MPs quiz minister over Pfizer's decision to leave Kent

David Willetts giving evidence David Willetts has vowed to press Pfizer to help maintain employment at Sandwich

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Science minister David Willets has told MPs of the moment pharmaceutical giant Pfizer dropped the "bombshell" that it was pulling out of Kent.

He said he and other politicians thought they were going to hear the new chief executive's plans for the site.

"He came in and dropped this bombshell," Mr Willetts told the Commons committee.

Mr Willetts also vowed to press Pfizer to ensure employment continues at the Sandwich site when it leaves in 2013.

Mr Willets told MPs it was "in everyone's interest" to support the creation of new business at the research site in Sandwich.

He promised to press Pfizer to work with the government "to make sure there is continuing employment on the site".

More than 2,400 staff are due to lose their jobs there in the next two years.

Mr Willets, who is part of a task force of politicians aiming to help the town retain as many of the lost workforce as possible, told the Science and Technology Select Committee he was urging Pfizer to offer contracts to businesses that could carry on research work and trials of products already being worked on at the Sandwich complex.

'Bombshell'

He said that would be a "very responsible" approach.

Mr Willetts also spoke of the day Pfizer announced it was pulling out of Kent.

He said: "The first we knew of it was this crucial meeting (on 24 January) which we thought was an opportunity, the first visit by the new CEO, who wanted to come in and see us.

"He came in and dropped this bombshell... It was at that meeting that we learned for the first time [of] their intention to close Sandwich."

Mr Willetts told MPs Pfizer had indicated a preference for concentrating research and development on Cambridge, but he added: "It doesn't follow that there is no future for Sandwich, or that Sandwich hasn't got a role."

He said pharmaceutical and life-science companies were now looking to cut back on directly employed research and for universities and other organisations to take on that role.

The University of Kent has already expressed interest in using some of the Pfizer facilities.

Pfizer has stressed that it was its internal rethink rather than any government policy that led to the Sandwich decision

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