As you know I’m on the Business Select Committee which is a group of MP’s that has a constitutional right to examine, challenge, and comment different aspects of government policy but also that of the business community too. Normally we do detailed inquiries that offer government suggestions to improve policies, but we also have the power to look into areas of business activity we feel needs extra scrutiny.
When news broke about a culture of bullying, exploitation, and sexual harassment that has developed within Sports Direct we invited its founder, owner, and boss, Mike Ashley, to come and talk to us. He refused. We invited him again and again and again…he refused. So we issued a summons, which he refused. Because my personal challenge to him about his behaviour, he then said he would attend only if I was removed from the inquiry.
So then we dusted down the books and threatened to press a law into action that has not been used for 400 years which would have involved sending the Sargent At Arms to put him in cuffs and drag him to parliament! It took six months, but today Mr Ashley came and faced our committee.
Before we met him we privately met with a group of former and current employees. All of their stories were harrowing but one in particular almost moved me to tears. We then met the companies that supply Sports Direct with several thousand temporary and flexible workers, all on zero hours contracts. I was disgusted by their lack of knowledge of employment law, of HR practice, and as I said to their faces, the sheer lack of humanity that they allowed to happen in the workplace.
Mr Ashley then arrived. I was pleased that he was upfront, unpolished, and remarkably honest about the problems his business faced. But I was staggered that he seemed oblivious as to how things got done, the managerial techniques being used, and the sheer moral corruption that had crept into his business.
I asked him if he thought he was a kind man, and then confronted him with the experiences told to us by his employees. I asked “Do you think your company has outgrown your ability to manage it?”. His reply: “Yes, probably”.
It takes so much preparation to get ready for a session like this. I wanted to try my best to hold him to account, to do justice to the employees who have suffered at his hands, but also to do so in a way that would lead to change and not destruction. I want Sports Direct to improve and to be a brand we can be proud of, not as it is now which brings shame on British business and pain to many of its employees.
I will not let this go, I will be following up. I think it is obvious that Mr Ashley is not the right man to run the day-to-day operations of the company and I feel strongly that the agencies supplying staff are not qualified or capable of dispensing their work with the humanity or professionalism workers deserve and should be dealt with urgently.
If you want to watch all of my exchange with him, you can click on this address and skip to 12:29:19 on the timeline: