Mike Ashley will go before MPs to “defend the good name” of Sports Direct on Tuesday in a change of plan just days after he said he would defy a parliamentary summons.
The billionaire founder of the retail chain has written to the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) committee to say that he had a change of heart after careful consideration over the weekend.
On Friday MPs said they would discuss applying sanctions, which have not been brought to bear for decades, after Ashley said he could not make a long-planned meeting because his lawyer, Richard Gordon QC, was unavailable.
In a letter to committee chairman Iain Wright headed “NOTHING TO HIDE” in bold capital letters, Ashley said: “I am mindful of your statement to the press on Friday in which you question whether or not Sports Direct has anything to hide.
“I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth. I believe my repeated invitations for you to attend Shirebrook are a clear demonstration that in fact we have nothing to hide. I was merely seeking to avoid an unnecessary media circus.
“However, after much reflection over the last 48 hours, I have concluded that a lengthy legal battle would be of no benefit to either of us. It would also no doubt lead to further unwarranted accusations that I am being secretive, whereas in fact I have been open and honest at every stage of this process.
“I have therefore reconsidered my position and I am writing to confirm that I will now be attending parliament on Tuesday in order to defend the good name of Sports Direct on behalf of all of the great people who work here.”
Wright welcomed Ashley’s decision to attend parliament. “Mr Ashley announced in December he would personally oversee a review of working practices at the Shirebrook warehouse in response to serious allegations made and we look forward to Mr Ashley answering our questions, including in response to these allegations and the progress of his review. As a committee, we want to get a sense of the genuine and balanced picture at Sports Direct and establish whether there are issues for the wider economy which need further examination, such as the status and rights of agency workers,” he said.
Ashley’s decision to appear is the latest twist in a long-running battle with MPs, which began after a Guardian investigation revealed that thousands of the retailer’s temporary warehouse workers were receiving effective hourly rates of pay below the minimum wage.
In March, the tycoon was formally summoned to appear before the committee to explain his company’s treatment of its workers, after refusing to agree to a number of dates suggested by MPs.
Ashley dubbed the the parliamentarians “a joke”, claiming that they were showboating while he had the best interests of his employees at heart.
He then suggested that MPs should visit the Shirebook warehouse first, to see conditions for themselves. The BIS committee declined that offer, insisting that Ashley report on 7 June.
MPs want to quiz Ashley about the Guardian’s revelation that thousands of Sports Direct workers were subjected to an extraordinary regime of searches and surveillance. Local teachers have warned that some pupils have been sent to school despite being ill, as parents who worked at Shirebrook have been afraid to take time off.
Sports Direct responded to the reports by announcing a pay rise for its staff, as well as a review of all agency staff terms and conditions, which was to be overseen personally by Ashley.
It is understood that Ashley feels he has now dealt with all the concerns raised about pay and conditions for staff at the Shirebrook head office and is keen to put the matter behind him.
Iain Wright, BIS committee chairman, said on Friday that MPs were determined to investigate “serious allegations of exploitative employment practice”.
“Mr Ashley announced in December he would personally oversee a review of working practices at the Shirebrook warehouse. It is entirely reasonable for the select committee to ask Mr Ashley to respond to those allegations and comment on how his review – announced over six months ago – is progressing,” Wright added.
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