SportsDirect (USC Dundonald)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:28 pm on 27th January 2015.

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Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire 4:28 pm, 27th January 2015

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and the Minister in her place. Of course, Mr Hollobone, you and I served in the same police force for 10 years, and I think that you still serve in the police, so it is good to see you here—after this debate, we might need your services.

I would like to make a few remarks by way of background to the reason why I asked for the debate. This year is the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, one provision of which was that no free man should unreasonably be deprived of his livelihood. I am speaking on behalf of 245 workers in my constituency who question whether they are treated as free men and women.

USC is a clothing distribution company providing goods to retail distribution outlets. It opened in 1989 in Edinburgh. The company was worth £43 million by 2004, when it was purchased by Sir Tom Hunter, a constituent of mine, but it went into administration in 2008, after which 43 of the 58 stores were bought by Sir Tom. That happened through something called pre-packaged administration, whereby a deal is struck to sell parts of the business before it is put into administration, minimising losses and cherry-picking the most profitable part of the business. At the time, MPs, through the Commons Select Committee on Business and Enterprise, raised serious concerns about that practice. In particular, Sir Peter Luff said:

“The principle of administration is sound but you’ve got to make sure that the administration process is working in a way that doesn’t disadvantage people and impose other costs on the economy”.

In 2011, SportsDirect bought 80% of USC, and it completed the purchase of the remaining 20% in 2012. In 2013, SportsDirect bought the company Republic—more of that later—out of administration and merged it with USC. USC’s headquarters have long been in Dundonald in central Ayrshire. On 28 December last year, 245 people —79 permanent employees and 166 agency or zero- hours contract workers—were employed at the Dundonald site.

On Wednesday 7 January, senior managers arrived at the site early in the morning and informed staff that the business was not making money and was going into administration, and that all the stock would be removed to SportsDirect’s central depot in Shirebrook. There then followed a pantomime: staff were not told that they were being made redundant and were asked, would you believe, to assist with the removal of the goods. I am told that some 100 journeys were made by heavy goods vehicles between then and when the process was completed, on Sunday 11 January.

It is not clear whether USC/SportsDirect’s actions were initiated by the companies themselves or as a result of creditors, a clothing company called Diesel, seeking a winding-up order because of unpaid bills, to which USC/SportsDirect responded by moving the company towards administration, presumably resulting in Diesel joining the list of creditors that would have to wait for payment. I have heard it said that there was a one-week delay in the court process, which I am told means that the timetable followed by the company is even further out of kilter with what staff were told at the time. I seek clarification from the Minister on that point.

No information was given to staff about the future of Dundonald and their jobs until Wednesday 14 January, when Philip Norvell from Gallaghers dismissed all the staff, telling them that they would not receive any money at all from SportsDirect and that anything owed to them would have to be claimed from the Government via the administrator.

On Friday 16 January, Republic, a wholly-owned subsidiary company of SportsDirect, bought the USC business, apart from the Dundonald warehouse and operation, from the administrators. At the same time, billionaire Mike Ashley is well known for his love of football—he owns Newcastle United—and his company, the very same SportsDirect, has just bought a 26% stake in Rangers Retail Ltd, in return for £10 million of credit, adding to his previous 49% stake and making a total of 75%. Rangers football club gets a very small percentage of the profits from that retail activity. The worrying thing is that that is very much the pattern that he adopted in buying USC: he built up a majority stake in stages before finally assuming control of the company.

Of course, there are rules governing the ownership of football clubs, especially as there have been some notorious multiple owners such as the pensions robber Robert Maxwell. There must be a question whether Ashley’s activities are a precursor to a greater involvement in Rangers football club itself. Is it right for an individual to have a serious financial stake in more than one side? Is this man more than just a shareholder? Has he become the banker of the club?

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as I do, that the behaviour of Mike Ashley is damaging to him, and that the contrast between his wealth and the way the workers were treated is appalling?

