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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab):
I get confused these days about what the Conservative party is. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he is supporting trade unions, for example, and is supporting also the TU learning fund, which has brought learning, including IT skills, into many workplaces throughout Britain, to some of the lowest paid workers? Are we now getting a call from the Conservative Benches in support of the initiatives that have been introduced by the Government that have helped many workers in workplaces in my region, but which they opposed last year?
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Mr. Francois: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the trade union movement, from the general secretary of the TUC downwards, are opposed to the abolition of the scheme, not least because at a local level many trade union officials have put a lot of work into persuading employers to adopt it. The hon. Gentleman must understand, irrespective of the learning fund, that the scheme is one that the trade union movement wants the Government to retain. I have a few quotes to drum that point home in case the hon. Gentleman did not get it the first time around.
Scrapping a scheme that was already working for those in employment will not solve the Government's problem in respect of others. According to the HCI Alliance, 60 per cent. of the scheme's participants are in blue-collar industries and 75 per cent. of them pay the standard rate of tax, or lower. Moreover, as Intel, the computer supplier, argued in a recent letter to me:
"As this scheme is run through the employer even the most financially excluded are able to join. The fact that blue collar workers in the future will be denied such an incentive is genuine cause for concern. This has the potential to create inequity within low paid, hard working families and workforces. 21,000 Tesco workers recently adopted this scheme, many would not have a computer today if this had not been offered to them."
Similarly, Brendan BarberI hope that the hon. Gentleman is listeninggeneral secretary of the TUC, who has also personally endorsed the scheme that we are trying to save, wrote to the Chancellor requesting a rethink and issued the following statement on 3 April, stressing the value of the scheme, in particular, to the low paid. He said:
"The Home Computing Initiative has helped thousands of low paid workers without confident IT skills buy their first ever computer. Unions up and down the country have been promoting the scheme, often linked to training schemes. The sudden closure of the scheme would mean that many hours of voluntary union effort would go to waste."
Adam Afriyie : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way after being so generous in giving way earlier, unlike the Paymaster General. It was clear that the right hon. Lady wanted to establish her case for the abolition of the HCI. The only case that I heard her make was against the Governmenta case against abolishing the HCI and a case against the Bill. It seems to me that if there is a better way of approaching the provision of information technology to workers at home, surely that better approach should be described and implemented before the existing scheme is removed. It seems that we are in a bizarre situation when a scheme is being removed that has clearly been successful, but there is nothing to replace it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. The Paymaster General's case can best be described as citing a number of instances of abuse. She referred to a few websites and that was about the extent
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of it. In the course of my remarks, we can test exactly how much abuse there has been, and then the House can take a decision before we enter the Lobbies.
Let no one argue that the home computing initiative does not benefit people on modest incomes. The Trades Union Congress, companies such as Intel and others have clearly demonstrated that it does. As for the take-up of the scheme, it has taken off in the past year or so and has proved particularly popular in the national health service, with more than 100 trusts and hospitals across the country promoting the scheme to their work forces, including King's College hospital, the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire strategic health authority, the West Midlands ambulance service and even the Sedgefield primary care trustI hope that that is not the reason why the Chancellor wants to get rid of it. A number of charities have adopted the scheme, including St. John Ambulance, the Institute of Cancer Research, the Royal London Society for the Blind and the Motivation charitable trust, which works with people with a mobility disability and is based in Bristol, not far from the constituency of the Paymaster General.
The scheme has been adopted by a number of private sector organisations, including the British Chambers of Commerce, the Great North Eastern Railway and Yorkshire Water. In total, according to the HCI Alliance, more than 1,000 public and private sector organisations have adopted the HCI scheme to date, often with local trade union support, to help to improve their employees' IT skills. All of that will be put at risk if we do not delete clause 61.
Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman has listed all those fantastically important schemes, but can he explain why the proportion of households owning a computer has risen by only four percentage points since 2004?
Mr. Francois: I have already explained to the Paymaster General that the scheme was on the brink of taking off. Sweden has the highest personal computer penetration in the world, and one reason is that it has been running a successful scheme for a number of years.
Dawn Primarolo: I am grateful, because I do not want the hon. Gentleman to dig himself into a hole. He said that the scheme was just taking off, but from 1999 to 2003 the increase was 29 percentage points.
If the Paymaster General had done me the courtesy of listening, she would know that I explained that between 1999 and 2003 the scheme was relatively unpopular, so the Department of Trade and Industry effectively rebooted and relaunched it in 2004, with clearer and better publicised guidelines. The scheme has now begun to take off, and 500,000 users around the country are dependent on the scheme. It is rather worrying that the Paymaster Generala Treasury Ministerwill not listen to basic statistics.
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Peter Luff: What I have heard from the Paymaster General confirms my worst suspicions. She does not have the slightest idea of what is happening on the ground, as Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have seriously misled her about the true facts. When the scheme was rebooted, as my hon. Friend said, in January 2004, it took several months for the industry to gear up, but the advantages are only being experienced now. That is why the costs of the scheme are projected to increase every year in the Red Book.
Mr. Francois: As I shall argue, the ultimate reason for the scrapping of the scheme by the Government is its cost. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head and the Paymaster General should explain why, if the scheme is not popular, the Treasury's own projections in the Red Book and the regulatory impact assessment to 2011 forecast an increase in costs? If take-up is not good, why does the Treasury expect it to cost more? The Paymaster General must dig herself out of that hole.
The initial decision to scrap the home computing initiative, once it was discovered hidden in the Budget of 22 March, was greeted with incredulity, not least by the HCI Alliance, which only a few days before had discussed with the Treasury ways in which it could be updated. Moreover, it is evident that the Brownite Treasury hardly bothered to tell the Blairite DTIthe scheme's sponsoring Department. Even on Budget day, the DTI promoted the scheme on its website:
"The real beauty of HCI schemes is that they have the potential to improve performance in almost every area of the organisation. As well as traditional driversreducing costs, increasing profitability they can also contribute to more recent imperatives such as corporate responsibility, individual learning and workplace development."
Even more embarrassingly for the Government, the DTI was in the process of rolling out an HCI scheme for its own staff, as was the Department for Work and Pensions, which has far more staff than the DTI. In addition, the CBI, which actively advocated the scheme for two years at the Government's behest, reacted to the change with consternation. On 30 March, Sir Digby Jones commented:
"This flies in the face of everything the country is trying to achieve on skills. Seventy-five per cent. of people affected by this change are lower paid taxpayers. They will want to know why the Government has deprived them, and their families, of this opportunity . . . computer literacy has to be a given in a globally competitive economy."
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