Monthly Archives: March 2024

GK Launches New Podcast on Trending Policy Issues

Education with Edward Timpson MP

In the inaugural episode of the GK Strategy Podcast, David Laws, GK Strategic Adviser, spoke with the former Children & Families Minister, Edward Timpson MP, about the future of special educational needs and disability policy.

The lively discussion covered everything from SEND policy to social services, with Mr Timpson offering insight into the reform to SEND services and the current policy environment across social care.

Mr Timpson spoke specifically on the 2014 Children and Families Act which he helped push through Parliament. He noted that the legislation “still stands up to scrutiny” 10 years after it was passed and serves as a blueprint for joining up and improving services across education, health and social care. However, he also described some of the challenges associated with the legislation’s implementation, which has led to many parents having vastly different experiences with the SEND system.

During the episode, Mr Laws and Mr Timpson brought to light the “tough” spending environment across the education sector, highlighting the need for increased funding from central government. However, they also touched on other issues that have impacted SEND provision, including the capacity within the workforce, the importance of educational psychologists, SEND ‘deserts’ and out of area provision, and the extent to which mainstream settings should take on more responsibility for SEND provision.

You can listen to the full episode on Spotify here.

Labour and Gender Equality: A Radical Agenda or All Talk?

Following International Women’s Day earlier in March, GK Adviser Rebecca McMahon looks at what an incoming Labour Government could mean for women’s equality.

Labour’s ambitious women’s equality agenda is one to watch

If the Labour Party wins the upcoming General Election, Rachel Reeves will become the UK’s first female Chancellor of the Exchequer and Angela Rayner is set to become the first female Deputy Prime Minister. The number of women in the current Parliamentary Labour Party is at an all-time high of 52.7% and given the number of prospective parliamentary candidates in seats likely to swing to Labour, the number is likely to remain high.

The party has been accused of hollowing out promises related to more radical policies about climate change and workers’ rights. However, it appears the party remains committed to delivering on its ambitious roster of pledges on women’s equality. At the 2023 Labour Party Conference, Rayner announced her intention to amend the Equalities Act to introduce a legal duty for employers to have sexual harassment prevention measures in place. In Rayner’s rallying speech, she combined a commitment to women’s safety with a promise to make their working lives fairer. Measures included toughening sentences for perpetrators of rape and stalking and halving the levels of violence against women and girls. A crackdown on unfair pay and a promise to “empower women entrepreneurs” was also included.

Translating virtuous ideas on empowerment into robust policy is a difficult process. However, the presence of key female decision-makers in the shadow cabinet demonstrates that Labour is not neglecting the importance of senior women for formulating representative policy. Perhaps this will set a precedent for the party to elect a woman to the top spot for the first time (one area in which the Conservatives currently top the tables, 3-0!).

How can Public Affairs become more Inclusive?

GK Advisers Noureen Ahmed and Annabelle Black discuss how the public affairs sector can improve inclusivity and share some thoughts on their own experiences as women working in public affairs.

Much more work is needed to represent and retain women working in public affairs

When considering how public affairs can be more inclusive, it is important to acknowledge the historical exclusion of women in politics more broadly. Women make up just 27% of the Cabinet, 35% of the House of Commons, and until 1997, there had never been more than 10% of seats held by women. However, the narrative has been changing as MPs speak up about their experiences in Parliament – an inquiry was launched into Sexism in the City in 2023, and there are currently 226 female MPs, the highest number ever to sit at the same time.

Whilst progress is being made in Westminster, the public affairs sector still has room to improve. Men continue to dominate senior roles in the industry, with just 22% of senior management teams being made up of more women than men. Whether it is because of caring responsibilities, inflexible workplaces, or gendered ageism, women are underrepresented in senior positions and quitting at the peak of their careers. This trend exacerbates financial disparities, as women typically retire with average pension savings of £69,000, compared to men with £205,000.

For these reasons, the public affairs sector must work towards bettering their flexible working and menopause policies, defeating sexism and ageism in the workplace, ensuring full transparency about pay structures, and offering benefits such as parental leave and childcare assistance. Gender diversity in senior leadership teams is imperative for representation, reducing the gender pay gap, and challenging gender stereotypes. It also provides young women aspiring to work in the sector with role models, helping them navigate the industry and the barriers they may face.

Public affairs is an exciting industry to work in. As advisers at GK Strategy, we enjoy working with a range of clients and seeing firsthand how politics sits at the heart of what businesses want to achieve. Equally, the challenge of developing the right support programme for clients and seeing the difference thoughtful policymaker engagement makes for them is fulfilling.

Whilst we feel that progress is starting to be made in the industry to improve inclusivity, there is still a discernible difference between men and women in the sector, particularly when it comes to confidence, career progression, and pay discussions.

It is imperative that we make the public affairs space as inclusive as possible for all women. There are many women who are conscientious, ambitious, and determined and should be provided with the right support to help bring their goals to life. I’m grateful to be working at GK, working with women in senior and junior positions, all of whom are confident, inspirational, and truly brilliant.

Council Tax Reform

Reflections on the Future of Council Tax

GK Associate Hugo Tuckett assesses the likelihood of council tax reform amid rising concern about local authority financial resilience.

Is council tax reform on the horizon?

Amid rising bankruptcies in recent years, and growing concern about the sustainability of council finances, funding mechanisms for local authorities – and particularly council tax – are attracting growing political scrutiny.

