Billionaire Mike Ashley gave MPs a very vague reason to get out of a public grilling
Politicians hope to grill Ashley, who has not given an interview since 2007, over his overall treatment of workers at Sports Direct and the temporary collapse of another clothing chain USC, which led to the loss of 200 jobs. Ashley, however, famously hates appearing or speaking in public.
Ashley's representatives said late yesterday that he is "unavailable" throughout all of this month. "Mr Ashley has long standing commitments in March which means that he is out of the country and/or not available for that month," his representatives said. This is the equivalent of telling politicians that he's "washing his hair."
It also means that Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawellwill have to give evidence in front of a panel of MPs on March 25, with only the company's corporate adviser. This will annoy politicians because they specifically asked for Ashley.
"The Committee has already arranged to meet with the Chair of Sports Direct, Dr Keith Hellawell, and Philip Duffy, of Duff and Phelps, the USC administrators,"Ian Davidson MP, Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
"Nevertheless, the Scottish Affairs Committee still wants to meet with Mike Ashley, whom we see as the driving force behind Sports Direct, to clarify his views on how the closure of USC’s warehouse at Dundonald was handled and on major issues of employment policy and related issues."
Politicians have the power to officially summon individuals to parliament, should they refuse to attend a committee hearing. If someone did refuse a summons, they could be held in contempt of parliament, if they choose to press charges. However, this is a rare, never-enacted move.
Politicians only have until March 30 to wrap up any business they may have before parliament is dissolved to make way for the General Election in May.
Ashley's £4 billion clothing chain Sport Direct is under fire over its treatment of its employees as the sporting clothing giant is a prolific user of the "zero hours" contract. The controversial terms of employment do not guarantee work and do not provide sick, holiday, or maternity pay. Around 90% of the 15,000-strong Sports Direct workforce are on zero-hours contracts.
This also means that these people would be excluded from the government's obligatory pensions auto-enrolment scheme. Auto-enrolment means that your employer automatically puts a percentage of your salary into a pension scheme every payday.
On top of that, according to options trading firm Banc De Binary, he makes one of the lowest contributions to staff pensions out of all the firms in the FTSE 100. On average, Sports Direct only contributes £82 per employee annually. This is dramatically lower than the £2,920 per staff member, on average, for the FTSE 100 as a whole.
Ashley's Sports Direct bought a majority stake in USC and its 90 stores in 2011, through two holding companies. However, USC went into administration after a debt dispute with one of its long term suppliers Diesel. It led to the loss of 200 jobs in Scotland and the closure of 28 stores.
But Ashley’s Republic clothing chain, known as the "premium lifestyle arm" of Ashley's empire, bought USC out of administration almost immediately.