Businessman refuses to appear before committee investigating pay and working conditions despite formal summons
Sports Direct's founder Mike Ashley has challenged the authority of a parliamentary select committee by refusing to appear before MPs investigating pay and working conditions at the retailer, despite being formally summoned.
The riposte, in which the billionaire called the parliamentarians "a joke", is the latest instalment in an increasingly bitter battle between Ashley and the Commons' business, innovation and skills (BIS) committee, which took the unusual step of issuing a summons to the Newcastle United owner last week.
The inquiry by the committee, which has threatened Ashley with being in contempt of parliament if he fails to attend a hearing on 7 June, follows a Guardian investigation last year that found workers at the sportswear group's Shirebrook warehouse were receiving, in effect, rates of pay below the minimum wage.
Undercover reporters employed at the Derbyshire facility discovered thousands of workers were subjected to an extraordinary regime of searches and surveillance, while local primary schoolteachers told the Guardian pupils would remain in school while ill – and return home to empty houses – as parents working at the depot were too frightened to take time off work.
However, in an interview with Sky News, Ashley said he would challenge the formal order and accused the MPs of "showboating". He said they cared only "about the business of politics, while I actually care about the people at Sports Direct".
He added: "I do not pretend to get everything right all of the time, but I am not willing to stand idle while this company is subjected to public vilification, which is against the best interests of everybody who works at Sports Direct.
"My current intention is that I will not attend Westminster on 7 June as I believe the proposal by [BIS select committee chairman] Iain Wright MP – whom I have offered to meet in Shirebrook – is an abuse of the parliamentary process. I therefore intend to challenge the attendance order issued by the BIS committee and I will be sending a formal reply to the committee in due course."
Wright declined to meet Ashley in Shirebrook, citing the "select committee's commitment to transparency".
Separately, a group of local MPs have pulled out of a meeting with the billionaire at the depot, which had been scheduled for Monday.
Wright said: "I'm very disappointed that Mr Ashley has refused to accept the committee's reasonable request to come and give evidence in parliament, like every other witness for every other select committee voluntarily does.
"It is telling that he chose to give his response to the media rather than to the committee directly. We will be discussing this matter at the next committee meeting on Tuesday."
Publication of the Guardian's investigation in December added to the pressure on what was then a FTSE 100 company, and came after the retailer had previously been accused of operating "Dickensian" working practices at Shirebrook by the union Unite.
The disclosures prompted the Institute of Directors to brand the company a "scar on British business" and former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna to file an urgent parliamentary question, which resulted in the business minister, Nick Boles, being summoned to the Commons to answer questions on the scandal. During the debate, a succession of MPs called for HM Revenue and Customs to investigate if the company had breached minimum wage legislation.
Sports Direct responded by announcing a pay rise for its staff, as well as a review of all agency workers' terms and conditions, which was to be overseen by Ashley, who owns 55% of the retailer.
The company was relegated from the FTSE 100 this month after a torrid three months in which £1.6bn was wiped off its stock market value amid a slump in trading at its stores.
Steve Turner, Unite's assistant general secretary, said: "Mike Ashley's belligerent attitude to our democratically elected MPs is extraordinary and his attempts to brush off abusive work practices through bluster and insults is shameful.
"More than 3,000 agency workers are employed by Sports Direct through Transline and the Best Connection in conditions which workers have likened to a gulag. If Mike Ashley is so confident that he has nothing to hide then he should have nothing to fear from appearing in front of MPs."
Ashley claimed that his company was being publicly vilified. "We are in trouble – we are not trading very well. We can't make the same profit we made last year," he told the Times.
"We are supposed to be taking the profits up, they are not supposed to be coming down, and the more the media frenzy feeds on it, the more it affects us."
"Once you start to spiral a company down, you lose the momentum. We have all seen the effect that negative media can have on companies, and that spiral is growing. There is no question it is having an effect [on the business]."