Dennis Jarrett: "IT's Like This..."

The word technology is rarely found in Budget headline grabbers -- that is until last week. But Labour's spin-doctors are legendary and some observers doubt whether the government can propel us into the information age.

The word technology is rarely found in Budget headline grabbers -- that is until last week. But Labour's spin-doctors are legendary and some observers doubt whether the government can propel us into the information age. Dennis Jarrett is one of them...

Despite Gordon Brown's good intentions, the Budget will do little to encourage IT skills and develop the benefits of technology in the UK.

OK, so it's a good thing if the roads fill up with small cars because that way even more people can fit on to the M25. And I'll go along with the half-hearted approval for company cars with low carbon-dioxide emissions, but why not sulphates too Gordon?

Which leads me pessimistically to the Budget's soundbites about new computer strategy for Britain and a quantum leap in IT to help us trailblaze in the information economy.

Well, it's tough on those who aren't leading. Take one-man consultancies -- the worker ants of IT project development -- which seem to be in the firing line. The Revenue says it's trying to stop people leaving permanent employment and turning up the next day to provide exactly the same services as an independent contractor with all the tax avoidance that implies.

The government will bring forward legislation affecting engagements with essential characteristics of employment. It says there's no intention to redefine the existing boundary between employment and self-employment. But it seems to me that it's likely to clobber self-employed computer contractors.

New rules will take effect from April 2000 to ensure that people working in what is, in effect, disguised employment will, in practice, pay the same tax and NI as someone employed directly. Interested parties and groups, not individuals, can put their opinion to the Inland Revenue by writing to Elaine Carey, Personal Tax Division, Somerset House, London WC2R 1LB.

Meanwhile that £1.7bn technology spend is spread rather thinly. Less than half a million of that goes to community-based projects including £20m for subsidised loans to help teachers buy computers. Why not just give them all a laptop, for a cost around £30 million?

There's more for the dodgy-looking National Grid for Learning, an odd home-rental scheme for providing families with computers, and a establishing a network of learning centres for adults. There will be a thousand of these places, one for every community in Britain, says the government, and they will be in schools, colleges, libraries, Internet cafes and on the High Street. Mr Brown obviously hasn't visited many of these places recently if he thinks they're capable of dragging the British into the information age.

Which leaves the one serious, sensible, practical computing policy: from next month, employees will be able to borrow a computer from their employer without facing a tax charge. There are real benefits to businesses, employees and the wider community from increasing access to computers, said Brown. Who could disagree?

Of course this merely regularises the situation for many people who already have a company PC at home, and frankly most of us didn't realise we were rooking the taxman with our benefit in kind. Well, thanks for setting us straight on that.

djarrett@cix.co.uk