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To hell with the Government and its recycled PCs for the poor

To have and have not

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Opinion This article was first published in March, 1999 You may remember that a couple of years back, Newt Gingrich, the well-known American Republican, proposed that computer notebooks be doled out to poor people.

That way, his theory was, everyone in the US would have a chance to take part in the internet revolution. One critic at the time memorably dismissed the proposal as having a "let them eat laptops" mentality, but it is now clear that Gingrich was a prophet without honour in his own country. His big idea is to be turned into reality in the UK - albeit in modified and cheapskate form.

Here, the government will offer poor families recycled PCs as part of the £400m IT package announced in this month's Budget. But it will probably only be a tiny part because the PCs aren't free. Low income families will have to pay a small sum - as little as £5 per month - for the privilege of leasing a secondhand PC. This is the government's way of ensuring that we avoid what the US calls the information underclass.

In a statement, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, said the divide between IT 'haves and have nots' had to be overcome. Much of the government's IT investment will go to inner cities. He added: "It will match the modernisation now taking place in the US. It will raise standards in schools, develop lifelong learning and improve employability." We shall see.

Of course, the measure should provide a welcome boost for the UK's IT recycling and remarketing industry. Changing EU regulations will lead to a huge supply-side expansion in recycled PCs in the next couple of years and the deserving poor will come in handy for soaking up some of this deluge.

But are there enough deserving poor to go around? And who are these poor families who will be eligible for cheap PC handouts anyway? How many of them will actually be able to afford even the meagre sums of money the government is proposing? The Department of Education isn't saying. "It's too early to give that kind of detail," a press officer says. Which means that the government hasn't worked out the answer to that one yet.

Whatever happens, we can rest assured that the information have-nots will become information haves. Armed with their cheap PCs and their free email addresses, poor people can surf the internet to their hearts' content - at least until the first phone bill comes in. So why not throw in unmetered telephone access like they do in the US?

But isn't owning a credit card the true test of the information have? Ownership of a PC and an email address confers nothing more than, well, owning a PC and an email address. So why not give out free credit cards too? That way, poor people can avail themselves of the online ecommerce experience, just like all the other information haves. ®

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