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  Recycled PCs for the poor scheme crashes

Monday 11 February 2002
A government regeneration initiative to provide cheap, recycled computers to people on low incomes looks set to be scrapped after questions were raised over its administration.

Computers Within Reach, a 15m project launched in 1999, was expected to run until March of this year, following a pilot scheme.

But it never got further than the pilot scheme, which was wound down last summer and came grinding to a halt in October amid allegations of poor management.

It is claimed that civil servants did not understand the complexity of the project, which called for the refurbishment of second-hand computers and their distribution to the unemployed, who would then be charged a knockdown price of 60 for the package, which included a printer and software.

Some computer suppliers and voluntary groups that signed up to the project reported big delays and lack of communication with the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), and then the Department for Education and Skills, which took over the project (DfES).

Following the launch of a pilot scheme in October 2000, many involved at the grassroots level discovered that some firms contracted to supply the machines were abusing the project.

In a number of towns and cities, it was alleged people were being charged 60 up front and then having to wait months for their machines; PCs were left on the doorstep instead of being installed, and telephone helplines for advice on operating the computers were charged at 1 per minute.

A DfES spokesman said: "The service was delivered at the discretion of the suppliers".

But attempts to question suppliers were referred back to the DfES because it had barred them from talking to the media.

A spokeswoman later added: "It is important to remember that this was a pilot scheme and we are currently evaluating the effectiveness and value for money of the scheme.

"While doing this we are taking all developments during the implementation and duration of the scheme into account."

Although no official decision has yet been made, it is understood from a source close to the scheme that the project board will recommend to the minister that the scheme should be abandoned. "They believe it doesn't have enough positives," he said.

Paul Humphries
Friday February 8, 2002

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