English Football League Governance: Derby County FC

– in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 18th January 2022.

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Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire 2:09 pm, 18th January 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on matters of English Football League governance surrounding the administration of Derby County football club.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am appearing at the Dispatch Box in place of the sports Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston—who is taking a Bill through Committee. Like many Members across the House, I know how important football clubs are to local communities, and I appreciate how worrying it is to see them under jeopardy. I feel that particularly as a fan of Crystal Palace, a proud south London club that went through a similar experience about 11 years ago. It went through administration and was bought out by Steve Parish, avoided relegation, and is now in the premier league, so there is always hope, even in the darkest hours. Because the Government understand how important football clubs are to our local communities, we launched a fan-led review of football governance, and are working at pace to respond to the excellent report from my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch.

I turn to Derby County. The situation is worrying for fans, the local community and football alike. No one wants to see a founding member of the Football League in administration and facing threats to its survival. Of course, Derby County has won silverware in the past, and I pay tribute to Wayne Rooney for his sterling work as manager this season—I never thought I would hear myself saying those words in the House of Commons.

We should be clear that the governance surrounding the administration of Derby County football club is a matter for the English Football League, the administrator and the club. However, the Government take a close interest and are receiving regular updates. The sports Minister spoke to the English Football League last night to understand exactly what is going on, and to urge all parties involved to take a pragmatic approach to securing the future of the Rams. I call on the English Football League, the club and the administrators to play an active and urgent role, within their remits, in seeking to facilitate an urgent solution to the situation.

The EFL has asked the administrators for details of a funding plan that will enable the club to complete this season. The administrators have tabled some options that are available to them, and the EFL has extended the deadline for proof of funding, in line with its regulations and policy. I understand that some bidders are interested in purchasing the club, and I very much hope that those conversations reach a fruitful conclusion as quickly as possible. Yesterday, the EFL issued an extensive and transparent update on its handling of the matter, which I commend to the House.

Of course, this matter raises questions about the wider financial sustainability of football. The fan-led review made a number of proposals directly addressing how to prevent clubs ending up in such situations, and the Government are considering them carefully. We have however endorsed in principle the review’s primary recommendation, which is that football requires a strong, independent regulator to secure the future of the national game. In the meantime, the Government, and my hon. Friend the sports Minister in particular, will continue to engage closely with the EFL and Members—particularly those who represent the fine county of Derbyshire—and call for urgent pragmatism from all parties involved, so that they find a solution quickly and save this fantastic club.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

I thank the Minister for his words. I spoke to the sports Minister last night, and I place on record that many Derbyshire colleagues completely support what we are doing to try to save the club. Derby County football club cannot be allowed to be removed from the English Football League on 1 February. If this can happen to Derby, which was one of the founder clubs of the Football League in 1888, it can happen to any of the other 71 clubs.

These clubs are so much more than businesses. They represent the heart and soul of communities, nowhere more so than in Derby, and they are huge drivers of economic growth and part of the cultural fabric of our country. Can the Minister assure me that in his discussions with the EFL he has been reassured that it is acting in the best interests of Derby County’s fans?

I understand that there are ongoing legal proceedings between Derby and other clubs, but the reason the potential takeover cannot happen is that the EFL is refusing to rule on whether those claims could constitute football debts—a matter for EFL rules, not for the courts. Will the Minister confirm why the EFL is refusing to rule on the matter? If the EFL cannot or will not rule on it, Derby County believes that it could rely on new insolvency rules, approved by this Parliament, to exit administration. Will the Minister please confirm that he will investigate why the EFL’s insolvency guidelines are not up to date, which is causing such difficulties for Derby County?

Furthermore, although the EFL’s delay is effectively holding up the takeover, it appears to have set an arbitrary deadline of 1 February, at which point it can remove Derby from the league. Is the Minister convinced that the EFL is acting fast enough to resolve the football debts issue before the deadline, or will it extend the deadline accordingly?

