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Mr. Kevan Jones: I agree with the aspiration of the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) for wide use of computers in homes across the country. Members on both side of the Committee would agree with that. Part of my constituency is in South Stanley, which is in the top 10 most deprived wards in the country and has one of the lowest uptakes of IT skills, and I doubt whether many of my constituents in that area have benefited from the HCI scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) made the point that the Opposition have portrayed this scheme as the only one put forward by the Government to extend computer literacy and the availability of computers in communities. In my constituency, putting money into education is doing more to increase the use of computers and computer skills, and the Chancellor gave extra money to education in the last Budget. In every school that I visit, I see not only laptops being used by teachers but interactive whiteboards and young people using IT skills in a way that could only be imagined a few years ago.
I referred earlier to the trade union movement, which, I understand, the Conservatives now support. I get confused about their position from day to day. One thing that has led to improved IT skills in many workplaces is the trade union learning fund, which has been consistently opposed by the Conservative party. I look forward to its support in future for that vital initiative, which has brought learning into many workplaces and reached some of the lowest-paid in society. In addition, Durham has a new further education college, with funding for IT from the Government. I reiterate that the Government have not just been tackling lack of IT skills and computer equipment in communities through the HCI scheme but through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said, a mosaic of measures.
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That is demonstrated by a good initiative in the South Stanley school of technology run by Janet Bridges, the head teacher. That initiative is not just about enabling students to pay for computers; it is giving computers to 300 children, and is paid for by the Government's neighbourhood renewal funding. In those communities, that is the only way in which some children would get direct access to computers at home. Rather than spawning a private industry, it has already allowed local people to create infrastructure and support. Although the HCI scheme has been successful in some parts, it will not reach the hard core of people in poor communities, such as those that I represent, who will not get access to computers without such funding. That is why I support funding being directed to those areas.
I have heard some criticism of the way in which the scheme has been wound up, and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) made his points well. I find it strange, however, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are now arguing that this type of scheme, of which the late lamented J. K. Galbraith would have been proud, reflects a kind of Keynesian view that money should be put forward to support the computer industry, which, as we know, is a poor and dying sector of our economy. I am sorry, but that is not what it is meant to do. It is meant to direct resources to and ensure skills in some of the poorest communities. That more targeted approach, which the Government are adopting, will bear fruit. In my constituency, I will support that direct help to low-paid, elderly and unemployed people, who need access to computers and skills not just in the home but in village halls and libraries
Peter Luff: The hon. Gentleman is making an important pointof course we want lower-paid people to get access to information technology. To make maximum use of that, however, it must be in their homes. There is no point having open access schemes in public places where people will be reluctant to enter private and confidential data. In relation to the success of the Government's e-initiative, people will not fill out an income tax return online in a public place or do anything confidential where they cannot secure data, and families will not get the benefit. If low-paid people are to benefit most effectively, computers must be in their homes.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Unfortunately, however, I, unlike the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) who referred to her elderly or low-paid constituent whose rich relative purchased a computer, do not have many constituents for whom that is the case. In schools, hardware is being given to kids because that is the only way that they will get access to computers in the home. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's points, but he must recognise that many low-paid workers, unemployed and elderly people will not be able to purchase the equipment. I would be radical and say that in some cases we should give the equipment free to certain user groups, as it will end up certainly saving them money and also saving the Exchequer money in relation to the accessing of certain services. I would welcome support for that initiative from the Conservative Front Bench.
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As other Members have pointed out, the scheme has been successful in allowing certain sections of the community to access computers. That is good, but we now need to ensure that we direct money and resources to those who will never get access to computer equipment or IT skills unless we do such targeting.
Mr. Newmark: This year, the Chancellor presented a Budget for Britain's future, a Budget which will supposedly equip this country for the increasing challenges of global competitiveness. Unfortunately, clause 61 will do anything but that. The foreword to the HCI guidelines published in 2004 had no hesitation in stating that the scheme was an extremely powerful catalyst for an organisation that wants to exploit the clear and indisputable link between individual learning, workplace productivity and overall competitiveness.
The then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, now the Secretary of State for Health, has fallen on hard times since the heady days when she was able to add her signature to a statement, alongside those of the director general of the CBI and the general secretary of the TUC. If only the Royal College of Nursing were as co-operative. The strength of Government support was also indicated by the fact that the guidelines were issued by three Departments: the Department of Trade and Industry, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education and Skills, withI stress the word "with"the backing of the Treasury.
