Hove MP Peter Kyle grilled Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley over working practices which the businessman himself described as “not acceptable” and “unbelievable”.
The Labour MP asked Mr Ashley about some of the testimony from workers heard by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.
Mr Kyle was reported last month to have suggested “cowardice” on Mr Ashley’s part when he was still refusing to appear before the select committee.
He was more conciliatory yesterday (Tuesday 7 June) when Mr Ashley came to give evidence to the committee’s inquiry into working practices at Sports Direct.
The company has a shop in North Street, Brighton, although the biggest criticisms appear to be about the working practices at its warehouse in Shirebrook, in Derbyshire.
Mr Kyle said: “Mike, thank you for coming to appear here. It really has been brilliant to have you here and it’s been great to engage with you because we get a sense of who you are and how you approach the work and we appreciate that and I certainly do.
“Getting a sense of your demeanour here today, would you describe yourself as a kind person?”
Mr Ashley’s public relations (PR) adviser Keith Bishop said: “I think I can answer that.
Mr Kyle said: “No. I don’t want you to answer that, thanks. This is about him.
“Although I should also add, having seen how authentic you are as an individual, I don’t think you need to bring a PR person with you to events like this in the future.”
After making a joke at Mr Bishop’s expense, Mr Ashley said: “I would like to think I’m kind to the right people. I would like to think I’m kind to the genuine people. And that’s not some waffly stuff.
“No, I don’t think I’m Santa Claus. Honestly, I don’t. I don’t think you could be a Santa Claus and honestly say I did enough for the people on a Saturday night.”
Mr Kyle said: “It is very clear that some pretty unkind practice is happening in the business that you created and you own.
“We’ve already heard that somebody in their written appraisal form had, ‘you come across quite selfish as you always want to leave on time’. That’s not a kind thing to do to an employee, is it?”
Mr Ashley said: “I agree with you.”
Mr Kyle said: “And we had somebody else who gave evidence to us who gave pretty damning testimony, working in one of your shops, not being offered any contract, not even a zero hours contract for many months on end, was bullied, pushed around in the workforce and was then summarily sacked with no explanation whatsoever. That’s not kind, is it?”
Mr Ashley said: “No and not only is it not kind, it’s not acceptable. And that shouldn’t go on. Absolutely not.”
Mr Kyle said: “We heard from a woman who said, and I quote, this was said to her, and I quote, ‘if you want to get a contract, we can talk about it over dinner.’
“She also said, not just one manager but several. And she said, so … and then broke down in tears. That’s not kind, is it?
Mr Ashley said: “No, that’s the total opposite of kind. That’s some type of sexual predators that need to be dealt with.
Mr Kyle said: “But do you accept that this is happening in your business, the business you created, that is shaped in your image? This is happening in your business.
Mr Ashley said: “Well, it shouldn’t. If it does, it 100 per cent should not be going on. I don’t know what I’m going to be able to put in place to stop it but at least I’m going to try.
“You sit there and say those things to me. Honestly, they’re repugnant. They’re disgusting. What do you want me to say? Would you like it if you were me?
Mr Kyle said: “But the point is it’s not happening in Sainsbury’s.”
Mr Ashley said: “But how do you know it’s not happening in Sainsbury’s?”
Mr Kyle said: “It’s happening in Sports Direct.”
Mr Ashley said: “Are you certain it’s not happening in Sainsbury’s? Are you absolutely sure you can sit here and say there’s no sexual harassment within the office happening in Sainsbury’s?”
Mr Kyle said: “The difference is …”
Mr Ashley said: “I think there probably is. The question is have Sainsbury’s got a better process to prevent it and have they got a better process for dealing with it when it does happen than Sports Direct? And Sports Direct therefore has got to pull its socks up. Simple as that, fellers.”
Mr Kyle said: “It’s great you’re being so candid. I mean, this is great. And it’s great that you also want to take these issues very seriously.
“But the point I’m trying to make is that your personality is stamped through this organisation, that clearly you are hurt and upset at the possibility this might be happening in the organisation that you take responsibility for.
“But it is happening and the way that you have employed people, the management structure you have in place, the training that you have put in place for the managers, the fact that you have 200 permanent staff at Shirebrook and 2,000 who are temporary, with a high churn rate on very low pay, many of them quite vulnerable people, some of them who have come from abroad … This is a culture that is ripe for exploitation.”
Mr Ashley said: “Yeah, we shouldn’t have it. I agree with you.”
Mr Kyle said: “So are you now committed to a review of the way you do business?
Mr Ashley said: “Guys, I’m coming here today to listen and one of the reasons I agreed to come – whether I think I ought to or not is a different subject – is to make a difference.”
Mr Kyle said: “So let me put this to you then. And this is … You’re somebody that’s created an extraordinary company. You’ve created a lot of wealth – a lot of it’s gone to you. You’ve done something absolutely remarkable. But do you think your company has outgrown your ability to manage it?
Mr Ashley said: “Probably – a long time ago.”
Mr Kyle said: “And I realise even though I set a tiny company up in the past which has remained tiny and I’m an MP that no one’s ever heard of, talking to a titan of the business sector, but is it not time that, your own analogy is you woke up one day and your little business was an oil tanker. Well, if you’ve gone from a dinghy to an oil tanker, shouldn’t you get someone who knows how to sail and drive an oil tanker?
Mr Ashley said: “Possibly. Possibly. I can accept the criticism. Some of the things you’ve said to me today would actually lead me to believe that it’s definitely outgrown me. Because that shocks me – what you’ve said to me today.”
Other MPs took over the questioning although Mr Ashley later described “some of the things Peter said” as “unbelievable”.
Just before Mr Kyle’s questions, Mr Ashley admitted that the business was being investigated by Revenue and Customs. The investigation started after claims that workers at the Shirebrook warehouse were paid less than the minimum wage.
The cross-party committee of MPs also heard from other witnesses, including unions and people who had worked for Sports Direct.
The committee is expected to publish a report about the way that the company operates in the coming weeks or months.
To view Mr Ashley’s appearance before MPs, click here. Mr Kyle starts his questions at about 12.29pm.