Initially, Ashley declined to appear before the Committee stating that the proposal was “an abuse of parliamentary process”. He subsequently agreed to attend stating that he would do so “for the good of the company”. He also appeared as a witness in the BHS inquiry alongside his peer Sir Philip Green.
When might an employer be called?
There is a Select Committee for each Governmental department and an inquiry may be launched into a particular policy or area of public concern. During an inquiry Select Committees gather evidence from ministers and officials, the public and external organisations. An employer may be called before an inquiry where the Select Committee considers that they may be able to give relevant testimony. This evidence is publically reported and the Government must respond to findings.
Can the Select Committee demand attendance?
Whilst Committees have the right to insist upon the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents, enforcement of that right is quite another matter.
Ordinarily a Committee will send an informal request for attendance. If, like Mr Ashley, the witness declines, a process of negotiation commences. If the witness remains resolute the Committee may serve them with a formal order requiring attendance. Should a witness continue to refuse to attend they may found in contempt which, according to Erskine May, is “any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions.” However recourse to punishment is somewhat outdated – calling to the Bar of the House (last exercised in 1957); imposition of fines (last imposed in 1666); and imprisonment (last committal in 1880).
Although modern day Select Committees may be slow to rely upon contempt, they are not shy to threaten a much modern punishment: reputational damage. High profile individuals can readily be named and shamed into attendance. After all reputational damage in the media ‘stocks’ risks financial damage to the company stocks.
Following the inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, the Speaker of the House of Commons publically admitted that enforcement of witness attendance is “a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment”. Toxic yes but highly effective too.
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