The Budget contains measures which should bring more skilled labour onto the jobs market and cut the stranglehold that red tape has on employers. Steve Crabb reports
The Budget may have been bad news for smokers and drinkers, but it contained some positive measures for employers facing serious labour and skills shortages.
The problem that's looming is huge: with an ageing population, there simply are not enough new entrants into the labour market, and we are already approaching full employment in many areas.
It is a remarkable achievement by the government, considering what's happening to unemployment in other leading developed countries, but that's little comfort to employers who can't fill vacancies. According to a survey published earlier this month by the British Chambers of Commerce, one-third of British businesses say that skill shortages are already damaging their productivity.
The government is, therefore, putting in place a raft of incentives to encourage lone parents, housing benefit claimants and people on long-term disability benefits to return to work.
Under a pilot scheme, for example, single parents will be offered an extra £40 a week for the first year they are back in work. Local JobCentre managers will also get more discretion over how they help people find jobs. As a stick to go with the various carrots on offer, unemployed people will have to work harder to find a job ­ searching for jobs in a 90-minute travel-to-work area, rather than the existing one hour. They also have to put in more job applications or risk losing their benefits.
Long-term sickness is a huge problem for the UK economy. There are 1.6 million unemployed ­ but 2.7 million claiming long-term sickness and disability benefits. The estimated cost to employers of long-term health problems is £11bn a year. Earlier this month, the government launched a series of pilot projects across the UK aimed at encouraging people to return to work: Marks and Spencer and John Lewis are among the employers who will be participating.
Returning to the Budget, Chancellor Gordon Brown also announced plans to allow more highly-skilled immigrants into the country. Up to now, this has been small-scale stuff: 1,300 people have come into the UK over the past year under this programme. More significantly, the Chancellor also announced trial projects in which up to 20,000 lower-skilled immigrants would be allowed in to work in the food processing and hospitality industries.
Last year, I suggested that more employers ought to be thinking about taking on ex-offenders, rather than dismissing them out of hand. The government has now announced plans to expand the Reading pilot project, under which prisoners work and apply for jobs while they are serving their sentence. The Budget also contained more steps to promote flexible working. Employers will be able to pay a tax-free sum of £104 a year to help cover the costs of employees who want to work from home part of the time.
And finally, the government honoured its promise to tackle the growing mountain of red tape. Out-of-date regulations will be swept away, and from now on new regulations are only going to come into effect two days a year, so employers won't have to constantly look over their shoulders ­ they'll know exactly when they are going to be mugged.
It doesn't quite amount to a bonfire of regulations, but at least it's a start.

n Steve Crabb is Editor of People Management