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Sports Direct defends itself from MPs' criticism in letter to Michael Gove

Lauretta Roberts
25 March 2020

Sports Direct parent Frasers Group has attempted to defend itself after the Government criticised the behaviour of some businesses during the coronavirus crisis.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in reference to the company asking staff to come to work after the non-essential retail shutdown said that its chief Mike Ashley must "obey the rules or to expect the consequences".

Staff are permitted to attend work in non-essential industries but only if the company observes new, stricter social distancing measures. Sports Direct had initially tried to claim its stores were "essential" but quickly backtracked and agreed to close them.

It emerged today that the chairman of the Business Select Committee, Rachel Reeves had written to Frasers Group to ask it to account for its actions towards its staff by 27 March.

In her letter, Reeves asked Frasers to provide answers to the following questions:

– How many of your staff will be furloughed?
– Will you pay your staff’s wages up until the Government’s money comes through?
– Will you pay the remaining 20% of your staff’s wages when Government support begins?
– How you will pay and treat staff that you employ who are on zero-hour contracts?
– Will your staff have to reapply for their jobs when the present crisis is over?

In a bid to defend itself from criticism from politicians, Frasers Group finance chief, Chris Wootton, wrote to cabinet minister Michael Gove to follow up on a call the pair had had earlier today. In it, Wootton defended the company's behaviour saying it had gone further than required to support vulnerable members of staff and reiterated the group's offer to help with NHS deliveries during the crisis.

Frasers agreed to close its Evans Cycles stores during the shut-down, despite the fact that cycle stores were included on the essential retail list. Wootton also pointed out that any open store would be an uncommercial activity for the group, which would appear to be a rebuttal of any suggestion it was attempting to profit from the shut-down.

The letter has been seen by the PA news agency, and is reprinted in full below:

Dear Mr Gove,

Thank you for your time on the call earlier today. It is much appreciated – given that I know how very busy you must be.

You suggested I put any questions I may have to you in writing and also to confirm our offer of support to the NHS.

My questions to you are as follows and referenced on the call:-

1. Do you agree that it was proper that we asked for the Government’s guidance in advance on Monday as to whether Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores should continue to operate, given the emphasis the Government has placed on the nation continuing to exercise daily during the Covid 19 Emergency/lockdown?

2. Do you agree that Evans Cycles should open, with the appropriate social distancing procedures, given the large number of cyclists in the UK and the importance of cycling as a means by which the public could keep well and active during the Covid 19 Emergency?

3. Do you agree if Evans Cycles stores were to open that we should only use those employees who want to volunteer to staff the shops?

We wish to make absolutely clear that as a business keeping open any of our stores is completely uncommercial for us at this time.

We emphatically do care about our staff. This is most obviously demonstrated in the current trying circumstances by the fact that we offered the vast majority of employees who were in the categories designated as being vulnerable by the Government to stop coming to work and go home on full pay until further notice. Furthermore we voluntarily went further and sought to extend the designated category of the vulnerable to those over 60.

I take this opportunity to repeat that we are keen to help support in whatever way we can our marvellous NHS and its employees who are putting themselves in danger to protect our wellbeing. The most immediate opportunity for this may be afforded by our fleet of lorries that can travel all around the country and help where possible delivering supplies etc. Please let me know who we could speak to further about this.

Finally it would be helpful to have a note or transcript of our call if there is one available. I assume you normally keep one.

I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.

Kind regards

Chris Wootton

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