Government gives further boost to employee-PC scheme

Employers are still being slow to take up a government scheme aimed at increasing the number of people with a PC at home, so ministers have released new guidelines

The government on Monday launched new guidelines to help kickstart the UK's computer literacy through Home Computing Initatives (HCI), which entail getting bosses to give PCs to their staff.

Under the scheme, UK workers get to install a brand spanking new PC in their homes, originally paid for by their employer, and pay a small amount back every month straight out of their wages. Unsurprisingly, the employer gets a nice kickback for their generosity; bosses get tax exemptions on the cash they spend on the PC as well as savings on their national insurance.

For every employee, a company can get £500-worth of tax exemption to spend on a PC, which an employee can pay back from their wages over three years. A friendly smile from the VAT man isn't all bosses can expect to see for their generosity, however.

Statistics from the Office of the e-Envoy concerning computers in the home show that eight out of 10 people who have a PC outside work believe that their employer has seen the benefit, and more than half have learned skills that they could go on to use at work.

It's not just employers who see the benefit of having a PC in the home -- three-quarters of people believe that a PC gives them a better work-life balance, because they can save time researching pursuits such as holidays online, as well as paying bills and shopping.

HCI schemes and the tax benefits that go with them have been around since 1999 but take-up has remained low up till now, which trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt attributes to a "lack of awareness" and e-envoy Andrew Pinder to a "lack of clarity... a minefield of rules and regulations".

The apathetic response from business prompted the government to issue the guidelines, which offer advice to companies on how to start up their own HCI schemes, an explanation of the tax niceties, courtesy of the Inland Revenue, and case studies of HCIs already in place.

The government hopes that a better awareness of HCIs will lead to more companies running their own and, as a result, better computer skills across the country. Speaking at the launch, Hewitt said she hopes the scheme will bring "real benefit" to employers and employees, adding that research showed those with a PC at home tend to have a "more sophisticated pattern of use than just email and doing a bit of research".

One company which has already taken the scheme to heart is the Royal Mail, with a take-up rate of around 10 percent, or 18,000 PCs, among staff to date.

Adam Crozier, Royal Mail chief executive, said that the initiative gave the large proportion of Royal Mail staff who wouldn't normally get a chance to use at a PC at work an opportunity to improve their computer literacy.

Crozier said the scheme is "the most popular thing the company had done for its people in the last 10 or 20 years," and added that as a result of the HCI "internal communication -- even in the space of eight weeks -- is up dramatically."

While the scheme has found favour with employers' union the CBI, vice president John Sunderland added a note of caution, adding that: "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating... we will be monitoring [the scheme] to see if is effectively implemented, how it can be improved and, if it goes well, how it can be extended."

HP has predicted that the latest push to drive take-up of HCI schemes could see computer ownership and internet connections rise by up to 10 percent. HP has been involved with a similar proposal in Sweden, which saw PC ownership rise by 35 percent over four years, and will be working with BT, Intel and Microsoft to develop packages for HCI initiatives.

The scheme could well be the boost that UK Online needs to see connectivity rates grow. New figures out from the government today show that the increase in the number of subscriptions to the Internet last month rose by just 0.3 percent.