Pfizer was the wrong prescription, that’s why Pascal should not have signed

02 April 2015

By Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary

In a general election that is as tight as this one, and as important as any we have voted for in a generation, fair-weather friends frequently revert to type. 

The science and pharmaceutical industry is vast with over half a million workers spread across the UK, working in factories, laboratories, oil refineries and offshore.   

It’s an industry that is valuable to the UK as it is to Unite with its high skilled and experienced workforce.   

And it is essential that there is a consistent level of investment in these science based industries.    

Labour has been accused of being anti-business.  It’s a lazy caricature of Labour’s position. After the global economic crash of 2008 and the era of New Labour today’s Labour party is not anti-business, it is ‘anti-business as usual’. 

So in this closely fought election with the parties battling away on the airwaves and in print the Tories called on their donors and supporters, their peers and their friends in big business to sign a letter calling for the status quo.   

This government is after all the party of big business so hardly a surprise that the signatories answered the call from CCHQ (aka Conservative Campaign Headquarters) and backed cuts in corporation taxes saying they had been, ‘good for businesses.    

And it was hardly a surprise that the prime minister and the chancellor called the letter in Tory supporting newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, an unprecedented intervention in a general election - they had played their part in organising the letter in the first place.   

These signatories in fact represent a fraction of businesses in Britain.  Small businesses that form the backbone of UK economy would rather have a cut in business rates and this is what Labour plan to do. 

It was with disappointment that I read the name Pascal Soirot, chief executive of the blue chip pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in the list. Last year you may remember this company was subjected to a take-over bid by Pfizer.  

Soriot said that AstraZeneca’s reputation could be damaged by Pfizer’s tax avoidance plans which involve it being based in the UK in order to keep its cash pile away from the US tax authorities.  He also raised concerns at the time the proposed break-up of the business which would have split AstraZenecas’s assets between three new Pfizer divisions.  

Such a takeover would have been bad news for the UK and bad news for our skilled workforce. Unlike Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary, the prime minister would have let the takeover take place.    

Chuka was not prepared to see this important company become swallowed up for short term gain and was not in the long term interests of the country;   

"While Labour was standing up for British jobs and British science, David Cameron and his ministers were cheerleading for a takeover bid where one of the primary motivations was financial engineering – cited by the AstraZeneca board as one of the execution risks justifying rejection of the bid. 

"Ultimately it is for the shareholders to determine, but it is welcome the AstraZeneca board has remained resolute and sought to act in the best long-term interests of the company and its vital work in developing new life-saving drugs. Pfizer has said today that it will not seek to launch a hostile bid and must not renege on this promise." 

Chuka stepped up to the plate to safeguard the integrity of the company and defend a valuable business for the UK economy as well as the AstraZeneca’s workforce. 

And this level of commitment remains with Labour promising to strengthen the UK’s takeover regime to protect our science based companies.   

So as I said earlier I was disappointed to see Soirot’s name on the letter, especially as we had worked together to see off Pfizer. but on reflection I should not have been surprised.