I’m not a great fan of the way Mike Ashley runs Newcastle United, but I would defend his right to refuse to attend the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee.
Ashley has excused himself on a number of occasions from meeting the committee, and its members are now considering whether to compel him, under threat of a charge of contempt of Parliament, to give evidence.
So far as I can see, Ashley has committed no crime. Nor is he a steward of public money. To revive archaic precedents, unused for many years, to drag him in front of MPs so that they can make critical comments about zero-hours contracts would be an abuse of Parliamentary privilege.
House of Commons select committees first appeared in 1979. The intention was for departmental committees to scrutinise how government works. The BIS committee is appointed ‘to examine the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department…and its associated public bodies’.
Quite a task in itself, given its big budget and the huge range of ways it intervenes in the UK economy: many hoped its functions would be cut back when Sajid Javid was appointed Secretary of State, but if anything its work has expanded.
There is nothing in the BIS terms of reference to justify compelling private individuals to discuss their business’s policies in front of TV cameras.
Ashley has offered, reasonably, to meet the committee in less daunting surroundings. Incidentally, the committee cannot compel either ministers or their civil servants to attend their sessions, as you might have thought should be possible.
Ordinary people, however, are subject to the whims of our elected representatives. Some see this as essential to enable committees to explore important policy issues. But there have been many cases, from bankers to charity chiefs to newspaper proprietors, where subjecting individuals to this sort of public scrutiny could also be read as arrogance and bullying. Margaret Hodge’s Public Accounts Committee was notorious for this type of behaviour in the last Parliament.
If there is any suggestion of illegality in Ashley’s companies, this should be investigated by the police or relevant authority (HMRC in the case of breaches of minimum wage legislation, for example). To use state power to compel any business leader to justify the way they run their organisations is deeply illiberal.
To use this opportunity, as select committees have done too often in recent years, can only feed the rapidly-growing anti-business feeling in this country. This will ultimately be to all our detriment.
In a free society those running businesses should be accountable to the law and their shareholders. Not to a bunch of backbench MPs with time on their hands, and a set of populist prejudices to explore.