In December 2023, the Local Government Association reported that almost one in five council leaders and chief executives it surveyed think it is very or fairly likely that they will need to issue a Section 114 notice this year or next due to a lack of funding. A Section 114 notice is issued by a council’s finance officer if they believe the council’s expenditure will exceed the resources it has available. Eleven Section 114 notices have been issued since 2018, with only five issued in the 30 years prior.

Given that council tax receipts now make up over half of local authority spending power (56.9% in 2023-24 compared to 49.1% in 2015-16), ensuring the council tax regime is operating effectively is critical to the long-term sustainability of local authority finances.

The Levelling Up Committee recently made a series of recommendations to the Government on council tax reform. In its report, the Committee reiterated its previous conclusions about the “unfairness and outdatedness of the council tax regime”.

The Government has since said it has no plans to conduct a revaluation of council tax bands (the Committee’s key recommendation) as, amongst other factors, “it would particularly risk those on a lower income, including pensioners, who have seen their homes appreciate in value”.

Here is the focal point of political discourse. A Conservative Government, aware that (according to recent YouGov polling) the Party is now the most popular only among the over-70s, will be aggrieved to conduct a revaluation of property bands which would hit the pockets of its core voter base. A Labour government on the other hand, with traditionally greater allegiances to younger, non-home owning voters and those on lower incomes could take a fresh look at this issue. One option likely to be under consideration is the introduction of new, higher bands of council tax.

Given the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has ruled out numerous tax rises ahead of the upcoming General Election, council tax reform represents one revenue-raising lever still available to her. While the details of any potential reform are still unknown, it is a near certainty that the council tax regime will only grow in political salience in the years ahead.

SEND and AP Improvement Plan

The SEND and AP Improvement Plan – A Year Without Progress

GK Advisers Noureen Ahmed and Felix Griffin evaluate the implementation of the SEND and AP Improvement Plan.

The Government and the Opposition face questions on their SEND policy plans

Nearly a year has elapsed since the Government unveiled its SEND and AP Improvement Plan, which reiterated its commitment to ensuring every child and young person with SEND receives the high-quality support they need. What exactly has changed since publication? The answer – not much…yet.

The plan outlined several key policies, including the long-overdue standardisation and digitalisation of Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCPs), the implementation of new national SEND standards, and the introduction of a revised funding approach for alternative provision.

Although these policies were warmly welcomed by the sector, they’re not expected to come into effect on a national scale until 2025 at the earliest. This delay has raised concerns about the precariousness of the SEND landscape, prompting calls for a quicker implementation timeline.

A recent report from the Guardian, citing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, revealed instances where children and young people in certain local authorities waited over two years to receive an EHCP. Moreover, insufficient funding for SEND services has put local authorities in a difficult position, exacerbating the existing strain on resources.

Questions have also been raised about what a Labour government might look like for the sector. At present, the Party has said very little on SEND but noted that interlinking services and improving data use” would help identify a child’s needs much earlier.

The Government has stressed its ambition to reform the SEND landscape. However, given the escalating crisis, doubts continue to grow as to whether the plan will suffice in addressing and alleviating the issues facing the sector.

Digital skills

Adult Education: A Model for Devolution?

GK Adviser Rebecca McMahon explores the localisation of adult education and whether it could provide a template for devolution plans in other policy areas.

A rare win for the Levelling Up agenda?

Over the last 13 years, a series of Conservative governments have made various stabs at improving regional inequalities, and by the time of the Levelling Up White Paper 2022, there was a consensus that at least some form of devolution is necessary to heal regional divides and accelerate British growth.

However, plenty of obstacles remain in the way of a strong devolved power system in the UK, stemming both from central government (particularly due to reservations held by the Treasury) and local government (whose various financial difficulties over the last year have undermined their case for greater responsibility over policy and fiscal decision-making.) Plus, recent high-profile blows to the Levelling Up agenda – notably the collapse of the multi-billion HS2 project at the end of last year – have created further setbacks.

However, one of the more successful devolution efforts has materialised in the seemingly unexpected domain of adult skills. The Government kickstarted the devolution of the Adult Education Budget in the 2019-20 academic year, transferring decision-making powers over the pot of money to six Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) plus the Greater London Authority (GLA).

Since then, a further three MCAs have been handed these powers, and the trend of devolution suggests that more deals are to take place in the near future. The success of ‘trailblazer’ deals in Greater Manchester and West Midlands makes this more likely. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, confirmed that the North East MCA would also receive a deal as part of the continued ‘Skills for Growth’ agenda.

Labour’s thinking on Adult Education

Central to Labour’s skills agenda is the replacement of the Apprenticeship Levy with the Growth and Skills Levy. Notionally, this points to a more flexible skills and training landscape, with accommodation for all types of learners.

However, some people have expressed concern about the sustainability of this proposal, suggesting that an altered levy would be a step in the wrong direction for apprenticeship uptake, at a time when other viable further education alternatives seem more important than ever. In terms of devolution, Labour have made a lot of noise about their commitment to the cause, threading it through various ‘missions’ upon which they have built their policy agenda, and publishing high-profile reviews by legacy figures like Gordon Brown which showcase their support. But in practice, the landscape is less certain, owing to Rachel Reeves’ fiscal ‘iron fist.’ Given the pressure that the Shadow Chancellor placed on Keir Starmer to backtrack on their flagship £28bn pledge to the green economy, she will be hesitant to hand over budgetary responsibilities to local authorities given their recent track record on finances.

The increasing localisation of adult education budgets in the UK somewhat offers a model for the Government and potential future governments to further the devolution agenda. However, any party will inevitably face a gamble on whether to trust local authorities with increasingly large pots of money and whether this will ultimately reap long-term rewards.