific in suggesting a positive policy. Its Church and Society department reported in 1974: "Looking to the future we should like to see more 'stress on positive factors in investment. This would involve socially worthwhile projects even though these may not yield as high a return as other investments."

Church bodies with the express purpose of monitoring investment do exist in Britain, notably Christian Concern for Southern Africa. However, in general there is little knowledge of the criteria to be used in assessing different companies.

The working party goes some way towards filling this gap by reprinting the detailed guidelines for investment produced by the American National Council of Churches.

They include general principles such as the moral minimum being "not to commit social injury" and 12 "action choices" ranging from declining to invest or disinvestment through posing questions to management to bringing litigation.

The guidelines go on to list "social criteria" which ought to be taken into account. together with precise lists of the measurable factors. The criteria are the effects of investment on the environment, employment policies, the military, foreign governments and consumerism.

The value of the working party report is two-fold. First it destroys the belief — still common in Church circles — that competence in handling money is dangerously close to worldiness. Secondly it lays down a sound framwork for monitoring cornpanics' performances.

It is tempting to see tne failure to publish the report as a devious attempt to prevent open discussions of church finances.

However, it seems more likely to be because the bishops, by temperament and tradition, are reluctant to publish specialist reports until they themselves have come to some firm decision about what the next step should be. What is still not clear is why that step should not be in the direction proposed by the working party.




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