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I am coming to that, but he does not care a damn. That is clear, given what I am about to say.

The USC Dundonald situation is a murky affair. It leaves unanswered a lot of questions about the way some businesses are allowed to operate. For instance, did Diesel seek a winding-up notice on USC as a result of unpaid bills, as claimed in some reports? That is an answer that I need this afternoon. If so, what alternative courses of action were considered by SportsDirect—such as, for example, paying the bill to its loyal workers at Dundonald? Was USC/SportsDirect’s action in seeking administration a response to the claim made by Diesel or was it initiated by the company separately? Was there a delay in the timetable for granting administration and, if so, what was the impact on the work force and the potential timetables for redundancy and required consultation on both redundancy and business plans? Was that brought to the notice of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? What will the cost to the public purse be of supporting the 245 people who are out of work without back pay, holiday or redundancy payments and who have bonuses of as much as £12,000 outstanding?

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. He is working hard on the issue, and he knows that many of my constituents were also employed in the business, and have lost their jobs because of this debacle. Yet again, a company in Ayrshire has behaved disgracefully —my hon. Friend knows what happened with the former coalfield sites. Is there a need to look at the way companies are allowed to do such things, treating employees so despicably, and to hold them accountable?

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, as does that of my hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson. I thank them for their support. I do not see any difference between the cases referred to, which is why there is a need to examine the law to protect workers in such circumstances. It is blatantly obvious that that does not happen now.

How long is it likely to take for the employees to receive payments from the administrators? Will employees get 100% of the money due to them? I doubt it. What sanctions can be imposed on the company for failing to consult employees about the future of their roles at the Dundonald site, or about redundancy? Given that all the companies in the exercise are owned by SportsDirect, is not it just a scam to let SportsDirect off its financial responsibilities to a less successful part of Ashley’s estimated £3.3 billion fortune?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate; people in my constituency are, as he mentioned, also affected. Does he agree that it is particularly disgraceful that everything he described was happening over Christmas and the new year, when it was almost impossible for employees to get the advice and support they needed, which they might have been able to get in other circumstances?

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly. I spent most of the Christmas period attempting to contact the company, and I was treated with total and absolute contempt.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the debate. We had a similar one last Thursday, about City Link. He has spoken about changes to the law, and with City Link the pattern was the same. Workers were told over the Christmas holiday period that their jobs had gone. More than 1,000 men contracted to it could not take their jobs, because of the law. We have been pressing the Minister on those points. This is very similar.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Scottish Affairs Committee is about to call that company to book, or has already done so, and has approached me to ask whether to call Mr Ashley to the Committee for what he has done to the company for which he is responsible. Do we agree with the BBC’s 2009 quote from a self-confessed asset stripper that the law in such circumstances is a pirates’ charter? I wonder whether that description could apply to Mr Ashley.

Has the Magna Carta principle that no citizen should unreasonably be deprived of their livelihood been breached by Mike Ashley and SportsDirect? Given how he has behaved on the issue, is Ashley, SportsDirect’s supremo, a fit and proper person to buy shares and give loans to Glasgow Rangers football club, and to appoint his men to the board? Should not the Scottish Football Association look more closely at this person’s credentials for involvement in a team that is not just a business venture, but a Scottish—indeed, a UK—institution? His track record, particularly his treatment of USC workers, shows that he has scant regard for anything but balancing the books and maximising profits, even if loyal staff are thrown on the scrap heap as a result.

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is wholly worrying that someone of Mr Ashley’s background, employment and business practice is moving into the highly delicate area of Scottish football, especially with a football team that is having difficulties at the moment?

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I agree. Glasgow Rangers is an institution, and some 25% of the population of Scotland follow that team. It is wrong that that individual should be allowed anywhere close to the team. As I will request of the Minister in a moment, I hope that the SFA gets to the bottom of this and does not allow him further into the club’s business.

