John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has responded to a point of order from Iain Wright over Mike Ashley’s refusal to attend a select committee. Ashley also criticised MPs saying “they don’t care about the people, they care about the business of politics”.
“On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your advice and guidance on a matter of principle for this House? Select Committees have the power through this House to send for persons, papers and records, to enable them to obtain oral and written evidence to allow them to undertake their work. In keeping with this long-established power, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which I chair, has sought to take evidence from the owner of Sports Direct, Mr Mike Ashley, on the treatment of workers at his company. That was in response to reports that workers at Mr Ashley’s warehouse in Shirebrook were not being paid the minimum wage. I have received correspondence from workers at Sports Direct, who have told me of practices such as employees being made to clock out but having to continue to work so that wages were not over budget; of staff kept for an hour after their scheduled finish time without pay to tidy shops; and of workers finishing work at 5 am and being required back at work two hours later.
We on the Select Committee naturally and not unreasonably wish to question Mr Ashley on the review of working conditions at his company that he announced he would undertake personally. After his refusal to accept our initial invitation to attend on a mutually convenient date, last week the Committee formally ordered Mr Ashley to attend on 7 June. Yesterday he indicated to the press, although not to the Committee, that he has no current intention of attending the Committee. He referred to the order to attend as “an abuse of the parliamentary process” and described the Committee as “a joke”. I do not think that scrutinising reports of Victorian-type employment conditions in modern-day Britain is a joke.
Can you confirm, Mr Speaker, that the Committee has acted in accordance with the procedures of this House? Can you advise me what steps can now be taken to ensure that Mr Ashley complies with the very reasonable request, and then the formal order, of the BIS Committee?”
“I am grateful to the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee for notice of his point of order. The House delegates to nearly all its Select Committees the power to send for persons, papers and records. Each Committee is free to decide whom to invite to give oral evidence, and if the invitation is refused, the Committee may decide to make an order for the attendance of a witness.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s direct question, therefore, it appears to me that so far the proper procedures have been followed. As long as the Committee is acting within its terms of reference, the House expects witnesses to obey the Committee’s order to attend. If, after due consideration, the hon. Gentleman’s Committee wishes to take the matter further, the next step would be to make a special report to the House, setting out the facts. The hon. Gentleman may then wish to apply to me to consider the issue as a matter of privilege, and to ask me to give it priority in the House. Under procedures agreed to by the House in 1978 and set out on page 273 of “Erskine May”, this application should be made to me in writing, rather than as a point of order. I would then be happy to advise him on the options open to him”.