Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Sports Direct, has officially confirmed that he will not appear in front of MPs next week, citing the fact that his lawyer is “unavailable” as the reason for missing the hearing.
This is despite officially being summoned by politicians in a letter back in March this year.
In a letter sent on Thursday, Ashley told the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that he is unable to attend the hearing as his lawyer, Richard Gordon QC is unavailable on that date. He added that the lawyer also “cannot change” the date of that obligation.
“Obviously he should be present if I was to attend. That means I will not be able to attend to give evidence on 7 June, even if my remaining questions are answered by then,” Ashley added.
The Sports Direct founder has been involved in an increasingly bitter fight with MPs in recent weeks over his continued refusal to speak in front of the BIS committee to discuss his company’s employment practices.
After months of refusals he finally agreed to speak in front of the Committee on the condition that MPs would visit Sports Direct’s facility in Shirebrook, Nottinghamshire prior to the hearing, so they could see working conditions first hand. Ashley also offered MPs the use of his personal helicopter to get to Shirebrook.
MPs refused that offer, which led Ashley to say through a spokesman last week that he plans to take legal action, and that the “committee are clearly being unfair.“
On Thursday, Ashley urged the directors of two agencies used by Sports Direct to employ temporary staff in its warehouses to appear in front of MPs from the Business, Innovation, and Skills Select Committee, despite his own refusals.
Unsurprisingly the BIS Committee’s members are not happy and question Ashley’s last minute avoidance of the hearing. In a statement sent to Business Insider, chairman Iain Wright MP said (emphasis ours):
Mr Ashley says he has nothing to hide but – following a Parliamentary summons issued back in March for Mr Ashley to attend on 7 June — and when he stated that he was available on that date, he has only now indicated he will not be able to attend next week.
We are very disappointed by this eleventh-hour notification, having given him a notice period of three months to make the necessary arrangements.
Business leaders regularly come before the Committee and answer our questions. Sir Philip Green, for example, has agreed to attend as part of our joint inquiry into BHS. Does Mr Ashley, owning and operating a business in a parliamentary democracy, see himself as being beyond such public scrutiny? What has he got to be frightened of?
Now that he has officially said he won’t appear, Ashley could theoretically face prison. Politicians have the power to officially summon individuals to parliament, should they refuse to attend a committee hearing. If someone does refuse a summons, they can be held in contempt of parliament and receive a prison sentence. In practice however, this is unlikely. In his statement Wright said that the “Committee will decide on the next steps when it meets next week.”
Sports Direct has faced a series of employment practice scandals in the past couple of years, but Ashley’s BIS Select Committee appearance was likely to concern allegations made in late 2015, including that the company is effectively paying workers less than minimum wage, and that some workers were so scared to take sick leave that they called ambulances to the office.
Since those allegations were first made in The Guardian newspaper, Sports Direct has committed to paying at least the minimum wage to all staff, costing the company £10 million ($14.5 million).