Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley faces hearing over conditions at Sports Direct store

The sports chain owner appeared before a parliamentary hearing after criticism of the conditions at the sports retailer's Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire became public

Mike Ashley, Sports Direct, Newscastle United

Image: PA / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Sports Direct boss, Mike Ashley, has admitted to British MPs that there are "issues" with working practices at the retailer, but added that the firm was better at looking after staff than trade unions.

The Newcastle United owner was questioned at a British parliamentary hearing after criticism of the conditions at the sports retailer's Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire.

During a 90-minute session, members of the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills committee quizzed him about allegations of zero-hour contracts, staff receiving below minimum wage and workers losing pay as a result of security searches. 

"I've discovered some issues and I've hopefully addressed some of those issues. Bottlenecks at security are the main issue," he said.

Changes to working practices would be brought in within 90 days, he said, and promised to write to MPs if the timeframe needed to be extended.

"You're pushing against an open door," Ashley added.

He told MPs that his firm had grown too quickly for him to be aware of everything that had gone on, describing it as being like an "oil tanker".

MPs repeatedly suggested that as part of a wide-ranging review, he should look at putting a management structure in place that would allow him to get his company under control.

When Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, asked him "Do you think you have outgrown this company?", he replied: "Probably."

When he followed the question up by asking him if he should get someone else to drive the "oil tanker", he replied: "Possibly."

But he argued that Sports Direct could do a better job than the Unite union when it came to looking after workers.

When asked if that was a view shared by the employees, he said: "I would hope so."

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, had earlier told MPs that workers were being exploited and Shirebrook was more like a "gulag".

Mr Turner said workers were given "strikes" against their name if they talked too much or spent too long in the toilet. Six "strikes" would see an employee sacked, Mr Turner said.

Mr Ashley said the strikes system was in order to make sure no employee took advantage of the others, but agreed that maybe six was too few.

The committee had been forced to threaten him with contempt when he repeatedly refused to appear, and he only agreed to appear on Sunday.

During his evidence, he put most of the problems that had occurred at Shirebrook down to the firm's rapid expansion that followed it moving to sales over the internet.

He said the company had originally been set up to supply goods to stores, not to internet customers, and using agencies was the only way to cope with the huge increase in orders that followed expansion.

"All of a sudden, I've got a system where a customer orders one (item). Now I need ten times as many people as I needed," he said.

"We could have not predicted that internet growth. What we had to do is go out and employ professionals."

He concluded by promising to employ independent experts to carry out a review of corporate governance at Sports Direct.

"Personally, I would rather not (carry it out myself), because I am not objective. They are my friends. I would rather it was independent. An independent review, I would have no problem with that," he said.