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Securicor attacks Cellnet block

Roger Wiggs, chief executive of Securicor, attacked as "illogical" the Government's recent decision to block the sale of its 40 per cent stake in Cellnet to BT, against the wishes of the companies.

He said that BT, with 60 per cent, had control in any case, and it was "difficult to be polite" about the Government's stance.

"If BT had wanted to go mad with Cellnet it could have done that in the last 10 years," Mr Wiggs said. "We were not given any reasonable reason at all [by the Department of Trade and Industry] for blocking the sale." He revealed that Securicor approached BT and found a "willing listener" and that the two had similar views on price.

He added that the Government's "emphatic" decision did not preclude sale to any other company but no discussions were taking place. There has been speculation that an approach may be made by one of the US regional "Baby Bell" telephony companies or by MCI, the long-distance company in the US in which BT has a 20 per cent stake. There is also speculation that Securicor may opt to float its share of the cellular company.

The sale of the 40 per cent stake in Cellnet could raise an estimated pounds 1.2bn to pounds 1.6bn for Securicor, which would be used to return value to shareholders and to invest in the rest of the group, which includes prison escort and other security services, hotels and parcel distribution.

Mr Wiggs denied there was any hurry to dispose of Cellnet. "Contrary to some comments, we no not think that Cellnet has peaked. One option is status quo - we could just wait for the DTI to have a change of heart."

He was speaking as Securicor Group announced a 29 per cent increase in interim pre-tax profits to pounds 47.6m and a 12 per cent increase in the dividend to 0.902p.

Earnings per share, which are affected by variations in the tax charge at Cellnet, were up 11 per cent to 20.6p.

It also emerged that Cellnet, which accounted for almost pounds 33m of Securicor's pre-tax total, will launch a digital tariff aimed at consumers and small businesses.

Investment Column, page 25