Addressing the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, which is investigating the retailer for poor working practices, Ashley said: “I can’t be responsible for everything that goes on at Sports Direct. I can’t.
"I’m not Father Christmas, I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful," Ashley added.
In a colourful and often frank performance, the businessman said the company had grown too quickly for him to manage it.
In particular, Ashley said the Shirebrook warehouse in Mansfield, which is the focal point for the parliamentary investigation, had come under considerable pressure from the retailer’s success online.
Workers had been paid less than the minimum wage due to the time they spent in large queues at the warehouse’s security check, for which they had not been paid.
“If you were a minute late, you got docked 15 minutes pay,” Ashley said. “If you asked me, that’s unacceptable.”
The low wages paid at the warehouse have triggered an HMRC investigation into the company, Ashley said yesterday. He added that he had increased workers’ pay to make up for it.
Ashley, who also owns Newcastle United, was emphatic that the situation would improve, and welcomed an independent review of the warehouse.
Shares in Sports Direct jumped over five per cent during Ashley’s grilling, despite the revelations about Shirebrook and HMRC.
Ashley’s "cheeky-chappy charm offensive"
Jasper Lawler, market analyst at CMC Markets, said: “Mr Ashley’s cheeky-chappy charm offensive proved quite effective.
“He conceded on all political hot potatoes, including the minimum wage and zero-hours contracts, while vague promises with unspecified deadlines to fix other issues are unlikely to mean any significant increase in unit labour costs.”
Others were less generous in their assessment. “He’s ultimately responsible for the company,” said Phil Dorrell, managing partner of consultant Retail Remedy. “If he isn’t, it suggests gaps have appeared.
“The reason why the markets held up is because they don’t like uncertainty,” said Dorrell. “Ashley could have come in for some punitive action; but there’s no more uncertainty because he turned up.
“He probably took a look at himself in the mirror and said: ‘We have to do better than this.’”
In a surprise turn during the proceedings, Ashley ignored his PR adviser to respond to questions on his interest in BHS, saying: “I can’t resist it – 100 per cent I wanted to buy BHS.”