Why MPs love select committees

Steven Gauge

PLMR's Steven Gauge on how Select Committees operate and their function in Parliament

Like him or not, Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley is spot on when he describes the House of Common’s Business Select Committee as being, “deliberately antagonistic.” Select committees have become the place where Members of Parliament go to pick fights and show off. In order to do that, they need big characters to antagonise.

On the face of it, it is perfectly reasonable for the committee that has been established to scrutinise the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to have a chat over a cup of House of Commons tea with British businesses leaders about how things are going out there in businessland. As they pull together evidence about the functioning of the important government department they are charged with monitoring, it is natural to want to hear from a chief executive who has run into some rather public difficulties over his handling of minimum wage legislation an issue overseen by BIS. The committee might want to make some helpful recommendations to BIS about how it goes about its regulatory duties and Mr Ashley’s insights could be pivotal.

But of course that is not why Iain Wright, the Chair of the Select Committee chose to invite the sportswear firm and Newcastle United owning tycoon to come to Westminster. The billionaire, with a reputation for high stakes gambling and big nights out in Newcastle’s Bigg Market with the fans is the dream witness for otherwise unheard of Members of Parliament to cross examine. Having a larger than life character in the midst of an unfolding news story, appear before them is the perfect opportunity for MPs to get a little bit of the media limelight and flex their inquisitorial muscles.

It’s only fair I suppose. Politicians are more used to being on the other side of the debate, being pilloried for all the standard politician-type failings; making promises they can’t keep, failing to fix the economy or fiddling their expenses. In the sanctuary of Select Committees embattled politicians get the chance to put the boot on the other foot and give someone else a bit of a kicking for a change. Mike Ashley is simply the latest corporate fat cat to receive the call.

Ashley’s strategy of inviting the committee to come to him, and see his business at work, is cute and clever. Select Committees are allowed to meet out of Westminster and the Business committee has previously for example flown seven of its members out to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh for a very reasonable £43,615.75. For some reason they seem reluctant to venture out as far as Shirebrook in Nottinghamshire to see Mike Ashley’s happy band of employees.

Now Mike Ashley may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect employer. Keeping Sports Directs prices low and profits high would appear to have created huge pressure to keep staff salaries as low as they can get away with. It is also a bit rich for this notoriously outspoken character to accuse the politicians of being deliberately antagonistic. Just like that the charcoal encrusted cooking pot passing disparaging remarks about the smoke stained nature of the kettle, it takes one deliberate antagonist to know one.

Being deliberately antagonistic is one of the few pleasures left for members of parliament to enjoy, and they will use all their historic powers of persuasion to drag Mike Ashley before them. Unless he has been very well briefed and carefully coached beforehand he will have a very miserable time in the Palace of Westminster when he eventually shows his face.

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