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What Labour is doing to ease the pain

The construction minister on outlines his views on skills, SMEs and fair payment

As economic and business minister, the construction sector is one of my core responsibilities and one of my top priorities is to address the difficulties the industry is currently facing.

For me, one of the sector’s strongest assets is its workforce. Indeed, a core principle of the joint industry-Government sustainable construction strategy, launched in June, was to address how a fully sustainable industry can contribute to economic growth and job creation.

The industry has seen a steady growth in the number of trained workers in the past few years so it is disappointing work opportunities in some key sectors are less than they were. Even so, looking ahead, the industry will need to be ready to take advantage of future opportunities.

That is why I am keen for businesses to continue to invest in a fully trained, fully qualified and competent workforce.

The Government has already announced measures it is taking forward, in conjunction with ConstructionSkills, to address the impact of the downturn on apprentices.

A “clearing house” is being set up for those who have started their training but who may be laid off from their current employer.

A joint Government-industry task force is also being set up to review the wider issues facing construction sector apprenticeships.

I recognise that smaller companies are often hardest hit by economic slowdown.

The Prime Minister has set a challenge to central Government departments to pay all bills within 10 days. BERR was closely involved with the Office of Government Commerce in developing best payment practice guidance and the Fair Payment Charter.

Earlier this month, Lord Mandelson announced the creation of a panel to monitor how banks are lending to small businesses.

In the current climate this could be crucial to business survival. The five major high street banks have now agreed with Government to provide data on the availability, risk and overall cost of lending to small and medium-sized businesses.

Business support

This announcement was made at the new Small Business Finance Forum which will meet regularly and provide small business representatives with an opportunity to discuss cash flow and loan issues directly with the banks.

Looking forward, we expect that the infrastructure, health and education sub-sectors will provide a significant level of support to the wider construction market during 2009.

The Building Schools for the Future project, a long-term initiative involving some £45 billion of spending over the next 15 years, is gathering pace.

There is a risk that, in the current economic climate, construction will focus on the short-term to the exclusion of longer term cultural changes.

These were encapsulated in the targets to 2012 which the Strategic Forum for Construction launched in June last year.

This agenda remains important both to the longer term health of the construction sector and to the wider UK economy.

Ian Pearson is business and economic minister for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform