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Digital Inclusion

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 13 July 2006

12. If he will make a statement on his fiscal policies to support the Government’s digital inclusion strategy. (84773)

Competition is helping to boost digital inclusion through falling prices for equipment and communications services. The Government are helping by making targeted fiscal interventions, such as supporting the network of 6,000 UK Online centres. We are also investing in information and communications technology in schools and funding ICT at home for school students.

I have had some harsh words with members of the Treasury Bench about how the home computing initiative was abolished, but I have since received conciliatory letters acknowledging that there is a hole in the digital inclusion strategy in respect of low-income employees. Will Ministers acknowledge the efforts made by the industry to address those problems and to deliver a compliant and self-regulatory framework for schemes that enable employers to purchase computers? In that way, the industry is helping to plug that very important hole in the Government’s strategy.

I am not sure that the hole to which the hon. Gentleman refers exists. Home computer penetration has risen from one in four in 1997 to two thirds today, which shows that very welcome progress has been made, largely because of falling prices. I know that the hon. Gentleman has submitted some proposals on behalf of the industry, and I assure him that Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry are looking at them. When he submitted them, he said that they looked rather complicated, and I think that he was probably right. However, the large price falls in PC equipment and much higher home take-up mean that the case for Government intervention looks much less strong today than it did in 1999, when the incentive was introduced.

Analogue switch-off is looming for many people, so will my hon. Friend consider funding the move from analogue to digital out of future income from the sale of the spectrum? Would that not be preferable to letting the cost fall on BBC licence fee payers?

My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is looking at those issues, and at ways of helping people make the transition in the future. Certainly, the switchover holds out a lot of promise for promoting digital inclusion, and I am sure that he and the whole House will welcome that.