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Mike Ashley summoned to Parliament: all you need to know

Newspaper Clip ArtThe Newcastle United owner has been told to appear before MPs to answer questions about Sports direct - what can he (and we) expect?

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is famously not a man who courts publicity. So rare are his public appearances that when he spoke to Sky TV before the club's final game of last season, the collective response was: "Oh, so that's what he sounds like."

Mr Ashley doesn't do interviews and he likes to get on with running his businesses out of the public eye.

But yesterday he received a letter which is likely to catapult him very much into the public eye at some point between now and the start of June, a polite but firm summons to appear before the House of Commons Business, Innovations and Skills Select Committee to answer questions from MPs about the running of his company, Sports Direct.

Mr Ashley has been resisting that request since the end of last year, not responding to a number of dates put forward for the meeting and suggesting instead that the MPs come to Sports Direct's headquarters in Shirebrook, Derbyshire (a suggestion that has been firmly declined).

Committee chairman Iain Wright threatened Mr Ashley with being held in contempt of parliament if he doesn't attend, suggesting the inquisition will happen.

So what can Mr Ashley expect? And what will the rest of us learn from the session?

What exactly is the Business, Innovations and Skills Select Committee?

The House of Commons has a number of committees, each examining the work of one Government department. The committees are made up of backbench MPs and have become an increasingly high profile part of the political process in the last few years. The Business, Innovations and Skills Committee has 11 members from the Labour, SNP and Conservative parties and is chaired by Hartlepool MP Iain Wright, a former Newcastle accountant.

What do they want to talk to Mr Ashley about?

According the Mr Wright's letter, "the committee would like to hear about the action that you have taken in response to reports in the media about the treatment of workers at Sports Direct and about the scope, progress and timetable of your own review of working practices that you announced in December." The letter is referring to an investigation in the Guardian newspaper which alleged staff were being paid below the minimum wage and subjected to a regime of searches and surveillance.

And it will all be very polite, presumably?

Not likely. Backbench MPs have really found their voice in select committees over the last few years and don't tend to pull their punches. The boss of Google Europe was widely mocked when he couldn't say how much he earned, Sky boss Rupert Murdoch was made to look very uncomfortable when quizzed by MPs over phone hacking and leading figures from the Metropolitan Police, the BBC and big banks have all squirmed at awkward lines of questioning.

Does Mr Ashley know what he's letting himself in for?

Probably. Last year he got out of appearing before the Scottish Affairs Select Committee by saying he was too busy and sending his chairman Keith Hellawell instead. There followed an hour-and-a-half of tough questioning in which Mr Hellawell - a former chief constable - was accused of running the company like a "backstreet outfit" and had to admit he had been in the dark over some of the company's operations. At one point, bruised and battered, he muttered: "I didn't think I was on trial."

So could Mr Ashley get out of this latest hearing?

Unlikely. Mr Wright's letter made it fairly clear that he expects Mr Ashley to come up with a date for his appearance some time in the next two weeks. "Should you fail in your reply to agree to attend on one of the dates offered to you, or a mutually convenient alternative before 1 June, the committee reserves the right to take the matter further, including seeking the support of the House of Commons in respect of any complaint of contempt," Mr Wright wrote.

What does that mean?

It's hard to say. A number of MPs have been held in contempt of parliament but the last time it was used on a non-member of the House was in 1959. Government guidance published in 2012 admits that the power is "untested in recent times". In theory, the House of Commons can summon a person to the bar of the house to reprimand them or order a person's imprisonment, or could issue a fine. But the last time the House of Commons used its power to fine anyone was in 1666 - this power may since have lapsed.

How is Mr Ashley taking this?

A statement released by Sports Direct yesterday repeated the offer to visit Shirebrook and said that Mr Ashley would respond to the committee's letter "in due course". But the timing couldn't be worse for him. Quite apart from the travails of Newcastle United, Sports Direct's share price has dropped following the Guardian investigation and recently fell out of the FTSE 100 - the table for the country's largest listed companies. A grilling before MPs is not likely to do the share price much good.

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