Finally, I would like to mention the administrators of the club. Fans have no accountability mechanisms over those individuals, who themselves have no connection to the club. Will the Minister please assure me that he is in constant contact with the administrators to ensure that they are acting in the fans’ best interests and as quickly as possible?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As always, my hon. Friend is an outstanding advocate for Derbyshire and for matters that concern her constituents and football fans across the county and the broader region. I agree entirely with her point. Football clubs are an integral part of the fabric of their local communities; I certainly feel that in south London with Crystal Palace, and I know that colleagues across the House and their constituents certainly feel the same about their football clubs.

The sports Minister has been in close contact with the English Football League. We want to see it working urgently, pragmatically and rapidly to resolve the outstanding issues standing in the way of a takeover by a new owner, who we hope can invest the money needed to turn the club around. The sports Minister is pressing the English Football League very hard on these points; I am sure that he will do so again and that the English Football League will be listening to our proceedings this afternoon, hear the message from this House and act accordingly.

On my hon. Friend’s final point, I am afraid that I do not know whether the sports Minister has spoken to the administrators yet, but since she has raised the point so forcefully and eloquently, I will certainly ask him to do so as soon as I leave the Chamber.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I am grateful to Mrs Latham for bringing this urgent matter to the House today. Once again, one of our great historic football clubs—a founder member of the Football League—is in danger. That is not the fault of the players and staff, who have performed remarkably in the circumstances; it is not the fault of fans; once again, it is the fault of mismanagement by owners. It is an example of the problem that Tracey Crouch identified in the fan-led review of football governance: owners gambling everything on aiming for Premier League status without proper safeguards in place, leaving the club in danger. It is further evidence that football governance is broken and that we urgently need the changes recommended in the fan-led review.

We appreciate that the specifics of the current situation at Derby County are complex and that there are a number of parties involved—the EFL, potential buyers, administrators and other clubs making claims to legal challenges. Labour urges all those parties to work together to sort this out. But even bearing that in mind, may I urge the Minister and the sports Minister to do everything in their power to secure the club’s future for the sake of fans, players, staff, the city and the wider community?

The question that many fans will be asking is “How did we get here again?” The review by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford has already put forward a strong set of recommendations that would overhaul football governance for the better. Introducing a new statutory independent regulator requires new legislation, but a shadow regulator fulfilling the same function could be introduced straightaway. Such a regulator could have flagged up the issues that put Derby County in jeopardy long before we got where we are today.

The Government have said that they will respond fully to the review’s recommendations in the spring, but does the Minister accept that this latest crisis demonstrates that that is just too long to wait? Is the crisis not more compelling evidence that the Government need to act quickly to implement the recommendations of the fan-led review and ensure that football has a governance regime that safeguards our great clubs and our national game?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the shadow Minister for her question. Clearly, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire, is doing everything he can to urge the various participants, especially the English Football League, but also the administrators and the other clubs involved, to find a resolution to this complicated situation.

I would add two points. First, I would not tar all football owners with the same brush. Those clubs I know about, particularly Palace, have been well managed, so it cannot be said that football owners as a whole conduct themselves badly. Secondly, the problems at Derby County are long-standing, and long predate the fan-led review. We are moving at pace to make sure that the fan-led review is implemented, and that work will happen as quickly as possible.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Latham on securing the urgent question and pay tribute to her Derbyshire colleagues, some of whom are unable to be here today but who I know are as concerned as she is.