Will the Minister set up an inquiry into the affairs of Mike Ashley in relation to the USC Dundonald situation affecting my constituents and his interest in Glasgow Rangers? Such a move would be welcome to the former employees of USC Dundonald and, I am sure, to the great bulk of Glasgow Rangers supporters. We need to bring some transparency to the affairs of Mike Ashley and of Glasgow Rangers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 4:42 pm, 27th January 2015

I congratulate Mr Donohoe on securing this timely but unfortunately necessary debate. I do not think that any of us wish the situation to be as it is—particularly those who have, sadly, lost their jobs.

The concerns about the events leading up to and surrounding USC’s failure, particularly some of the allegations made about the company’s treatment of its creditors and employees, are valid and genuine, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that they are shared across the House. It is important that answers are found. As with any company failure, it is important to establish the facts of the case: what occurred in the lead-up to the administration of USC, the reasons for the failure and whether the company has been a victim of circumstance, as sometimes happens with companies, or whether the conduct of its directors has fallen below the standards that we rightly and reasonably expect. Those standards include treating creditors and employees of the company fairly and in accordance with the law.

Based on the information that we have been given, USC’s administration seems to have been due to the company’s failure to pay its rent and suppliers when they came due. On the specific questions asked by the hon. Gentleman about the winding-up orders and so on, I understand that, according to the administrators, a statutory demand had been issued to USC by a key supplier on 17 December 2014, payable by 31 December.

That would have allowed the creditor to seek a winding-up order if the debt was not paid. On 6 January, the company gave notice of entering administration, and it did so on 13 January, but I am not aware that a petition for a winding-up order was made.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

As a local MP, the Minister knows something about Glasgow Rangers, but she might not know as much about USC. Is there an urgent need for a change in the law if, on the one hand, a creditor can seek a winding-up notice and, on the other hand, the company can frustrate that by making an application to the courts for administration?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

This case raises many questions. We are making several changes to insolvency law, and particularly to the pre-pack regime, where there are particular concerns. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I have some familiarity with Glasgow Rangers—indeed, Murray park, their training ground, is in my constituency. I confess that I am not a football fan, but my late grandfather was a very proud and longstanding season ticket holder and supporter of Rangers. He enjoyed many trips to matches on the supporters’ bus.

We all have to think about the context. USC was not just a small company on its own; it was just one part of a large retail group. The events are particularly concerning in that context.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Given what the Minister is saying, does she feel that USC, and perhaps Mike Ashley, too, have been guilty of using loopholes to get round certain situations and to create part of these problems quite deliberately? Could employment law be tightened so that workers are not victims, as they have been in this case?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

There are a couple of different issues within that question. We will need to wait to see the specific facts that come out of the investigation. Obviously, the administrators will provide information to the Insolvency Service, and they have to file a report within six months, although the general practice is to file such reports much more quickly. Indeed, we will be shortening that time to three months.

On whether there are loopholes, action has been taken on the pre-packs issue, which I will address in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that employment law is not negotiable. Employment law is not something that is optional or that a company can decide to take or leave; it is the law, and it needs to be followed. Enforcement is particularly important. A range of issues have been raised, including some of the issues surrounding zero-hours contracts, which I will also address.

One of the key questions is why USC, which was wholly owned by SportsDirect, was allowed to reach the point at which its key suppliers and landlords were not just threatening but taking enforcement action. SportsDirect purchased USC’s business through another company, Republic. We have been told that USC’s key suppliers have been left out of pocket, so it seems odd that they would continue to supply Republic. There are, therefore, a lot of unanswered questions.

