Pfizer: 'Intellectual Property asset stripping - that's their record'

Packaging from drugmaking giants AstraZeneca and Pfizer Photo: Press Association Images

While Pfizer mulls over whether to bid again for AstraZeneca wider opinion to this takeover attempt is shaping and forming.

It occurs to me that, as a nation, we can get quite het up about the idea of British sovereignty being diminished (think of the debate that rages around our membership of the EU) but tend to be quite relaxed about the idea of foreign ownership of British companies.

It's an issue that matters a great deal to Sir Richard Lambert.Sir Richard is a former head of the Confederation of British Industry (the self-proclaimed "Voice of Business"), he also used to sit on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and once edited the Financial Times.

Then-CBI Director-General Richard Lambert speaks during a news conference in 2006. Credit: PA Archive

This morning he told me that the Pfizer bid was a "cause for grave public concern".

Sir Richard's view is that the work that goes on at AstraZeneca is of national importance.

As he put it to me, pharmaceuticals is "one of the two or three things Britain does that we're best in the world at".

Pfizer says this takeover would herald an era of even greater industry and invention.

Sir Richard's anxiety is that Britain may not reap the benefits.

The company's chief executive, Ian Read, has written to the Prime Minister, pledging to retain the AstraZeneca site in Macclesfield, build the new campus planned in Cambridge and ensure that "minimum of 20% of the combined company's total R&D workforce" remains in Britain.

Sir Richard is sceptical: “Commitments made at a time of takeover bids are sometimes broken," he told me.

He holds up the Kraft takeover of Cadbury in 2010 as an example.

Kraft promised to keep a factory in Keynsham open and then closed it a month after the deal was completed.The Pfizer deal, he argues, is "orders of magnitude more important".

Cadbury made chocolate, AstraZeneca makes drugs and vaccines.

"Foreign ownership matters", he insists.

"Foreign owned companies close branches not in the homeland. They keep the company's Intellectual Property, it's true wealth, close to home and they do almost no research abroad. Look at Nissan, look at Toyota. They build cars here but where are those cars designed?"

Sir Richard wants the government to squeeze stronger, binding commitments to Britain out of Pfizer.

Lord Sainsbury would go even further. He told the Financial Times this deal should be blocked.

Earlier I interviewed him. He told me Pfizer assurance were "absolutely meaningless" and that the company's track record should be a cause for alarm.

"The pattern is they (Pfizer) move in, buy companies, essentially take the intellectual property, close down R&D facilities and move on to the next takeover."

Lord Sainsbury is a Labour peer and was Minister of Science for eight years in the last Labour government.

The Labour party has "real concerns" about the Pfizer takeover but is not opposed to it on principle.

Lord Sainsbury told me he believes that position is shifting.He accuses the government of "abject surrender" and urges resistance.

"If we let this one go through without a fight you can bet your last dollar there will be plenty of other examples of American companies using foreign cash to buy British companies".

The political consensus is not with Lord Sainsbury but if it starts to shift meaningfully his direction in the days to come Pfizer may well decide this is an impossible deal to do.

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