The working conditions at the Sports Direct warehouse, in Shirebrook in the East Midlands, were considered extensively during a recent Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee inquiry. We had heard evidence of poor treatment of many of the employees based in the factory. The day-to-day management is farmed out to two agencies who also came in for particular criticism. We have had an update since the report and we hoped to find that some of the positive changes it mentioned were now being made.

During our evidence session with Mike Ashley, the owner of Sports Direct, the committee was invited to visit Shirebrook at any time, and to come unannounced if that is what we chose. Yesterday that was indeed what we chose.

I can't say we were made entirely welcome - the invitation to come at any time was apparently supposed to mean a time when Mike Ashley was there, and when we had given plenty of notice.

Nevertheless we were received and spent the early part of the day visiting the extensive site. Mike Ashley is justifiably proud of his retail operation, which he has grown into a household name, but we had to press hard to see the older warehouse units that had been the focus of the criticism.

Our trip was recorded by a Sports Direct staff member with a small hand unit, and we were also occasionally filmed more openly. Every statement we made or question we asked was written down on paper - but it was the close of the day that brought the nasty surprise.

Glad to accept the kindness of refreshments after a long day, the committee retreated into what we thought was a private room to have a summary meeting. It should be noted that we wanted to be balanced in our reporting: to acknowledge where positive changes had been made and to thank Sports Direct for hosting us.

It was at this point that one of my colleagues, Anna Turley MP, noticed that the tray of sandwiches brought in by a member of staff from Sports Direct had been placed far away from the table where we were all sitting. This caught her attention, and then she also noticed the staff member retrieve a small camera from the sandwiches and place it under the chair. One of our group immediately took this camera outside.

It is unbelievable that someone in Sports Direct thought it was a good idea to do this, undermining all the good work that they had done during the day. The Chair of the committee, Iain Wright MP, phoned Mike Ashley to discuss this attempted filming. In the increasingly angry telephone conversation that ensued, astonishingly Mr Ashley accused us of planting the device ourselves.

This incident highlights the culture that was noted at the time of our enquiry. Mike Ashely is a man who has worked extremely hard to get to where he is today. However, the skills that supported him in his hunger to build the business have not been adequate when it comes to managing a publicly listed company. Weaker leaders often surround themselves with people with whom they have had a long and trusted relationship but, they are not necessarily the best placed to challenge their manager to do even better or raise their game. Alternatively, managers can ultimately become neurotic - trusting no-one and unwilling to accept advice.

The irony is that whoever placed the bugging device clearly didn't appreciate the damage its discovery could do - and by placing it clearly, they demonstrated - more clearly than we ever could - what is wrong with the culture and behaviour at the heart of Sports Direct.

Weak leadership often finds someone (anyone) to blame - when the path to real and lasting change is creating a culture where the leader sets the example by being accountable for what is and is not acceptable. It is the employee who was asked to do this I feel sorry for - she was compromised in a way no employee should be.

This visit clearly illustrated that the culture at Sports Direct still has some way to go towards real and lasting improvement.

Twitter Latest

Facebook    |    0131 516 2402
Michelle Thomson MP    |    @MichelleThomson

Michelle Thomson MP, 125A St John's Road, Corstorphine, Edinburgh EH12 7SB