The UK government invited an eclectic mix of investors to speak to defence firms and government ministers about allocation to defence as part of a wider pushback against ESG and the sector, Responsible Investor can reveal.

The meeting took place 10 days before the ministers published an article attacking divestment of defence firms and accusing investors who ditch the stocks of damaging the economy.

Major international investors including Fidelity International, Schroders and Newton Investment Management were at the roundtable, alongside representatives from defence firms such as BAE Systems and Leonardo. RI understands BlackRock was also invited but was unable to attend due to scheduling issues.

Also in attendance were £19 billion ($23 billion; €21.8 billion) asset manager Polar Capital, investment boutique Silchester International and wealth manager JM Finn.

The breakfast meeting was hosted by Rothschild & Co, and opened with remarks from Andrew Griffith, economic secretary to the treasury, and James Cartlidge, minister for defence procurement.

Documents obtained by RI via a freedom of information request show discussion was centred around three topics: how investors think about capital allocation to the defence sector in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, how ESG considerations impact allocations to the sector, and how confidence can be improved.

On the latter point, investors were asked: “How can the sector and/or government create the conditions for further confidence in investing in the sector and its supply chain, and how can we develop a better narrative for defence’s role in supporting the UK’s civic society?”

Among the stated aims of the meeting, according to a copy of the agenda, was to “update investors on the sector’s work to improve its ESG credentials” and “build a mutual understanding of how the UK’s aerospace and defence sector can engage with increasing ESG requirements”.

The two ministers have been actively critical of what they claim to be the negative impact of ESG investment on the defence sector. Following the roundtable, they published an article in the Mail on Sunday calling divestment from defence firms on ESG grounds “perverse” given the security situation in Europe and warning of “ESG investment groupthink”.

In June, the Investment Association’s CEO Chris Cummings attended a meeting with senior representatives from BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Babcock to discuss ESG with the two ministers. The three agenda items were entitled “the scale of the problem”, “wider issues with attracting investment in defence” and “solutions”.

Exclusions for defence and aerospace firms over involvement in controversial weapons such as cluster munitions, nuclear weapons or civilian firearms are widespread, but the sector has been heavily lobbying to be seen as sustainable after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to data from a financial exclusions tracker maintained by a group of NGOs, every listed company that attended the meeting – BAE and Leonardo were joined by Babcock International, QinetiQ and Melrose Industries – has been blacklisted by multiple financial firms.

Silchester International Investors, Newton Investment Management, CVC, Polar Capital, Schroders and Fidelity International all declined to comment on their attendance. BlackRock declined to comment as it did not attend the meeting. Rothschild & Co, Lazard and JM Finn did not respond to a request for comment.