Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley doesn’t exactly have a great attendance record when it comes to political engagements. The last time he was requested to appear before a Parliamentary committee, he demurred, saying he had other commitments – the business equivalent of ‘I’m washing my hair’.
That resulted in Sports Direct’s chairman Keith Hellawell being skewered by members of the Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee over how the company was run (rather embarrassingly, he didn’t appear to know – at least as far as the administration of subsidiary USC was concerned).
This time, however, Ashley may have no choice. He’s been issued a formal summons by the House of Commons BIS select committee to answer questions over alleged ‘workhouse’ practices in Sports Direct’s warehouse. Ashley had previously proposed that the committee leave the draughty halls of Westminster and instead come to him at his offices in Shirebrook. You can just imagine the looks on the MPs' faces at the thought of decamping to Dickensian Derbyshire for the day.
For some reason, they refused. ‘A number of alternative dates have been offered to you by the committee clerk, but as yet you have not accepted any of them, nor agreed in principle to attend, wrote committee chairman Iain Wright MP in a letter to Ashley last week. ‘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.’
The formal summons requires Ashley to attend in Westminster on June 7. But what if he doesn’t show? Technically, contempt of Parliament could lead to a fine or even imprisonment (traditionally in Big Ben clock tower...).
There are doubts however over whether the House of Commons could use its ancient powers to sanction Ashley. It hasn’t ordered the Sergeant in Arms to imprison a non-MP since 1880, and the power isn’t formally laid out in statute. Were the committee to ask the House to hold Ashley in contempt, the Commons would need to vote to approve the measure, but even then Ashley could challenge it in the courts. Perhaps he’ll call their bluff.
Then again, camera shyness isn’t really Ashley’s overriding concern. Sports Direct’s dubious reputation has finally hit its share price over the last few months, causing it to lose 46% of its value. As Ashley owns 55% of the business, that’spersonally cost him a fortune. He’s trying to change Sports Direct’s image, to make it the high street’s second best employer after John Lewis.
In that context, it’s a question of whether defying the sovereign power of the UK’s elected representatives would harm the company’s PR rehabilitation more than a dressing down by a panel of angry MPs. You’d expect he’ll do a Rupert (Murdoch) and give in, but with Ashley you never really know.