Mike Ashley reignites row over Sports Direct’s working practices

Mike Ashley, the billionaire founder of Sports Direct, has resurrected the controversy over working conditions at his company’s Shirebrook warehouse by filing a complaint against the former MP who led the parliamentary inquiry into the retailer.

The company has complained to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards about the conduct of Iain Wright, the former Labour MP for Hartlepool, who chaired the business, innovation and skills select committee during the last parliament.

The 2016 inquiry into working practices at the firm was launched after a Guardian undercover investigation exposed how the company was paying staff less than the legal minimum wage.

The MPs concluded that Ashley had been running Sports Direct like a “Victorian workhouse”, building his success on a business model that treats workers “without dignity or respect”.

Sports Direct and its employment agencies – Transline and The Best Connection – were subsequently named and shamed by the government for paying workers less than the legal minimum wage. The three companies also agreed to award the company’s warehouse workers around £1m in back pay.

In the latest development, Sports Direct has complained that Wright, who stepped down as an MP before the last election, failed to act objectively during the select committee inquiry by not fully explaining a donation he received from the Unite trade union, which supplied evidence to the investigation.

The retailer also says that Wright misled the company about when the committee would carry out an unannounced inspection of Shirebrook. The visit, in November 2016, ended in further controversy amid claims Sports Direct staff had placed a covert recording device in a room where the MPs were meeting.

The transcript of the parliamentary hearing records Wright as opening proceedings by declaring his receipt of a donation from Unite. Later, when Wright asked Ashley if his committee could show up uninvited to inspect the group’s controversial Shirebrook warehouse, Ashley replied: “100%, 24/7”.

Wright, a former accountant who now works for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), added: “I’m more than happy that he is flagging up what I think was a really good piece of work. My colleagues, who were cross party, worked well together to highlight a list of appalling practices. This is obviously still eating him up and he can’t let it go”.

Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, now has to determine whether the complaint is within her remit, and whether the evidence justifies an investigation.

If she feels Sports Direct’s complaint has cleared those first two hurdles, the rules state that as the complaint is about a former MP, Stone must then also consult the committee on standards, which oversees her work and is staffed by MPs and members of the public.