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Heseltine call on foreign takeovers

Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine has said the Government should have greater powers to intervene when UK companies are targeted for takeover by foreign firms.

The Conservative peer, who is an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron on economic growth, was speaking just days after American drugs giant Pfizer announced a bid for AstraZeneca in what would be the biggest foreign takeover of a British firm.

The comments were broadcast by the BBC as the US company unveiled a new takeover proposal valuing AstraZeneca at £50 a share, or £63 billion.

In a letter to Mr Cameron, Pfizer pledged to complete AstraZeneca's proposed research and development hub in Cambridge and said 20% of the combined company's R&D workforce will be in the UK.

Lord Heseltine said takeovers "could be very helpful", but argued that Britain should do more to protect key national interests, such as the science base.

He suggested that ministers should have "reserve powers" to protect British companies when crucial interests are at stake.

"Foreign takeovers can often be hugely helpful and I have no doctrinal preoccupations - I've done enough takeovers of small businesses myself to know how valuable they can be," Lord Heseltine told the BBC.

"But the important point is that every other advanced economy has mechanisms of some sort on a failsafe basis to scrutinise foreign takeovers and we're the only country that doesn't.

"I think that is a mistake and I think there are so many issues about the science base, about supply chains, about employment prospects that ought to be explored.

"I don't see any way in which this can be adequately done unless the Government has reserve powers.

"It's a question of where their headquarters are, where the decisions are taken, who determines what research is done and where, how much government money goes into supporting the science base within a co-operative arrangement, where the supply chains are going to be and what the motive is."

Responding to Lord Heseltine's call, the former chief executive of Jaguar cars, Sir Nick Scheele, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Government has proved itself over many years - not least with British Leyland, but also with shipyards - that it has no idea how to run businesses, and the Government should just not be a party to takeovers or attempted takeovers. They should stay out of it, and run the governance system but not determine individual fates.

"Politics should stay right out of business and let the individual shareholders and the individual businesses decide what is right for them and for their interests."

Tory MP Douglas Carswell dismissed the peer's call as an unwelcome return to 1970s politics.

He said on Twitter: "It would be deeply depressing if government takes Hezza's corporatist approach in approving only good takeovers."

Lord Heseltine warned: "In an increasingly global world, we are going to see more and more companies coming from emerging countries in which they want to get the technology, they want to be able to get access to leading-edge activity, in order to export it back to their own industrial base."

Asked whether it was not for shareholders to decide what is in a company's best interests, Lord Heseltine replied: "There are two very different sorts of shareholders. There's the small individual, who tends to take a longer view and have a degree of loyalty. But the really big influence is with the institutions, and the institutions are largely not British."

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