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MP criticises DfE engagement with outdoor space inquiry

The Department for Education (DfE) has been criticised for its “lack of engagement” with a Parliamentary inquiry into the importance of outdoor space for children.

Clive Betts, chair of the levelling-up committee, said it was “deeply disappointing” that the DfE had “refused to engage constructively with the committee’s inquiry in this important area”.

One major criticism is that children and families minister David Johnston did not attend an inquiry hearing when invited. Betts said this was “especially regrettable”.

Clive Betts

But in a response letter also published by the committee today, DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood said that while her department had an “interest” in the inquiry, it “does not hold formal joint responsibility for the policy areas in the inquiry’s terms of reference”.

She also said the department offered Baroness Barran, the academies minister, to attend as her portfolio includes school buildings, but the offer was not taken up.

According to the committee’s website, the inquiry is looking at “how better planning and building and urban design in England could enhance the health and well-being of children and young people, while also benefitting the population as a whole”.

Its terms of reference specifically refer to the question of “how easily can children and young people travel to outdoor spaces and schools? How has this changed over the years?”

Cross-department approach ‘important’

Betts, the Labour MP for Sheffield South East, said it was “crucially important for the government to take a cross-department approach to ensuring children and young people have access to outdoor spaces to protect their mental and physical health”.

“The fundamental lack of cross-government action risks children and young being forgotten.”

He said it was “alarming that the Department for Education feels it has very little to contribute to government policy in this area. I hope the government will be more receptive to the Committee’s recommendations when we publish our report.”

In her response, Acland-Hood said officials from the DfE had discussed the inquiry with those from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, but “agreed that the DfE is one of many Departments with an interest, but that we do not hold formal joint responsibility for the inquiry”.

“DLUHC colleagues agreed to communicate this to the committee clerks, and subsequently confirmed to the DfE that this conversation has taken place.”

Barran offer ‘not taken up’

Susan Acland-Hood
Susan Acland Hood

In response to the criticism of Johnston’s non-attendance, Acland-Hood said there were “some areas of his portfolio which are somewhat related to the policy areas raised within your inquiry”.

“For example, his portfolio includes children and young people’s mental health within education settings. As the remit of the inquiry is so broad, it is unsurprising that there are connections to many ministers’ portfolios.”

She said the invitation to attend on March 25 was extended on March 13, though in his letter Betts said the initial approach to the DfE about a minister attending was made on February 27.

“After a further phone conversation with the committee staff, it was confirmed that the committee were looking to hear from the minister with joint responsibility,” said Acland-Hood.

“As he does not hold formal joint responsibility for the areas under discussion, he did not rearrange other commitments at short notice to attend. We did, however, originally offer the attendance of Baroness Barran, who was available, and whose portfolio includes school buildings; this offer was not taken up.”

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