Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Pledge Watch: Laptops for all

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this new series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

Laptop
Did laptops get as easy to borrow as a library book?
Picture the late 1990s, when internet start-up firms were on their way to becoming bigger than established titans of industry and commerce.

It was a heady time when the power of the "information highway" to liberate the information-starved masses seemed infinite.

Recall the then chancellor Gordon Brown's call for the UK to lead the global "knowledge economy", leaving no man, woman or child behind in the sharing of glorious, electronic wizardry-created wealth.

In this spirit Mr Brown announced a policy now forgotten by most.

In October 1999 he pledged: "We will pioneer a system so people can use computers and software in the new century the way local libraries have loaned books in the last century."

Old stock

The plan was to allow low-income families to lease subsidised laptops - then usually costing at least 1,000 to buy - for about 5 a week from their employers.

Firms were given tax breaks if they provided old computer stock, which had been upgraded, to employees for home use.

But what happened after the announcement?

Jim Knight
We cannot let this reinforce social and academic divides and put children in low income families at a further disadvantage
Jim Knight, schools minister

The government scheme, which formed part of the Home Computing Initiative, eventually gained the support of about 60 companies.

However, after seven years the government wound up the tax break behind the scheme, arguing that the lending out of laptops had become less necessary.

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman told the BBC: "It was a Treasury programme aimed at getting Britain online by giving tax-breaks to employers to loan computers to their employees and which was wound up in 2006 - essentially, because lower costs of laptops had helped drive up home ownership."

It may have had 60 companies signed up to it, but it is hard to say that it achieved the goal of allowing people to use laptops and software in the same way they might borrow books from a library.

Latest scheme

The scheme may have died but the sentiment behind it appeared to live on when, at the recent Labour Party conference, Mr Brown, now the prime minister, announced 300m for a Home Access programme to help low-income, computer-less households.

The scheme, due to get under way later this month, promises broadband access to all learners aged five to 19 whose families qualify for the help.

This involves a "free laptop or other computer with relevant software and hardware" bought with a Home Access voucher, as well as technical support.

Announcing a year-long pilot programme in Oldham and Suffolk last week, schools minister Jim Knight said: "Many families are having to tighten their belts in the current economic climate - so it is right that we help those that need the most support.

"We cannot let this reinforce social and academic divides and put children in low-income families at a further disadvantage."

The scheme is due to be expanded to the rest of England by autumn 2009.

The stated aim, as with the 'laptops for all' scheme, is to "bridge the digital divide".

Thanks for your many comments. Here is a selection:

What you failed to note is that the HCI scheme was wound up with no notice or consultation and led to many of the companies in the scheme collapsing or losing major supply contracts which in turn resulted in hundreds of job losses.
Richard, Birmingham, West Midlands

I have no objection to this initiative or its good intentions (having come from a low-income one parent household myself), but who will make sure that these computers are not pawned or sold by a small minority of the parents who may have a drug/drink problem that is so bad that they would sell their own grannie for a fix/drink?
Anonymous

Another ridiculous waste of our money. The government was so committed to home use of computers that they even tried to make it a taxable benefit if an employee used his work machine at home. They might as well pay the voters as they turn up at the polling station and at least save us the overhead of a high cost administration.
Ian, Glasgow

It is time for us to realise that computing is a part of our future and we will use it in every part of our lives. Therefore it should be included in education and every child should be provided with a laptop. Yes it will cost but the benefits will outweigh the costs. Business should be involved if it wants literate computer users as employees in the future. It will reduce training costs later and should be seen as an investment. We should be leaders, otherwise we all fall behind in this competitive world we live in.
Steve Page, Dudley, UK

Hmm. I always thought this was going to be a tough one for ANY government. Part of the problem is that even if you give someone an "old" PC that's been scrubbed up, they complain that it isn't a Core Duo (tm) or doesn't have the graphics support for WoW. I know - I've run hand-out schemes for a couple of big companies. Even schools have turned their noses up. Now it's cheaper to pay the WEEE directive discard fees than even try to pass on a PC. A sad waste, and not very Green. All 3 of my PCs are discards and the oldest is "only" a P4 - still sent this email.
Nige Dickinson, Swindon

I seem to recall that, when the change from analogue to digital was announced, the government said that those who had not changed over by the time that the analogue signal was switched off would be bought the set-top box (or equivalent) by the government - I think that there were estimates at the time as to how much this would cost. These plans seem to have been watered down so that only some elements of society (if anyone at all) may get assistance.
Philip Yarrow, Tunbridge Wells

From the 1997 manifesto: "We will clean up politics, decentralise political power throughout the United Kingdom and put the funding of political parties on a proper and accountable basis."
Philip Walker, York, UK

"I'll eat my hat"- John Prescott circa 1995 referring to improving transport links.
Andy Norris, Blackpool

Not so much a pledge, but there was a 'quality of life' index with measurables such as the fear of crime, number of sunny days, etc. Whatever happened to that?
Al, Herts

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