My inbox is full of Rams fans who are understandably concerned by the perilous situation the club is in. The football review panel met Mel Morris near the end of the process and after the interim recommendations were published, and I asked him specifically whether he thought that the club would be in a different situation if an independent regulator and real-time financial monitoring had been in place. His answer was, “Yes, without a doubt.” Given that clubs think that the recommendations in the review would lead to greater sustainability in football, will the Minister—I appreciate he is standing in for the sports Minister—give a bit more detail about the pace at which implementation of the report’s recommendations is being considered and will be responded to? Many would argue that they are urgently needed so that no other club and its loyal, committed, lifelong fans will suffer the threat of ceasing to exist.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for the tremendous work that she has done in convening the fan-led review and producing such a comprehensive and detailed report. I can assure her that the Sports Minister is working on this as a matter of urgency. We have accepted the key principles of the fan-led review. It is a detailed review with a large number of detailed recommendations, and we want to make sure that we get the response right while doing so as quickly as possible. I can assure my hon. Friend that that work is happening very quickly, and I would be happy to ask the sports Minister to meet her to discuss the implementation timetable. I spoke to him earlier this afternoon and he is fully seized of the need to move fast.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Labour, Derby South

I can confirm everything that Mrs Latham said about the importance of this issue in the city of Derby and across the whole area, as can be seen from the Members here today. Long ago, when this all began, I was one of those who took part in a meeting with the Football League in which it assured us of its earnest desire to see this matter resolved and Derby County continue. The Minister said in his opening remarks that no one wants to see the club go under: well, some of us are beginning to wonder. I assure him, and through him the Football League, that if, inadvertently—because the Football League is unable to remove the obstacles that at the moment it appears to be putting so firmly in Derby County’s way—that were to happen, none of those participating in it would be forgiven.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The right hon. Lady makes her point with power and eloquence, and I echo her sentiments. As I said in my opening comments, I hope the English Football League, the other clubs involved in this saga and the administrators are listening to our proceedings this afternoon and to the message she just gave, which probably commands support across the House. I hope they listen and act accordingly.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation

A little over a year ago, the sports Minister and I were in almost daily communication about the EFL’s financial crisis. Through that communication and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s actions and public hearings, we dragged the Premier League kicking and screaming into a £250 million deal to bail out the EFL. In the light of that action, does my hon. Friend agree that it is beholden on the EFL, which has benefited from financial help in the past, to show decency and understanding to Derby County football club—a former league champion club—in this, its hour of need? What is more, we need to speed up the football review and get legislation on the statute book. We all know there is limited time to bring forward legislation, but this is clearly an urgent priority, so will my hon. Friend commit today to give us a timetable for when legislation will come forward?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee echoes the sentiments so powerfully expressed by Margaret Beckett a few moments ago. There is a significant burden on the English Football League and on the other clubs involved to get this matter sorted out urgently, and I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments in that regard.

On the timing, a number of details clearly need to be worked through. The fan-led review’s recommendations were very detailed, and primary legislation will be required. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government need to work through a number of pressing legislative priorities. I cannot make a commitment on behalf of my colleague the sports Minister—it would be wrong to commit a fellow Minister in respect of his portfolio—but I will ask him to speak to my hon. Friend, as well as to my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, to discuss the timing.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

I have to say that there will be real disappointment among Derby County fans that the sports Minister is not here to respond to this question. I understand that he is serving on a Bill Committee, but arrangements could have been made—[Hon. Members: “Here he is.”] Well, it would be good to hear from him, because with the greatest respect to the Minister responding, he has not been able to answer the fundamental question.

The Minister has spoken about the problems that Crystal Palace had previously, but one thing about this situation is different: the threat of legal action from Middlesbrough and Wycombe and the impact of commitments that may exist in the future on the possibility of a takeover happening now. Will the Minister tell us what the sports Minister is doing to ensure that Middlesbrough and Wycombe’s claims against Derby County’s previous owners do not prevent the club from being purchased? When clubs have debts in the future, they go out of existence altogether, as we saw with Glasgow Rangers and Bury; if clubs have debts in the past, it can be resolved. That is the key issue we need to hear about today.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

If I may say so respectfully, the hon. Member’s comments about the sports Minister at the beginning of his question were rather unfair: he was in a Bill Committee, taking primary legislation through Parliament, and has now arrived on the Front Bench, having completed that important task. That was an extremely unfair remark.

