Claims against Royal & Sun Alliance's core activities - not counting the US operations, which are being run down - absorbed only 91.7 per cent of the premiums it received in the first half of this year.

This remarkable result, 1.1 per cent better than last year's, was helped by the lack of bad weather early in the year, although a saving of £52 million in weather claims had been offset to some extent by lower premiums.

Premiums, indeed, rose by only two per cent to £2.8 billion, while the operating result was 24 per cent higher at £409 million.

Profits before disposals and pension changes were 24 per cent higher at £333 million.

While not claiming that a combined operating ratio - of claims to premiums - of 91.7 per cent was sustainable indefinitely, Andy Haste, R&SA's chief executive stressed that the company is building up a record of more than covering its claims with premiums. "We are building up good momentum across the core group with targeted profitable growth in selected markets," he said.

"We have delivered another strong result and have now achieved ten consecutive quarters of 'combineds' that start with a nine.

"We remain confident of delivering sustainable profitable performance. As it stands today we expect to come inside our full-year guidance of a combined operating ratio of around 95 per cent for the core group."

After the interim dividend was raised by a cautious 3.6 per cent to 1.75p, the shares finished 13/4p down on the day at 1313/4p.

In the UK, R&SA's commercial insurance rates fell by three per cent in the six months and the claims to premiums ratio worsened to 92.4 per cent from 90.8 per cent a year ago, an outcome more than offset by a better result from personal insurance.

Shares closed down 1.75p at 131.75.