Clause 61 — Computer equipment

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 5th July 2006.

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Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Chief Secretary To the Treasury, Treasury 2:45 pm, 5th July 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 126, page 46, line 29, leave out clause 61.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue again. I believe that a fundamental problem still remains, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it again on Report. However, rather than rehearse the arguments that were put in some detail in Committee, I shall ask a number of questions to which I hope the Paymaster General will be able to respond.

Clause 61 seeks to remove the tax exemption that existed prior to the Budget, whereby employers who made computer equipment available for private use could do so tax-free, provided that the annual amount of the benefit in kind was £500 or less. Under the new regime, it remains the case that when the personal use of computer equipment is "not significant", it does not need to be reported for tax purposes. What value does the Paymaster General attribute to "not significant"? How much below the previous limit of £500 per year will it be? How will the Government assess what does and does not count as significant?

The Paymaster General made the point in Committee that the system was being abused—by being extended to include MP3 players, for example. There was a great deal of discussion at the time about what evidence the Government had used when they decided to withdraw the scheme rather than to tighten the definitions. The Paymaster General was kind enough to give examples of websites illustrating how the scheme could be abused, but can she quantify the scale of the abuse? Half a million people have benefited from the scheme, and many family members, as well as employees, now have access to a computer at home as a result. In particular, people found the kind of support provided through the scheme particularly helpful and reassuring.

Companies involved in delivering the scheme were reporting an increase in uptake, and I do not believe that that was entirely due to abuses of the system. However, if the Paymaster General has evidence to show that that increase was due solely to such abuse, I would welcome that information. However, the Paymaster General rightly pointed out the perceived weakness of the scheme—that it related only to employees, and that vulnerable and isolated groups not in employment could not benefit from it. The Home Computing Initiative Alliance recognised that, and I understand that it was in discussions with the Treasury and auditors about how best to resolve that issue when the scheme was withdrawn.

While I recognise and applaud the new digital inclusion team announced in the Committee of the whole House, why were existing partners not deemed appropriate to fulfil the remit that was described? Will the entirety of the £370 million in savings generated by the scheme's abolition be transferred to the new team, or will some of that go back into the Treasury pot? That question was asked in the Committee of the whole House, but I do not see a response to it in Hansard. Finally, will the Paymaster General provide us with an update on the digital inclusion team's work? On that note, I look forward to her response.