On the other football clubs, legal proceedings are currently pending, but I think a pragmatic solution should be found. I know the sports Minister has been in touch with the English Football League about finding a pragmatic solution. There were similar issues with Crystal Palace 11 years ago—I think it was to do with Lloyds Bank—and a pragmatic solution was found; I expect the same pragmatism to be displayed in this situation.

Finally, the fan-led review touched on some of the issues in respect of debts. When that review is implemented, it will address the issues that the hon. Member raised.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

It is a pity we cannot have a substitution of the Minister now that the sports Minister has turned up—that might be allowed on the football pitch, but it is not here.

I know the Minister is a keen football fan; does he, like me, remember how close Middlesbrough came to going out of business until Steve Gibson saved the club a few decades ago? Would it not be ironic if Steve Gibson’s claim, which many of us think is probably a stretch, was what now pushed Derby County over the edge? Will the Minister urge Middlesbrough and Wycombe, in the spirit of football solidary that fans are showing, not to press their claims and to let new owners be found? Does he agree that the Government may need to act because we cannot have, in our elite professional leagues, one club suing another because it does not like the outcome of the season? That is no way to have a sports competition with integrity. If we are going to have legal cases to decide things after the fact, we will not know what the final title decider would have been until the years go by.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are obviously legal proceedings ongoing, but I think it would serve everybody’s interests—the interests of football more generally, as well as those of Derby County in particular—if those involved show pragmatism and help a proud and long-standing club to survive. As I said a few moments ago, when Crystal Palace was in a similar situation, the bank concerned did show pragmatism, and I call on all those involved, including other clubs, to show the same kind of pragmatism.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

Derby County is the latest club to find itself in difficulty, but without major and urgent reform it will not be the last. The system is broken when the club finishing at the bottom of the premier league receives 10 times more than the club at the top of the championship, despite their being separated by just one place in the football pyramid. Can I ask the Minister what work is being done to ensure that English Football League clubs are put on a financially sound footing, including agreement on an equitable distribution of the TV money?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. One of the issues addressed by the fan-led review is precisely the question that he refers to, and I know that as the Sports Minister works through the response to the fan-led review, answers to that reasonable and important question will be forthcoming.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

Although I am a Leicestershire MP, many of my constituents who have written to me are loyal supporters of Derby County and are hugely concerned about the future of the club. Derby County is in administration, and it accrued or built up £30 million of tax liabilities under the previous owner. If the club goes into liquidation, those moneys due to the Treasury will be at risk. Given this really quite huge financial vested interest of the Government in the survival of Derby County, what are they doing to ensure that the obstacles to a successful takeover are removed, to secure the future of this iconic football club and also secure the moneys due to the Treasury?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Treasury, or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs I should say, as an unsecured creditor, is like any other unsecured creditor, and the administrator will treat it fairly and even-handedly, as it would treat any creditor in this situation. I do not think the existence of that debt, among other debts, is the obstacle to completion of the transaction; other issues to do with outstanding legal proceedings and matters that the EFL is responsible for are more immediate obstacles. That is why I repeat my call for the EFL and those other clubs, such as Middlesbrough, pragmatically to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

I think we can all, as football fans, feel for the fans of Derby County. We can imagine what it would be like if our club were in such a position, with all that history and our fathers and grandfathers—and grandmothers—having supported a club that is about to disappear. We have to feel for them. It is unthinkable that Derby should go out of existence, but it was unthinkable that Bury should go out of existence, and look what happened.

