MPs slam government over digital divide plans

MPs accuse the e-envoy of empire building and describe attempts to combat the digital divide as "woefully inadequate"

The government's UK online plans to close the digital divide have been severely critised in a select committee report.

The report, from the same Trade and Industry select committee which last week attacked the government's attempts to open up BT's network, is hugely critical of the work being done to prevent a digital divide in Britain and is sceptical of how much recently-appointed e-envoy Andrew Pinder is helping the cause. It will come as a blow to a government determined to prevent a digital divide in Britain and promote e-business as the best in Europe.

The report accuses government of having no coherent strategy to combat the digital divide and describes various projects intended to give equal access to the Internet as "futile gestures".

"The initiative centres and development programmes do not amount to a strategy to overcome the digital divide between old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural," the report concludes. "In the context of the scale of the digital divide, they look like woefully inadequate gestures. Millions of people are excluded, not the thousands reached so far by these initiatives."

The MPs are equally damning of the job being done by e-envoy Andrew Pinder, who is charged with promoting e-business, combatting the digital divide and getting all government services online by 2005. Instead, Pinder has become embroiled in red tape, the report finds. "The e-envoy has been absorbed into the machinery of Whitehall and is now an adjunct of the e-Minister," the report concludes. "We are concerned at this mini-empire growing up in the shadow of the e-envoy. We greatly fear that the original concept of the e-envoy has been captured, tamed and bureaucratised into an e-official planted in an e-office, no doubt full of activity but caught between being an agency of implementation and powerhouse of ideas."

The criticisms will be hugely embarrassing for the government in the run up to the general election. It is not the first time its digital divide strategy has been questioned. A Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee earlier this month accused the government of developing broadband plans in isolation from citizen's needs. Critics have long questioned how much impact government projects will have on preventing a society of information haves and havenots.

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