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Stewart Hosie: How does the hon. Lady understand the following example? If an employee has a computer for business use and learns to use a new computer package or software development tool that is not directly related to the work that they do but is in line with what the company does, does that count as personal or business use?
Dawn Primarolo: I can help the hon. Lady on this point. It may be confused in her mind, but it is not confused in employers' minds. The interpretation of what is significant use was in operation before 1999, when the exemption came in, and employers managed to operate it perfectly well. I have said to the Committee that I am happy to ensure that that is restated in that way. Employers have used it before and knew what it meant, and it will not be an intellectual challenge for them.
Another major problem is the way in which the scheme has been axed with no warning. That has had a negative impact on a variety of businesses. Last week, Meriden announced profit warnings, which are partly due to its significant involvement with the HCI scheme.
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On a smaller scale, I was contacted by a business called BizApp, which is based in Cheltenham and was expressly set up to help smaller businesses access the scheme. It now faces the loss of six jobs. It established its business because it identified precisely the same problem about which the Government are now talking: it is difficult for smaller businesses to access the scheme. It found a solution, by automating the process and providing the three-year warranty and support package that so many people found attractive and that small businesses could manage to administer. It wrote:
"We became involved in HCI in 2004 and realised very quickly it was impossible for the industry to bring HCI to the Small to Medium Business Sector because the process was still too complex . . . We therefore developed an online platform which automated the whole process. This was no easy task because it was necessary to ensure that all the relevant legislation was adhered to and the platform allowed resellers who use our platform to make substantial savings over the manual methods."
The company was therefore clear that it had identified a problem and found a way in which to overcome it. However, it now faces making its staff redundant because the Government claim that there is insufficient participation from those on lower incomes and more deprived sectors. It is illogical that it cannot now participate in the process of helping people access the scheme.
It is disturbing that the Government have taken so long to provide any indication of the mechanisms on which they will focus their resources. It is interesting that option 2 was rejected because it did not help people from deprived backgrounds. Option 3 announces all the savings and gives no idea of how the Government would target support. That is important because many businesses have invested in and built up infrastructure to provide the HCI. They could use their expertise and investment to provide the scheme to people from more deprived backgrounds, yet all elements of certainty for their business have been taken away. That will have an impact on their confidence to invest in any future scheme and future Government proposals.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady. How will low paid workers, the unemployed or the elderly, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) referred earlier, benefit from the scheme?
Julia Goldsworthy: I can give the hon. Gentleman a precise example of someone to whom I spoke this morning and who is using the HCI to buy a computer for his mother, who is a pensioner. The whole point of the HCI was to bring computers into private use and encourage their use in the home. Why, therefore, has the Paymaster General rejected modifying the scheme to ensure that the abuses that she mentioned do not take place?
For the second time in the debate, the Paymaster General indicates that she does not understand the purpose of the scheme that she is abolishing. She shook her head in dismay at the example that the hon. Lady provided, when, according to the Department of Trade and Industry document, which was produced jointly with the Department for Education and Skills and other Departments, that is exactly the sort of purpose for which the scheme was
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established. It was to take computers into homes, not for business purposes. The Paymaster General clearly does not understand that point.
Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The scheme was an initiative to bring computers into the home. Why, therefore, did the Paymaster General reject option 2 and why was the new scheme announced only today? I hope that she will reply in her winding-up speech.
Mr. Wills : I welcome today's announcement by the Government of the digital inclusion team. It is welcome not least because it focuses on the overriding objective of ensuring that all those who are potentially excluded from the benefits of accesseveryone who has spoken said that such access was essentialto fast-changing new technologies remain the priority. The emphasis will be on them, not some specific scheme, which, I accept, was relevant when it was introduced and was, incidentally, opposed by Opposition parties at the time. We should focus on the ends, not the means. I therefore greatly welcome the digital inclusion team but I want to ask for reassurance about two matters.
First, my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General spoke generally about those who are potentially excluded from the new technologies. I should be grateful for an assurance that one of the key focuses of the new digital inclusion team will be lower paid workers, especially those on the national minimum wage for whom access to new technologies could be crucial to help them upskill and move up the employment ladder, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly stressed.
The second point is more technical. My right hon. Friend referred to digital television. Of course, that could be enormously important. We are about to move to a switchover from analogue to digital television and that will clearly be important in many different ways. However, I hope that she will reassure me that she will not ask the digital inclusion team to rely on digital television as the main passport to literacy in the new technologies. It is important to bear in mind that there will be a plethora of ways in which to access the new technologies and that the computer is likely to remain important for most people, if not everybody, in that regard. I should therefore be grateful for some reassurance on those points.
Peter Luff: Although you rightly rebuked us, Mrs. Heal, for getting a little excitable earlier in the debate, I know the Paymaster General well enough to realise that she will not take it personally. In that spirit, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) in wishing her an extremely happy birthday. I am sorry that she has to pass it here.
I have two separate concerns. First, was the scheme a good thingyes or no? A related question is whether it could have been improved. Secondly, was the manner in which it was abolished satisfactory? Although my colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), said that I spoke from constituency interest, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, I am also
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worried about the impact of the scheme on the Government's strategy for bridging the digital divide to build new societies. The scheme was originally believed to have played an important part in the process. I freely declare my constituency concern, but I also have a genuine anxiety about the broader issues that precipitate change in Government policy raises.
I come to praise the home computing initiative, not to bury itthe Chancellor has done that. The good that the scheme has done lives on. The computers are in homes and much good has been done. The scheme has made a contribution to fulfilling the Government's key objectives of improving IT skills and productivity and increasing access to the internet in UK homes.
I repeat that the Paymaster General made several sedentary comments earlier that suggest that she does not understand the purpose of the scheme. It was not a business scheme but was provided by businesses to their employees for personal use. That was what made it so strong, successful and important. I hope that she has now understood that. The scheme was not for business use of computers at home.
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