Pfizer's AstraZeneca bid: Miliband wants 'national interest' probe

Ed Miliband: "No other country in the world would be waving this through on the basis of pretty weak assurances from Pfizer"

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Ed Miliband has called for an inquiry into whether the US drugs firm Pfizer's planned takeover of AstraZeneca is in the UK's national interest.

The Labour leader has written to the PM to urge a stronger public interest test for takeovers of important businesses.

No 10 has denied Labour claims it is acting as a "cheerleader" for the deal, saying it is fighting for British jobs and British science.

Astra rejected Pfizer's latest bid, which valued it at £63bn, on Friday.

If a deal was to go through, it would be the biggest takeover of a UK company by a foreign firm.

Business Secretary Vince Cable said the government had "been looking at the option around the public interest test, and other factors".

"What we're anxious to ensure as a government, is that we protect the national interest, in respect of our science, our research base, our manufacturing in the UK, and decision making in the UK," he added.

'Dubious record'

Speaking on BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Miliband called for an independent investigation into its likely impact on the "long-term science and industrial base of this country" and vowed to widen the scope of the public interest test allowing governments to block deals, if he becomes prime minister.

He said: "No other country in the world would be waving this bid through, nodding it through, on the basis of pretty weak assurances from Pfizer, who have a pretty dubious record when it comes to their record in this country and other takeovers."

Grant Shapps said that tests were in place to make sure that takeovers were in the public interest

In his letter to Mr Cameron the Labour leader said: "I am strongly of the view that, when it comes to such a strategically important part of UK PLC, we need a more substantive assessment of whether this takeover is in the national economic interest before the UK government allows itself to be seen to be supporting it."

"In this particular bid, the stakes could not be much higher," Mr Miliband writes.

"Pfizer's bid for AstraZeneca affects one of the UK's most significant investors in [research and development], a major contributor to our science base, and 6,700 high quality jobs in the UK.

"Despite those high stakes, the impression created in recent days has been of a government cheerleading for this deal on the basis of a short letter with inadequate assurances."

'Neutral'

Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps accused Mr Miliband of being "anti-business" and suggested the deal could be "good for Britain".

And a No 10 spokesman said: "The government isn't cheerleading for Pfizer, it is fighting for British jobs and British science.

AstraZeneca AstraZeneca has so far declined to engage in talks

"By suggesting otherwise, Ed Miliband is putting politics before the national interest and undermining that position.

"We engaged early with both companies precisely to avoid previous governments failures in these types of situation."

Responding to Mr Miliband's suggestion that there should be a tougher test to ensure takeovers are in the national interest, Business Secretary Vince Cable said the government was looking at "this option amongst others".

He said he had spoken to the chief executives of the two companies and had remained "strictly neutral" on negotiations between them, but refused to "go onto detail" about the discussions.

He said the government was "endeavouring to ensure" that UK-based pharmaceutical research, manufacturing and decision making were "protected".

On Friday, when the US company raised the price it was offering for AstraZeneca to the equivalent of £50 a share, David Cameron said the government had received "robust" assurances from Pfizer that jobs would be protected.

However, Astra said the new terms offered were "inadequate, substantially undervalue AstraZeneca and are not a basis on which to engage with Pfizer".

AstraZeneca employs more than 51,000 staff worldwide, with 6,700 in the UK. Pfizer - whose drugs include Viagra - has a global workforce of more than 70,000, with 2,500 in the UK.

Labour introduced a public interest test in 2002 allowing governments to block takeovers on three specific grounds: media plurality, national security or financial stability.

The Pfizer deal is unlikely to fall into any of these categories but Mr Miliband says he wants to widen the test to include strategic importance, which could cover areas such as science and technology.

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    06:55: Hoax caller

    Other news this morning includes a security review being carried out by Downing Street after a hoax call to Prime Minister David Cameron. Number 10 said the caller claimed to be Robert Hannigan, director of government monitoring agency GCHQ. Mr Cameron ended the call when it became clear it was a hoax and no sensitive information was disclosed.

    Despite this there has bee plenty of mischief-making online at Mr Cameron's expense.

    Tweet
     
  74.  
    06:43: Greek election fallout
    Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras

    There's still more than three months to go until the UK election, but the impact of the Greek elections is being felt across Europe, after the success of the anti-austerity Syriza party. Its leader has pledged to renegotiate the country's massive international bailout.

     
  75.  
    06:42: 'Tough to predict' David Cowling Editor, BBC Political Research Unit
    Nigel Farage

    "With its first ever prime ministerial debates, new constituency boundaries and opinion polls suggesting the novelty of three evenly-matched Westminster parties, the 2010 general election was difficult to predict. However, the 2015 election looks set to present us with an even bigger headache." The BBC's David Cowling considers why factors such as the rise of Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party make this general election very difficult to call.

     
  76.  
    06:37: 100 constituencies

    To give a flavour of the contest ahead, the Today programme will be hearing from 100 different constituencies between now and polling day. The aim is to try and give a picture of how voters around the UK feel about some of the big issues at stake. They kick off today in Thurrock in Essex.

     
  77.  
    06:26: On the agenda

    What's coming up today? Speaker John Bercow has been talking to BBC Political editor Nick Robinson about the Digital Democracy Commission and its proposals, which include allowing people to vote online in the 2020 general election. You can read the full story and the full interview will be broadcast as part of Can Democracy Work? series on Tuesday on BBC Radio 4 at 09:00 GMT.

     
  78.  
    06:24: Election countdown

    We've got a busy day ahead of us - all the parties are stepping up their campaigning and attempting to get on the front foot ahead of the General Election on 7 May. There're just 101 days to go now... and to mark the occasion the BBC News Channel have some special features planned for the day about the issues which are likely to have an impact at the election.

     
  79.  
    06:20: Good morning Alex Hunt Politics editor, BBC News Online

    Hello and welcome to the first day of our rolling coverage of all things political as it happens. We'll be bringing you all the breaking news, the latest tips from the BBC's political team plus the key reaction and analysis from the BBC's unmatched range of programmes. We'll start each morning with BBC Radio 4's Today programme and Breakfast, continue through the day with the best of the BBC News Channel, Daily Politics, The World at One/PM right through to Newsnight and Today in Parliament.

     

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