Sports Direct’s board has said it did not know about or authorise an apparent attempt to secretly record a group of MPs who paid a surprise visit to its warehouse.
Six MPs from the business select committee arrived at the site in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, on Monday after giving the company an hour’s notice. They were accepting an invitation made by the founder and chief executive, Mike Ashley, when he appeared before the committee in June.
After they were shown round, the MPs went to a meeting room where they claimed a small camera used to record the day’s proceedings was placed under a tray of sandwiches.
In a statement to the stock exchange, Sports Direct’s board said it had not been proved that the camera was to be used to record the MPs and complained that the episode had overshadowed good things that came from the visit.
The company added: “The board would like to make it clear that it did not authorise or have any knowledge of the possible recording device.”
Sports Direct said it was delighted MPs had “finally accepted the company’s invitation to visit the Sports Direct’s warehouse on an unannounced basis” but that the board was disappointed they chose a day when they knew Ashley would be away from Shirebrook.
Karen Byers, global operations head and one of Ashley’s closest associates, was understood to have shown the MPs round in Ashley’s absence.
Ashley invited the MPs to Shirebrook after the Guardian’s investigation exposed how Sports Direct workers were being paid less than the minimum wage. The business committee subsequently accused Ashley of running the business like a Victorian workhouse in a report published in July.
The board, led by embattled chairman Keith Hellawell, said it understood the MPs met many staff members who were positive about the company and that employees expressed unhappiness about how the company had been portrayed.
Ashley said: “I stand firmly behind the people of Sports Direct, who through no fault of their own have been made a political football by MPs and unions.”
Anna Turley, one of the MPs who visited Shirebrook, said they were made to feel unwelcome and were taken on a “wild goose chase” around the vast site before being shown the warehouse at the centre of the row about working practices.
Turley told the BBC’s Today programme: “We didn’t expect them to be overjoyed when we were there but would say: ‘This is the same as any other day. We are proud of our warehouse, we are proud of our staff, come and meet them and say hello.’”
Turley said conditions at Shirebrook were dark, dingy and chaotic but that the MPs had not expected things to be perfect because Ashley had admitted things needed to improve. She said the camera incident had left her and her colleagues uneasy about the treatment of employees.
“If they do this to us as parliamentarians, what do they do to staff who aren’t able to answer back, who aren’t unionised and who fear for their jobs?”