The law is clear that employees should be consulted where 20 or more people are being made redundant at the same establishment, and it can be a criminal offence to fail to notify the Secretary of State of proposed redundancies. Tribunals can make protective awards where employees are not properly consulted.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

Will the Minister and her Department do that through the criminal courts in this case?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I am not going to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance in the Chamber today, but I reiterate that we will be looking very carefully at all the facts that emerge and at the picture created from the information that comes from the administrators. There is a wide range of both investigation and enforcement powers, and it is important that they are used wherever it is found that companies have not behaved properly, and particularly when directors have not behaved properly.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

The Minister refers to wanting to look at the issue very closely without giving any commitments in this Chamber. Will she also give a commitment to refer Glasgow Rangers football club, and the potential issues there, to the sports Minister—particularly in respect of the constituency issue that has been raised?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I will happily talk to the sports Minister about those issues, and obviously there are specific issues for the Scottish Football Association to consider. Insolvency Service investigators are already in contact with the joint administrators of USC. That is at an early stage because the administration is fairly new, which affects the information that can be provided, but there is a legal duty to provide a confidential return to the Secretary of State about the directors’ conduct. Although the administrators’ view about that is certainly relevant, ultimately their assessment of whether there are grounds for disqualification is based on the Insolvency Service’s independent view and conclusions.

Directors can be disqualified for anything between two and 15 years. It is also worth noting that, in addition to director disqualification proceedings, the Insolvency Service can exercise its powers to investigate any UK company where it suspects misconduct. We are making it easier for disqualification proceedings to be brought where other laws have been broken—it is currently possible, but we want to make it crystal clear that it should be easier. Measures in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill explicitly state that, in deciding whether someone should be disqualified, the criteria that courts will be required to consider will be extended to include breaches of legislation. That could include health and safety law, immigration law or employment law.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

I have been listening to what the Minister has said. In my constituency, directors walked away from coal mines leaving £140 million of damage. I have been pursuing that matter with the insolvency people for two years and nothing has happened, so she will forgive me if I am slightly cynical about what she is saying.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I will be happy to look into the specific issues that the hon. Lady raises. Although the powers already exist, we recognise that making it more explicit that breaches of law can be considered in the disqualification process will make such cases easier. That is why we are changing the law. I will happily look separately at the specific case that she is pursuing.

I turn now to pre-packaged administrations, or pre-packs. They have been discussed in this House on many occasions, because there are understandable concerns about them. In a pre-pack, the sale of the viable parts of an insolvent company’s business is arranged before the administration starts and concludes shortly after the administrator is appointed. In the case we are debating, the administration has allowed the majority of the business, including more than 600 jobs across the UK, to be transferred to the purchaser, Republic, although unfortunately another 84 employees have lost their jobs.

It is important that we establish whether the pre-pack represented a necessary step to save an insolvent business, or if, as has been suggested, it was an abuse of the insolvency process. I reassure hon. Members that officials are looking at that as a matter of urgency. The changes that we are making, following the review of pre-packs by Teresa Graham, will mean that by spring there will be new checks and balances on pre-pack administrations where the sale is to a connected party, so that there is independent evaluation of whether that party is a viable business with a viable underlying business model that will not simply run into the same problems as the business in administration; there will also be evaluation of whether the sale represents the best value.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

May I ask to be kept posted, within reason, on anything that happens in the Department and whatever action or otherwise is taken by BIS?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I happily give that assurance. Obviously, certain elements remain confidential because of specific legislative requirements, but I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman updated on the issue.

I will touch on the important matter of the employees and support for them, before coming to some of the specific issues raised about Mike Ashley. Obviously, whenever people are made redundant, support is crucial. That is why the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service is available and can provide everything from information to help with job search, identifying skills gaps and, ultimately, training to update skills or learn new ones to ensure that people can move back into employment. That is particularly important for those individuals.

In terms of redundancy payments, employees are guaranteed to receive their wages and other payments owed, subject to certain limits. That money comes from the national insurance fund.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Will the Minister say something about the position of those who are on zero-hours contracts and the particular difficulties that they will face?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I will certainly come to that issue. The redundancy payments service has begun processing claims—I understand something in the region of 30 claims have already been put in. It aims to pay 80% within three weeks of receiving the claim form and 93% within six weeks of receipt of the form.