This is really just another example of the complete mess that is football finance. Why are the rules about administration in place? It is because a few years ago Leicester City deliberately went into administration to get rid of its debts to enable it to be promoted to the premiership at the expense of Sheffield United. It is a complete mess. There are two issues that arise: get the Crouch fan-led review in place as quickly as possible to sort out football finances; and in the meantime get the EFL—I have some sympathy for it because of the difficulties it faces—to give a proportionate and proper response to Derby to make sure that club survives.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

We all agree, without question, that the steps to ensure Derby County’s survival must be taken as quickly as possible. On the wider points made about football finance and the situation the hon. Member mentioned a few years ago, I would just point again to the fan-led review, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. It is precisely to deal with the issues that he quite rightly raises that the review was initiated and why my hon. Friend the Sports Minister will be acting on it.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Latham for securing this urgent question. Like a number of local MPs, I met the EFL yesterday—as a Derbyshire MP, many constituents have written to me—and I have to say that, following that meeting, I could not help but share some of the suspicions outlined by Margaret Beckett, because it did not feel to me that the EFL was really putting fans at the heart of this situation and putting our communities front and foremost. I know the Minister is unable to respond directly, but does the Department have faith in the EFL as a fair arbiter which has fans in mind?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It is important that the EFL and the other participants in this saga act quickly to ensure a successful resolution. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let us hope, and indeed expect, that those results follow very soon.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

As a lifelong Boro fan, can I say to Mrs Latham that no Middlesbrough football club fan wants to see Derby County—a great football club—go into administration and exit the league. There are great links between our clubs, not the least of which was personified by the great Brian Clough. I know that the Minister is doing his best, but the details are complicated. There is the potential claim, which is founded in the mismanagement of Derby by its previous owners, who offended against the rules and were punished as a result. That is why we are in this position today. I urge the Minister to familiarise himself with the statement from Middlesbrough football club, which has made it clear that it does not want to see Derby fall into liquidation and that it

“is happy to be realistic in its expectations in order for Derby County to exit administration.”

I encourage the Minister to encourage the EFL to encourage the administrator to engage with Middlesbrough, which is very realistic about how it can assist in this process, but at the moment is being met with silence.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important and reasonable point. My hon. Friend the Sports Minister has just confirmed to me that in his conversations last night with the English Football League he called on it to facilitate exactly the kind of conversations that the hon. Gentleman just mentioned. It is our hope that those conversations reach a resolution very quickly. The statement that the hon. Gentleman just read out from Middlesbrough football club is encouraging, but obviously actions will speak louder than words.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

As a proud Nottinghamian, I did not think I would see the day when I would stand in this Chamber defending Derby County football club. Much has been made of the governance, which is clearly an issue, but I think most football fans up and down the country look at the financial fair play system, the sanctions and the points deductions and see it generally as a mess. Does the Minister agree that the rules from the EFL need to be clearer, that punishments need to be delivered in a consistent and timely manner and that the EFL must learn the lessons to avoid these things happening in the future?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Once again, my hon. Friend makes some important points, and I am sure fans of Derby County will be grateful to him for his magnanimity in the way he framed his remarks. I believe that the issues he raises will be picked up by the fan-led review to make sure that these risks do not arise again.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As a Leeds United supporter, I know all about having a renegade owner racking up hundreds of millions of pounds in transfer fees to gamble on sporting success. One of the underlying issues with Derby County and other clubs that face difficulty is hugely inflated transfer fees. Has the Sports Minister considered looking at the role of agents, who are unlicensed and unregulated, and who have no cap on the level of the transfer fees that they can receive, to help calm this situation and stop the financial escalator we are seeing in transfer fees?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. A number of people have concerns about the role that agents play—not least football clubs, managers and indeed sometimes players themselves. It is a slightly, and I choose my words diplomatically, opaque—I was going to say murky—business. As the Sports Minister responds to the fan-led review, this will be an issue that he addresses.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

It is the failure of football governance that has created the problem at Derby. In this crisis, once again, the fans see that no one is interested in their concerns, the long-term future of the club or the impact on the people of Derby. If the EFL had enforced its financial rules effectively, this would not have happened, yet it is the EFL’s rules that will trigger Derby’s expulsion from the league by insisting that all football debts and liabilities are met. The regulator that my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch proposes in her report will stop this happening, but not before 1 February. Is the Minister prepared to consider what other direct interventions DCMS might make to keep Derby County in business?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

