MPs threaten to summon Ashley over no-show snub

Mike Ashley

The business, innovation and skills committee yesterday took the rare step of publicly warning Mike Ashley that he risked being in contempt of parliament if he failed to accept an invitation to appear before them to discuss accusations over why low-paid employees earned less than the minimum wage, reports The Times.

Writing to Mr Ashley, Iain Wright, the Labour chairman of the committee, said the Sports Direct executive deputy chairman had been offered “a number of alternative dates” to go to Westminster, but had yet to accept any. It is extremely rare for Britons called to give evidence to flout an invitation and Mr Wright cautioned Mr Ashley that failing to turn up could result in an extraordinary summons to force him to turn up.

“Select committees do not normally need to have recourse to our formal powers to summon witnesses to secure attendance; refusal to attend without good reason may be considered a contempt of the House,” Mr Wright wrote.

Representatives of Sports Direct were quick to downplay the dispute and said that MPs had been offered the opportunity to visit the company’s headquarters in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, to meet staff.

“Mike Ashley has invited members of the committee to attend Shirebrook in order to see for themselves the company’s working practices. That invitation remains open. Mike will respond to the committee’s recent letter in due course,” a spokesman said.

Mr Wright acknowledged the offer of the Shirebrook visit, but said that it had been turned down. “In line with select committees’ commitment to transparency, it is normal practice for the BIS committee to meet in public at Westminster and we agreed to adhere to this practice on this occasion,” he wrote.

The committee has given Mr Ashley until March 21 to reply and agree a date for a Westminster showdown with MPs that is likely to be closely followed after the furore caused last year when articles in The Guardian accused the company of underpaying staff.

Sports Direct launched a review of its agency workers in December after the newspaper accused the company of docking employees’ pay if they were a minute late and of using a public address system to “harangue” or “name and shame” staff. The business was also accused of penalising staff who were consistently ill.

Mr Ashley said he would personally oversee the work, while Sports Direct issued a lengthy defence of its business methods and employment practices.

Shares in Sports Direct have fallen by about 40 per cent since the allegations were first raised, knocking more than £1 billion off the value of the FTSE 100 company. Yesterday, the stock closed down just under 1 per cent at 397p, valuing the company at £2.4 billion.

Controversy has followed Sports Direct since its 2006 IPO, which made Mr Ashley one of Britain’s wealthiest men. Today, he still owns 55 per cent of the company worth about £1.3 billion.