Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Low-income families could sell free laptops, says MP

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News political reporter

Boy uses computer
The government says free laptops will help poorer pupils do better

A £300m government scheme to give free laptops to poor children is open to abuse, a Conservative MP has warned.

Mark Pritchard said constituents had raised concerns about computers given out under the Home Access Programme apparently being sold for cash.

He has asked Schools Secretary Ed Balls for more safeguards to prevent misuse of the vouchers, worth up to £528.

The scheme said it could not guarantee parents would not sell the laptops but it was monitoring E-Bay and pawn shops.

The initiative, announced by Gordon Brown in his 2008 Labour conference speech, gives poorer households vouchers to spend on laptops and internet access from approved stockists.

Following pilot schemes in Suffolk and Oldham, the programme was rolled out across England last month.

Before their children can take part, parents have to fill in forms saying they will use the laptops for the correct purpose.

'Exchange for cash'

Mr Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin in Shropshire, said: "There is very little policing of the scheme and there is nothing to stop a minority of recipients from selling their laptops in exchange for cash.

Becta will be monitoring key channels through which kit might be sold
Becta

"I haven't seen anybody down the market selling them, but I have been informed by my constituents that there are people who have sold them."

One of Mr Pritchard's constituents, mother-of-two Debbie, contacted the MP after her children were told they were not eligible for the scheme.

She told the BBC: "They are giving internet access and computers to children whose parents don't work, when there are a lot of working families who can't afford them."

She added: "There's nothing to stop people selling them the next week and the taxpayer is funding that. I disagree with the whole moral of the situation."

The scheme is intended to benefit families with children aged seven to 14 who get free school meals.

It aims to help bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils.

A recent study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggested having a laptop at home could lead to a two-grade improvement in one subject at GCSE.

After the first year of the scheme families can decide whether to keep funding the internet connection themselves.

'Monitoring'

Becta, the government agency running the scheme, said that if any parents chose to sell on the equipment "it would be a minority and should not stop numerous other families from benefiting from the programme".

A spokesman said: "There are a number of robust anti-fraud measures in place and parents who apply sign a legally binding form that states they will use the kit for the purposes intended.

"Becta will be monitoring key channels through which kit might be sold - such as eBay and Cash Converters.

"We can't guarantee that some parents won't attempt to sell the kit but the evaluation of the Home Access pilots reported that there were no attempted or committed frauds.

"There is also clear evidence that shows recipients are less likely to dispose of a device if they choose to opt into the scheme as opposed to simply being provided with a free device, and as a result this principle has been incorporated into the design of the Home Access programme."



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SEE ALSO
Free laptop scheme is rolled out
11 Jan 10 |  Education
Pledge Watch: Laptops for all
03 Nov 08 |  UK Politics
Pupils to get free home computers
21 Oct 08 |  Education

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