Ecclesiastical Insurance reported a pre-tax loss of £18.5m, compared to a loss of £2.2m in 2000, as it suffered from disappointing investment returns and poor results overseas.

Managing director Graham Doswell said these factors overshadowed a relatively strong UK performance, which produced a loss of £3.1m compared to a loss of £8.6m the year before.

Worldwide, the company's underwriting produced a £10m improvement on the previous year.

The value of the investment portfolio fell by £23.7m and was coupled with high fire claims in Canada and difficulties in the Australian liability market.

"The international difficulties had the effect of masking what was, in trading terms, a much better year than 2000," Doswell said.

He added the UK combined ratio was more than 100, but added: "We are planning in the direction of a positive underwriting result this year.

"We are not focusing on growth in itself, but growth that gets us back to the kind of underwriting margins we need."

Rate rises were balanced against a trend for large fire losses in all types of property. Doswell warned that, despite rate rises across all sectors in the UK, the company was seeing rising claims.

"We are worried about the trend of large fire losses in all types of property," he said.

Gross written premiums increased to £304.1m from £271.7m last year.

Ecclesiastical is ultimately owned by the Allchurches Trust to which it pays surplus profits in the same way as other companies pay dividends to shareholders.

It paid £4m last year.