Billionaire Mike Ashley has told a committee of MPs he is too busy for the entire month of March to appear before them to answer questions about 200 job losses at a retailer owned by his Sports Direct chain and his firm’s use of controversial zero hours contracts.
His advisers have spent more than a month blocking repeated attempts by Scottish MPs to call him to face questions, according to newly released correspondence.
Ashley’s lawyers said he was unavailable to appear before the committee during March but declined to comply with the MPs’ requests to set out the commitments he has which are preventing him appearing before parliament is dissolved on the last day of the month.
The Scottish affairs committee wants him to explain the treatment of staff at the company’s USC business in Scotland and the retailer’s use of zero-hours contracts. As many as 90% of the retailer’s 23,000 staff are employed under the arrangement, which does not guarantee work.The committee has asked staff to come forward to discuss the impact of the contracts.
About 200 staff lost their jobs at USC’s Ayrshire warehouse when administrators were called in to West Coast Capital (USC) – the Sports Direct-controlled entity that owned 28 USC stores. The stores were immediately bought out of administration by another part of Sports Direct, but the warehouse was closed down.
A spokesman for the committee said on Tuesday that Sports Direct’s chief executive, David Forsey, would be appearing, rather than the retailer’s founder and majority owner. But the committee has actually been offered Sports Direct’s chairman Keith Hellawell.
Publishing the correspondence, the committee’s chairman, Ian Davidson, said: “The Scottish affairs committee still wants to meet with Mike Ashley, whom we see as the driving force behind Sports Direct, to clarify his views on how the closure of USC’s warehouse at Dundonald was handled, and on major issues of employment policy and related issues.”
The first email on 2 February, to Sports Direct’s PR firm Powerscourt, said the committee wanted to speak to the publicity-shy retailer. Ashley has the title deputy executive chairman at Sports Direct but he owns more than half the company and directs its strategy.
After a series of communications and the involvement of Ashley’s lawyers, RPC, and another PR firm, Keith Bishop Associates, RPC said Ashley was unavailable.
RPC wrote: “We had advised our client that we understood the Committee intended to take evidence in March. Mr Ashley has longstanding commitments in March which means that he is out of the country and/or not available for that month.”
RPC said Hellawell could appear but that he was busy for 15 days in March. A committee official asked on 26 February for Hellawell to appear on 4 March, one of the days he was free, but asked for more information about Ashley’s whereabouts.
RPC wrote back the next day saying Ashley was in the US and complained that the official had mentioned the prospect of a formal summons for Ashley: “Raising the spectre of a summons, in circumstances where our client has already volunteered the chairman as a witness to assist the committee and we are now liaising over availability, is, in our client’s view, inappropriate.”
In the email, RPC said Hellawell was no longer available on 4 March but was now free on 25 March. Hellawell is due to appear on that date with Philip Duffy of Duff and Phelps, the USC administrators.
On 4 March, Davidson wrote to RPC to confirm Hellawell’s appearance but said it still wanted to speak to Ashley. He informed the law firm that the committee would publish the correspondence.
Davidson wrote: “In your letter of 26 February, you state that Mr Ashley is out of the country and/or unavailable for the entirety of March. I would be grateful if you could provide the committee with further information on which dates Mr Ashley is out of the country. It would also be helpful if you could clarify what commitments he has throughout the entirety of March which are preventing him from appearing before the committee before the dissolution of Parliament on 31 March.”
It is highly unusual for business leaders to refuse a request to appear before a select committee. Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive of HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, was questioned by the Treasury committee last week about the bank’s Swiss arm. He is due to appear for a second inquisition by the public accounts committee on the same subject on Monday.
The Scottish affairs committee is understood to be frustrated by Ashley’s refusal to appear before parliament is dissolved on 31 March. A decision to pursue him after the election will be for a revamped committee that may have different priorities, allowing him to avoid giving evidence.
Rupert Murdoch was summonsed by the culture, media and sport committee in 2011 when he refused to give evidence on phone hacking. Murdoch and his son James appeared at the committee after the deputy serjeant at arms was sent to deliver formal summonses in person.
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