With a general election on the horizon, it's crucial for us to stay close to conversations that impact our clients and communities. Justin Rix and Simon Christian explain the insights they took from the panels we sponsored at the Conservative and Labour party conferences this year, demonstrating our proactive role in shaping policy discussions.

Most people's only glimpse of political party conferences are snippets of leaders' speeches on the news. These events, however, aren't just echo chambers for the faithful. They're real conferences with open debates about key issues affecting everyone in the country: from helping people into work to the framework how we're governed. That's why every year we sponsor panels at both the government's and official opposition's party conferences.

In 2023 they felt even more relevant, with the prospect of a general election either renewing the current Government's mandate or putting a new party in power. The speakers at this year's panels did include members of their respective parties, but they also welcomed contributions from independent organisations, including the University of Cambridge's Bennett Institute for Public Policy and our own experts. Our Conservative Conference panel on the future of apprenticeships included Steve Rotheram, Labour's Metro Mayor for Liverpool.

Sponsoring and participating in these conversations is a key part of our strategy for delivering the most up to date insight and guidance to our clients. This year Simon Christian went to the Labour Party Conference to learn more about their policy idea for devolution in England, while Justin Rix discussed degree apprenticeships at the Conservative Party Conference.

Read Simon's and Justin's reflections on two very different panels and watch full videos of the debates.


Simon Christian on plans for English devolution (Labour)

At the 2023 Labour Party Conference in Liverpool we co-hosted a panel event to discuss how a potential future Labour government could deepen and extend regional devolution across England.

The panel

  • Paula Barker MP, Shadow Minister for Devolution and the English Regions
  • Simon Christian, Director, Public Sector Consulting, Grant Thornton
  • Richard Parker, Labour and Co-op Candidate for West Midlands Mayor
  • Akash Paun, Programme Director at the Institute for Government
  • Jack Shaw, Affiliate Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge Jessica Studdert, Deputy Chief Executive of New Local

This panel was chaired by Emma Norris, Deputy Director of the Institute for Government.

Listen to the full panel conversation

What are Labour's plans for devolution?

Paula Barker opened the conversation by sharing her view that devolution should be sensitive to the country's regional, economic, and cultural diversity. According to Barker, devolution isn't just a practical move but also a "moral and economic imperative".

She explained that a Labour government would table a 'Take Back Control' bill  to permit local agents to request, negotiate, and assume powers over economic policymaking. In addition, Barker mentioned that her party intends to empower communities directly by devolving authority and extending the timeframes for raising funds. The bill would also address constitutional requirements for rebalancing the UK economy and equalising living standards nationwide.

Richard Parker highlighted the importance of regional mayors in supporting economies outside of London and used his focus on the West Midlands to advocate for efficient delivery and collaboration with key institutions. He suggested that the impact of decisions on people and communities should be at the forefront of considerations.

How do these proposals differ from the current model?

In my own contributions I emphasised that we need a more strategic and coherent approach to devolution than the current framework, where centralisation can hinder meaningful conversations about vital issues like socio-economic inequality, housing, and transport. Devolution shouldn't be seen as an end in itself, but rather as a means to achieve specific goals and objectives. If the party does form a government after the next election, it must clearly articulate the role of regional, sub-regional, and local government in driving economic growth, delivering key infrastructure and supporting sustainable public services.

Akash Paun shared a glass-half-full perspective on the current Government's actions regarding devolution, but acknowledged that it's incomplete. A core problem with existing devolution deals is that power and funding are highly fragmented.

Jack Shaw highlighted three key areas that a Labour devolution policy should focus on:

  • expanding the nature of the devolution framework
  • ensuring accountability
  • shifting the focus from acquiring powers to co-designing decision-making responsibilities.

He also pointed out the need for more rapid maturation of mayoralties, and suggested that combined authorities would be well-equipped to secure additional powers if they demonstrated responsibility and responsiveness.

How do they relate to local communities?

Jessica Studdert suggested that if a future Labour government wants to improve on current devolution arrangements it needs to go beyond zero-sum power struggles in its conversations. She stressed the importance of viewing devolution as the mechanism to empower local communities and and work across boundaries and systems to address the key challenges of the current age.

Devolution should move beyond discussion of form to focus on its function, especially in terms of public service reform.

For more insight and guidance, get in touch with Simon Christian.

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Justin Rix on delivering degree apprenticeships (Conservatives)

The UK has a significant skills shortage in key areas, including technology and sustainability. Degree apprenticeships are a huge opportunity to encourage employers to invest more in their people and reduce skills shortages, but it's a route that's under-valued due to misconceptions that they're only aimed at school-leavers or are less esteemed that academic qualifications. Our panel at the Conservative Party Conference discussed how to increase participation in degree and higher-level apprenticeships.

The panel:

  • Rt Hon Gillian Keegan MP, Secretary of State for Education
  • Malcom Press CBE, Vice Chancellor at Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Steve Rotheram, Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region
  • David Goodhart, Head of Demography, Immigration, and Integration, Policy Exchange
  • Justin Rix, Partner, Head of People Advisory, Grant Thornton

We all agreed that apprenticeships were a great tool for addressing skills shortages, introducing young people into the workplace, and raising the status of vocational training. They noted the relative lack of investment in skills throughout the UK in comparison to other developed countries and agreed that employers should be encouraged to invest more in their people. There was a real consensus around the key role that apprenticeships can play in filling critical skills gaps and driving productivity gains. 

Watch the full panel conversation here.

What impact are apprenticeships having on social mobility?

Malcom Press explained that Manchester Metropolitan University is the biggest provider of degree apprenticeships in the UK and shared statistics from more than 2000 apprentices to show what a great tool they are for accelerating social mobility:

  • One third come from a deprived area
  • 40% are Black, Asian, or of an ethnic minority background
  • One third of technical apprentices are women

The Vice Chancellor also explained that 80% get at least one pay rise and two thirds get a promotion during their apprenticeship.

These statistics offer a fantastic insight into how apprenticeships can help people from less developed areas to access the education and training that may not have initially been available to them.

How can the visibility of apprenticeships be approved?

Gillian Keegan expressed how she wanted to change perceptions around ways to enter the workplace, so that people can see beyond university as their only option. This year, the Department for Education collaborated with UCAS to list apprenticeships alongside traditional university courses, so that people have a full picture of the options available to them.

She added that currently apprentices continue to out-earn graduates – and aren’t left with having to repay potentially significant student debt.

What can be done about non-completion rates?

The Education Secretary also highlighted that while completion rates currently sit around 88%, she's determined to improve them to at least 90%.

Apprentices do need to be in courses that are right for them and their employer, so that the skills they learn can directly benefit their workplace. Training providers also need to be clear on the characteristics required of an apprentice.

How would the Conservatives provide more support for apprenticeships?

Gillian told the panel that 99.6% of the levy is currently being spent, but Steve Rotheram believed the levy hasn’t increased employer investment in skills.

A question from the audience sparked a conversation around where the biggest challenge lie – with the apprentice, the employer, or the training provider, and how they can be supported to overcome them.

Everyone on the panel agreed that all three stakeholders needed support. The apprenticeship must provide the skills needed by organisations, while the employer needs to create the opportunity for an attractive and rewarding career for the apprentice and have the right framework and commercial viability for the training providers. Sufficient flexibility is also critical to enable apprenticeships to meet the evolving needs of both employers and apprenticeships as well as being commercially sustainable for training providers.

You can stay informed on apprenticeships and training by visiting our future skills hub →

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For more insight and guidance, get in touch with Justin Rix.

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