Sports Direct’s founder, Mike Ashley, has accused MPs of being “deliberately antagonistic”and abusing parliamentary procedure by trying to force him to give evidence to a committee.
In a letter to Iain Wright, the chairman of the business, innovation and skills committee, Ashley said he was disgusted by the MPs’ approach. On Wednesday, the committee warned Ashley publicly that he risked being in contempt of parliament if he failed to appear.
Ashley wrote: “I was disgusted to learn that you have adopted a stance that is deliberately antagonistic.” He accused Wright of trying to create a media circus by summoning him.
Wright wrote to Ashley saying the committee wanted to ask him about his company’s treatment of staff, enforcement of the minimum wage and his internal review of Sports Direct’s practices. The Guardian reported last year that workers at Sports Direct’s headquarters in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, were subjected to surveillance and lengthy searches that meant they effectively earned less than the minimum wage.
Tension increased between Ashley and the committee as the billionaire retailer sought to keep Newcastle United FC in the Premier League by sacking Steve McClaren as manager and installing the former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez. Newcastle are second from bottom of the league with 10 games to go.
The standoff is the second time Ashley has resisted attempts to make him appear before MPs. He declined an invitation to attend the Scottish affairs select committee last year, explaining he was busy on the dates suggested. Instead, the company sent its chairman, Keith Hellawell, who struggled to answer detailed questions.
Ashley offered to meet the BIS committee privately at Shirebrook but Wright has declined, citing the “select committees’ commitment to transparency”. A committee spokesman said MPs would consider their response to Ashley’s letter at their meeting on 15 March.
In his letter, reported first in the Times, Ashley criticised the committee for failing to accept his invitation to Shirebrook. He said: “You are missing out on a genuine opportunity to gain a detailed and balanced understanding of the matters you wish to discuss. I believe you are abusing parliamentary procedure in an attempt to create a media circus at Westminster, which is not in the best interests of any of the people who work at Sports Direct.”
Ashley told Wright “all forms of the media” would be welcome to attend a meeting between him and MPs at Shirebrook.
Wright wrote to Ashley pointing out that he had not replied after the committee clerk offered him a number of dates to appear in Parliament. Wright said in his letter: “As you will be aware, select committees do not normally need to have recourse to our formal powers to summon witnesses in order to secure attendance; refusal to attend without good reason may be considered a contempt of the house.
Wright gave Ashley, who owns 55% of Sports Direct, until 21 March to agree to a date before 1 June to be questioned by MPs. Ashley’s unwillingness to go to parliament could test committees’ ability to impose their will on reluctant witnesses.
It is not clear how much power select committees have to force people to face questions. Rupert Murdoch and his son James gave evidence about phone hacking after the culture committee summoned them in 2011. A government green paper on parliamentary privilege in 2012 said in theory parliament could summon a person to reprimand them or order their imprisonment.
But another report that year concluded committees did not have the power to compel witnesses to attend. The report, written by barristers Richard Gordon QC and Amy Street for the Constitution Society, said parliament’s formal powers had not been used for hundreds of years and were unlikely to exist now.
The trade union Unite has accused Sports Direct of operating “Dickensian practices” in its treatment of workers. Ashley responded to the Guardian’s reports by announcing a pay rise for staff and a review of all agency staff terms and conditions, which he would oversee personally.
Ashley’s moves failed to overcome disappointing trading for Sports Direct. Investor doubts about the company’s governance and financial prospects meant the company was relegated from the FTSE 100 index of leading shares last week.
This article was written by Sean Farrell, for theguardian.com on Friday 11th March 2016 15.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010