Obviously, within the group of people who have been made redundant, there is a mix of those who were on fixed-hours permanent contracts and those who were on zero-hours contracts. However, it would not be accurate to say that somebody on a zero-hours contract has no right to a redundancy payment. The calculation for the payment tends to be made on the basis of an average of, I think, the 12-week period running up to when they were made redundant. I hope that will provide some reassurance to the hon. Lady’s constituents who may find themselves in that position. Guidance on redundancy pay for any employer affected is available on gov.uk.

Hon. Members have raised significant concerns about the behaviour of Mike Ashley, and I share those concerns. He seems determined to show that rules are for other people. We know that he bought nearly 10% of Rangers football club, and in doing so rather skirted the edges of the SFA’s rules on owning two clubs. Despite being blocked by the SFA from increasing his shareholding further, he appears to be looking to expand his influence. The rules that prevent the same person from owning two clubs are there for a good reason: to prevent conflicts of interest and to safeguard the integrity of the sport.

We are talking about a man who, according to media reports, forced through a £200 million bonus scheme at SportsDirect and subsequently withdrew his own participation amid speculation that he introduced the scheme simply to show his investors who was in charge. Some 90% of SportsDirect employees are reported to have zero-hours contracts, so they would not be eligible for the scheme. At least one worker was allegedly told that a zero-hours contract meant that she would not receive holiday pay. I cannot emphasise enough that that is against employment law.

There are serious questions to be answered about USC and many of its practices. I have outlined that the Insolvency Service has the power to receive information from the administrators and to investigate any company that it believes has questions to answer. I welcome the suggestion that Select Committees may also wish to ask questions.

I believe that zero-hours contracts have a place in a flexible labour market, but they are not a substitute for proper business planning. I fail to understand how a retailer can get away with employing the majority of its staff—up to 90% of the work force of 20,000 at SportsDirect—on zero-hours contracts. Apparently, SportsDirect operates some 420 stores, but it has a permanent work force of perhaps only a couple of thousand people. I do not see how a retailer can reliably open its stores every day if the workers on zero-hours contracts genuinely have the power to say that they will not take any given shift. A zero-hours contract should mean that the employer is free to offer work or not to offer work, and the employee is free to accept or decline that work.

I am at a loss to see how such use of zero-hours contracts can be deemed to be in any way responsible, and I think there are even questions about whether it is in line with employment law. Certainly, exclusivity clauses, which must be part of the way in which SportsDirect operates zero-hours contracts, will soon not be legal in such contracts as a result of the action we are taking in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, and rightly so. Using zero-hours contracts to fill the gaps by requiring people to turn up for work but not giving them guaranteed hours is not a responsible use of such contracts.

Cases have been brought against SportsDirect by people such as Zahera Gabriel-Abraham. That case was settled out of court, but some of the media reports were concerning. The Guardian reported that

“the retailer will have to make clear in job adverts, contracts and staff rooms that it does not guarantee work, sick pay or holiday pay”.

I do not believe that that is the full story, because it is not for an employer to decide whether their employees get sick pay or holiday pay; it cannot simply opt workers out of their statutory rights. One of the barristers from Leigh Day summed it up well:

“Zero hours workers are not second class workers. They have the right to be treated fairly and with respect. They have the right to take holidays and to be paid when they take them. They have the right to statutory sick pay. They have a right to request guaranteed hours. Sports Direct will now have to make that crystal clear to staff.”

I hope that the reports do not suggest that those staff have not been getting sick pay, holiday pay or their other statutory rights. I encourage anyone at SportsDirect or anywhere else who thinks that they have not been receiving their proper rights to contact ACAS or the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. Breaking employment law is absolutely unacceptable, and compliance will be properly enforced.

There are certainly questions to be answered about the matters in the USC administration and pre-pack sale, and the Insolvency Service will be looking at the information that it has received. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire asked a wide variety of questions, and I appreciate that time is short—

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Education) (Women and Equalities) , The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman in full to pick up on any points that I have not addressed, and I will write further to keep him updated. I thank him for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.