Sadly, Members have not been surprised by the lack of consultation before the scrapping of the HCI, but the contrast between the close co-operation of 2004 and the chaos of 2006 is particularly stark. No longer is there joint authorship; the DTI itself was busy investing thousands of pounds in a scheme for its own staff, unaware that just across the road in the Treasury, Ministers were planning to axe the very same scheme.
We should also contrast the flamboyantly named Office of the e-Envoy, which existed until 2004, with the present e-Government Unit. The first had a responsibility to get the nation online, and, with the HCI, piloted a project that actually worked. Its successor focuses on
We now have the paradox of a Government investing in online servicesan example is the £340 million spent by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs on expanding electronic tax returnswhile simultaneously cutting spending on a project that has successfully delivered on its promise to increase the uptake of personal computers by low-paid workers. There is a delightful irony here, which I know many of my hon. Friends will appreciate: in the long litany of disasters that have come about because of Government investment in IT projects there is one notable success, and it is being cancelled. Perhaps the Government will consider applying some of the £71 million compensation which has been paid as a result of the tax credits IT fiasco to the continuation of the HCI scheme. The subsidising of a success by a disaster would be a rather neat compromise.
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Indeed they are, but they are not changing so rapidly that they excuse the total absence of consultation on the end of the HCI. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) was also helpful when he said that this issue
Mr. Emin is the director of a company which, over the past few years, has been working to deliver the NCI scheme to the NHS. To date, he has helped to provide some of the 15,000 personal computers for nurses. He wrote to me that the HCI was
"There are still millions of low paid workersin smaller organisations which are now finally being reached by the HCI administratorsyet to take advantage of this scheme, not to mention all the nurses, council workers and teachers who have not yet been given the opportunity to take part.
"We were about to introduce the scheme to our staff and have over the last few months undertaken a considerable amount of work to get the scheme off the ground. Both PCS and its employees are therefore extremely disappointed"
that the Government intend to end the scheme. As I am sure the Paymaster General will tell us, taxpayers are often "extremely disappointed" by Budget measures that leave them worse off, but the Government have given no explanation for their decision, and there is a sense that the Chancellor may have believed that no one would notice clause 61.
Let me now deal with the question of definitions in amendments Nos. 2 and 17. On Second Reading, the Paymaster General gleefully challenged my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) on what definition of computer equipment should be applied for the purposes of the scheme. She should have been a little less triumphant. In the Standing Committee that considered the 2004 Finance Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) asked her
That was two years ago. If the Paymaster General had given an answer in 2004, she might have been able to prevent the two years of abuse[Hon. Members: "Alleged abuse!"]alleged abusethat the Government are using as a justification for axing the HCI. Instead, she said that the Office of the e-Envoy
"will be monitoring take-up in the coming months. That information will demonstrate to us whether the £500 is reasonable, what type of equipment is being purchased and how wide take-up is."[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 18 May 2004; c. 2168.]
It is sad, therefore, that the Office of the e-Envoy was itself axed along with whatever evidence of abuse it may have found. The Government should have provided a definition of computer equipment back in 1999, and certainly when Ministers were pressed for one in 2004. A definition must be open to regular review.
iPods have been mentioned with some derision in debates, but the average iPod now has more memory than the average home computer did when the scheme was initiated in 1999. Furthermore, podcasting is increasingly being used as a business tool. That is why amendment No. 2 emphasises the need for industry and user consultation, with the aim of arriving at a workable, flexible definition that is not open to abuse.
The notion that people have been buying games consoles and iPods is as yet unproved, but I was interested to learn that "entertainment" was among the list of benefits that the DTI believed to stem from home computer ownership. It was mentioned in its 2004 guidelines, along with education, e-mail and e-government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) pointed out earlier.
Conservative Members are all in favour of deregulation, but it is unfortunate that this single example of obvious deregulation should have had the inadvertent effect of undermining a successful IT initiative.
"A recent estimation provided by the HCI Alliance (BT, Intel and Microsoft) indicates that over 500,000 units have been loaned under the Home Computer Initiative Scheme since 1999."[Official Report, 25 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 989W.]
The Government's evidence base for axing the HCI seems to have been provided by the very organisation that is lobbying for its continuation. That is an absurdity. Perhaps the Minister will tell us where is the evidence, where was the consultation, and where is the need to scrap an IT project that has helped the lowest-paid people to improve their skills and prospects.
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