Church of England divests from oil firm over 'allegations of corruption'

The Church is to divest following concerns about SOCO International's plans for Africa's oldest national park, Virunga in the DRC.Reuters

The Church of England has decided to sell all its shares in the British oil company SOCO International following a series of allegations of bribery, corruption and human rights abuses.

The Church Commissioners are to divest of their £1.6 million holdings amid concerns about the company's plans for Africa's oldest national park, Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The WWF and Sir David Attenborough are among those who have criticised the company for past actions in Virunga, where about half the world's mountain gorillas survive.

The decision to divest followed a recommendation from the Church's ethical investment advisory group and came after "extensive and sustained engagement" with the company, the Church said in a statement.

According to the statement, the commissioners, who manage the Church's £6.7 billion investments, and the church pensions board have persistently raised concerns with SOCO International and its board since November 2013, with engagement intensifying since December 2014.

In the course of this period, concerns have specifically addressed four main areas, the Church said. It cited the need for "a wide ranging and transparent independent enquiry addressing the allegations of bribery, corruption and human rights abuses, the lack of independent and effective corporate governance, the adoption of best practice, internationally recognised, environmental and social standards and unequivocal respect for park boundaries within a World Heritage Site."

Adam Matthews, secretary of the ethical investment advisory group, said: "We are deeply concerned about the failure of SOCO International to properly and fully address our four concerns, in particular to ensure that an open and transparent enquiry is held into the allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. At the recent AGM we asked the board to urgently consider the appointment of an independent chairman to ensure SOCO could finally openly and transparently address the concerns of shareholders. The response of the company that has emerged from our engagement and crystallised at the AGM has led us to recommend full divestment."

Edward Mason, head of responsible investment at the commissioners said: "We have called time because without the changes we sought this is not a sustainable or ethical investment for Church funds. We take engagement with companies very seriously. In this instance SOCO has not responded positively or sincerely to the concerns we have raised. The lack of appropriate corporate governance was clear at the AGM and left us nowhere to go but full divestment. The company has been placed on our restricted list with immediate effect and all our investment managers have been notified."

In 2012 the Church sold its holdings in News Corporation in protest at phone-hacking and in 2010 it sold its shares in Vedanta Resources over human rights concerns.

SOCO agreed with WWF last summer that it would not carry out oil exploration within the Congo park, but there are still concerns about what will happen if the park boundary is altered. Senior figures in Congo would like to see the area opened up for exploration.

At the company's recent annual general meeting SOCO told shareholders that a review by Clifford Chance had found the bribery allegations to be "substantially inaccurate" and that there was no evidence of intimidation.

SOCO told Christian Today it will be making no statement because the company does not comment on individual relationships with shareholders.