AstraZeneca takeover: Science Minister David Willetts demands longer Pfizer jobs pledge


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The Independent Online

The Science Minister David Willetts, heavily criticised for his so-called "cheerleading" of Pfizer's bid for AstraZeneca, yesterday declared he now wanted the terms of the jobs pledge from the US company toughened up.

Mr Willetts was among those ministers criticised by Labour for being too warm towards the Pfizer bid when its chief executive Ian Read first wrote to the Government pledging to keep 20 per cent of R&D in the UK for five years.

However, under questioning by MPs on the Science Select Committee, Mr Willetts said: "I would like to see a longer period than that."

Graham Stringer, a Labour MP, told him the Government was taking a "passive" position. Mr Willetts refuted the suggestion, declaring: "What we are absolutely looking at and focusing on in our discussions is what this would mean for R&D in the UK, manufacturing in the UK, jobs in the UK."

He was speaking after Pfizer's chief executive Ian Read admitted there would be "fewer scientists than the existing sum of two parts" as a result of the takeover.

However, Mr Read stressed that Pfizer's and AstraZeneca's "science will continue" even in protracted negotiations and that the enlarged group would be a world powerhouse in cancer drugs.

Mr Read said that any critical drugs that were close to production would be ring-fenced and "if anything would be accelerated".

Mr Read argued: "We are in an extremely competitive world... Without profits there's no cash flow to re-invest into research."

It was the second day running the two companies' corporate leaders had faced MPs, having the previous day been grilled by the Business Select Committee.

AstraZeneca's Pascal Soriot warned that merging companies was "a little bit more complicated than putting two pieces of paper together". However, he added: "If the offer was reflecting the value of the company but also addressing some of the integration aspects, the operating model and execution risks we are concerned about, then we certainly should engage."

One major institutional shareholder in AstraZeneca, who has met with Pfizer, told The Independent: "We were impressed by their presentation and do believe the deal makes financial sense. However, the biggest challenge Read faces is convincing the overseas shareholders."

In the US, Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, said he would propose this week his moratorium on tax-driven foreign takeovers, referring to the AstraZeneca deal.