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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 22:33 GMT
UK internet schemes 'inadequate'
A cyber cafe
The rich are still the main users of the internet
Schemes to overcome the "digital divide" in internet access have been branded "woefully inadequate gestures" by MPs.

The government, which appointed its first "e-envoy" early last year, has launched a series of initiatives to ensure everyone, rich or poor, can access the internet.

Efforts to provide computers at home have ranged from recycled computers for low income families to tax incentives for businesses.

"We greatly fear that the original concept of the e-envoy has been captured, tamed and bureaucratised."

Commons Trade and Industry report
But the Commons Trade and Industry Committee warns in a report that the schemes are reaching only thousands of people, while millions were stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The report says: "Some programmes seem to be designed to make a real difference. Others are evidently a drop in the ocean; they are either pilots which seek to prove that further expenditure is justified, or futile gestures.

"In the context of the scale of the digital divide, they look like woefully inadequate gestures."

Nearly a third of British homes are linked to the web - one of the highest proportions in the world - but research shows that most internet use is by the rich.

The report highlights an initiative to provide 100,000 low-income families with computers that has so far reached only a third of that number, some two years after it was announced.

'Mini empire'

E-envoy Andrew Pinder has been "absorbed into the machinery of Whitehall" and appears to be building a "mini-empire", warns the committee.

His office is due to grow from 61 staff in October last year to 212 by April 2002, with its running costs doubling from 11.6m to 22.8m.

Who has tried the internet?
71% of professionals
33% of skilled manual workers
26% unskilled workers

The report, entitled UK Online Reviewed, voices concerns that the e-envoy's responsibility for promoting UK electronic business "seems to have fallen by the wayside" as he has got increasingly involved in implementing government IT projects.

"We greatly fear that the original concept of the e-envoy has been captured, tamed and bureaucratised," it continues.

'Not too late'

"It is not too late for a rethink of the scale and nature of the office, nor of the role of the e-envoy."

The European Commission's e-Europe project also comes under fire from the committee, which describes the scheme as "rather grandiose and flabby".

While targets were continually being set, no-one seemed "to be in a position to say with any authority whether targets have been met by individual member-states, let alone do anything about it if they have not."

The Office for National Statistics reported last December that 71% of professionals had accessed the internet, compared with 33% of skilled manual workers and 26% of unskilled employees.

Up to 62% of the richest households had internet access, compared with less than 10% of the poorest.

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01 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
New e-envoy named
19 Mar 01 | dot life
Bridging the digital divide
22 Jul 00 | World
G8 focus on digital divide
28 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Britain digitally divided say ministers
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