If the current system had been functioning perfectly or properly, there would have been no need for the fan-led review. There are certainly shortcomings, as my hon. Friend points out, which the fan-led review is designed to address. On the way in which the EFL’s rules may have precipitated or triggered the current situation, I repeat my call and, I think, the call of all hon. Members on both sides of the House for pragmatism from those involved, including the EFL, to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible to save a great club.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

We all accept the special role that football clubs have in their local communities, but they are treated like any other business, which is at the heart of the problem. With the EFL’s rules and with clubs as they are currently constituted under company law, it is very difficult to intervene in this process. If the football regulator had been in place, with the rules and regulations that have been asked for, this problem would not have arisen. I have heard the Minister say plenty of times that the Government are determined to bring in the regulator as quickly as possible, but we not only need DCMS to say that; we need primary legislation that involves other Departments. Can he give us an assurance that those other Departments are applying the same urgency as DCMS?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman is right that it requires primary legislation; and the Sports Minister, who is sitting next to me on the Front Bench, is working through those plans. As I said a few moments ago, the proposals are quite complicated in some areas and we need to make sure we get this right. Obviously it would be terrible if we acted too quickly, did not get the details right and ended up not fixing the problem. The Government’s intention is to legislate as quickly as we can, but we want to make sure we get this right to avoid the situation reoccurring.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

Although football finance expert Kieran Maguire warned the EFL in 2018, it was 19 months before the EFL issued financial fair play charges. This allowed the situation to escalate out of control for far too long. For the sake of Derby fans, we need the Minister to take urgent action to get the EFL, Mel Morris, potential owners, Middlesbrough and Wycombe together to thrash out a deal. He should put them in a room and throw away the key until something has been sorted. It is in no one’s interest to see the future of such a proud club under immediate threat of folding.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I share my hon. Friend’s call for urgency. The Sports Minister, as I said, spoke to the EFL last night, and he will continue urgently and forcefully pressing the participants in this saga to get a resolution. I repeat my call for all those involved—the EFL, clubs such as Middlesbrough, the administrators—to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism in getting this sorted out. My hon. Friend the Sports Minister will be driving that forward.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

As a Newcastle United fan, I know something of sorrow and frustration. I have huge sympathy for Derby County. This Government have repeatedly failed to act on issues of financial sustainability and effective governance in our national game, and they are now dragging their feet on their response to the fan-led review of football. Does the Minister really think that the pace of the Government’s response equals the importance of football in the lives of my constituents? Will he commit to putting fans at the top of the football pyramid?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I do not accept the allegation that the Government have been dragging their feet. It was the Government who commissioned the fan-led review in the first place, and we have accepted its recommendations in principle. Detailed work is now taking place to get it implemented. As I said in response to a previous question, we need to make sure the details are right. Although we are acting with urgency, we do not want to act so fast that we make a mistake in the legislation. On putting fans at the centre, the clue is in the name: it is a fan-led review.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

My hon. Friend Mrs Latham said in her excellent contribution that if this could happen to Derby, it could happen to anybody. Well, it did: it happened to Bury football club. When it happened to Bury football club, the fans paid the price. It was the fault of the owners, not the fault of the fans. When that process happened—Ministers on the Front Bench know I was intimately involved in it—the English Football League did not care. It did not care about any of the thousands of fans of Bury football club who were impacted by its decision to expel the club from the league. We are not talking about the local branch of Tesco. Football clubs are engines for social and economic good. They are the history and heartbeat of communities. I do not have the words to describe the impact on thousands of people in my constituency of Bury football club disappearing.

