Chancellor Gordon Brown this week announced the creation of a new modern apprenticeship taskforce in a bid to tackle the chronic skills crisis facing the construction industry.
In his pre-Budget statement, Brown said the aim was to get a third of young people onto apprenticeship schemes by 2004.

The new skills drive is set to be funded from the £130m remaining surplus from the windfall tax.

Brown also announced he would extend the government's highly skilled migrant programme to help combat the skills shortfall. He said the Treasury and the Home Office would create a unit to help small firms seeking to recruit skilled workers from overseas.

Speaking earlier this week at the CBI conference in Manchester, education secretary Charles Clarke said the government would announce a new skills strategy next year. He said: "We are determined to establish a truly demand-led learning system designed to give industry what it needs."

Clarke conceded that government had ignored the voice of business for too long and failed to look at the skills problem through its eyes.

Reducing spending would depress demand and raise unemployment

Chancellor Gordon Brown

In Wednesday's pre-Budget statement, Brown pledged to maintain the government's spending programme. He said: "We have examined it [reducing spending] and found it would lead to depressed demand and raise unemployment."

He said a cut in spending would reduce capital investment on infrastructure that is vitally needed.

Brown hinted that there might be limits to certain PFI schemes, such as those in the defence, education and healthcare sectors, but said a key PFI sector in the future would be urban regeneration.

Construction Products Association chief executive Michael Ankers welcomed the spending commitment. He said: "The industry needs it because private sector investment is dropping."