It is time for the English Football League to show that it cares, and not do what it did with Bury. It destroyed a club and nearly destroyed a town. I am not underscoring that; that is how much of an impact it had. I urge the Minister to do whatever is necessary to protect the fans of Derby. I have seen on a daily basis in my constituency what such a situation does to the fans of a football club who care about and love their club, and care about and love their town. That is bigger than all the rules in the world. The situation has got to be sorted out. Please do everything possible to protect Derby fans and please do not make the mistakes that happened with Bury.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I think there is agreement across the House that what happened to Bury football club was a catastrophe for the local community. We must make sure the same does not happen to Derby County. All of us, on both sides of the House, will understand how devastating it is when a local football club disappears, as Bury did. Let us hope and take action to ensure that that never happens again. I am very sorry to hear my hon. Friend’s assessment of the EFL’s conduct in the Bury football club situation. I can only repeat my plea, or demand, to the EFL to acts rapidly and pragmatically. Once again, to make sure these things do not happen again, the independent fan-led review and the Government response to it is vital. Just to be clear and to clarify, the Government accept the principle of an independent regulator and are studying very carefully the other recommendations. We will respond as soon as we can.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

I wholeheartedly endorse the remarks of James Daly. The Minister makes the point that there are good owners of football clubs and there are. Rochdale, my town’s club, certainly has those. There are bad owners as well and the EFL has failed consistently to operate its duty on the fit and proper person test. The message the sports Minister has to give to the EFL is that there is no confidence in its ability and its governance of football. That message has to go out, because in the meantime, while we wait for the fan-led review to be given legal force, we have to make sure there is real pressure on the EFL so we do not lose another great club.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Member makes a very powerful and eloquent point. As I said in response to the points made by Margaret Beckett, I am sure the EFL is listening to our proceedings and I am certain it will act accordingly.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Although it is true that I am a proud Motherwell fan, my in-laws, Ron and Alison Wright, constituents of Mrs Latham, are proud Derby County fans. They are very proud of their club’s history and place in the town. As Derby County try to play out of their 21-point penalty, does the Minister agree there is a bit of a catch-22 situation for a team to try to play for its survival while it cannot keep players in the face of such financial and legal uncertainty?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady is right. It is a difficult situation to suffer a 21-point penalty. Back in 2010, my team, Crystal Palace, had a 10-point penalty and avoided relegation on the final day of the season. I hope—demand, really—that Derby County continue and survive. I hope they continue fighting on. I know they will show the spirit required to get every single point they can as they fight not for survival as a club, but for survival in the Championship. I wish them every bit of good luck in doing that.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Minister for coming off the subs bench to take the urgent question. I do not know who, when asked whether football was a matter of life and death, said it was more important than that—[Hon. Members: “Bill Shankly.”] Shankly, there we are. I think today’s urgent question proved that admirably.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for standing in bravely, but the petition specifically went to the sports Minister. It will be matter of huge regret that he was not able to give his perspective in response to the urgent question.

We have had statements at different times, but in the future on such matters, which are of such importance to people, can we ask the Government to try to find a way to work with the Opposition, either to delay the Bill Committee or to delay the statement, so that the Minister can be here to respond? For the sake of my constituents, who are incredibly worried about the future of Derby County FC, I feel we would have had a different response if the sports Minister had had an opportunity to respond. I do not mean to be mean to anyone, but in the future can the Government and the Speaker work together to try to ensure the relevant Minister can be here to respond on matters of such importance?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Given the nature of an urgent question, does the Minister want to come in or shall I take this?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Member may be confusing two points. I am aware that there is a petition being processed at this moment in time, but today’s response was to an urgent question. I am sorry that I was unable to be at the Dispatch Box because I had other business scheduled in the House. The Charities Bill had been scheduled for a long time and, by just a few minutes, time did not allow me to be here.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Chris Philp, for standing in for me. As I hope I have proven over the past two years in this role, I am always open to discussion with any colleagues, on any side of the House. I have had many conversations with colleagues relating to Derby County FC, and I would happily speak to Mr Perkins . There is nothing party political about the issue and we all need to work together.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I do not think I need add anything further to that response.

We should now have the presentation of a Bill, but I do not see the Member present, so we will move on to the ten-minute rule Bill.