Blank PCFiona Barr

NHS staff are benefiting from cut-price home computers through the Home Computing Initiative (HCI), a government scheme designed to help spread IT skills in the UK. The HCI offers employers tax incentives to provide employees with the loan of IT equipment, usually through third party providers.

Employees pay for the computers through ‘salary sacrifice’ schemes which means that loan payments are deducted from their monthly gross salary, saving the employee tax and national insurance contributions as well. At the end of the loan staff can buy the equipment for a nominal fee and end up with a substantially cheaper deal than if they had bought the equipment on the  high street.

The HCI scheme was established in 1999 but take up was low until the government promoted the scheme with guidelines at the beginning of 2004. Public sector organisations were also effectively precluded until a change in the tax rules on salary sacrifice in 2003.

East Elmbridge and Mid Surrey PCT was the first NHS trust to set up an HCI scheme in 2004 and the success of the scheme has helped the PCT win two national good practice awards.

Around 20 per cent of staff at the PCT took advantage of the HCI scheme last year, benefiting from computers that were 40 per cent cheaper than on the high street after taking into account their savings on tax and national insurance. The PCT also saved £20,000 in NI and pension contributions.

The PCT was attracted to the idea of an HCI scheme as part of its plans to meet the Improving Working Lives standard. It is currently running the scheme for the second time and plans to repeat the offer every year to include new starters and staff who may not have had the opportunity to apply before.

Angie Foreman, Improving Working Lives lead at the PCT, says: "We felt it was important to implement a programme specific to the NHS that suited the needs of our employees. Judging by the feedback from staff I think we’ve achieved that with the HCI scheme."

More than 50 NHS trusts are thought to have set up schemes last year with many more in the pipeline this year.

GP practices have so far been effectively excluded because providers have targeted much bigger employers. However OneCall PC, an HCI provider which ran the scheme at East Elmbridge and Mid Surrey PCT, is about a launch a scheme designed for general practice.

Mike Davis, NHS account director for OneCall PC, says the company works in partnership with Fujitsu Siemens and has set up schemes at more than 40 other NHS trusts in the last year but has also had a lot of enquiries from GP practices.

He adds: "Most of the providers are targeting bigger trusts but in March we will be launching a GP product."

One of the potential problems with the HCI for a smaller organisation such as a practice is the financial risks that employers carry if an employee leaves during the three year loan period. It is, however, possible to take out insurance to cover that risk.

IT equipment with a benefit of up to £500 per year can be offered through the scheme. The average monthly deduction from an employee’s net pay for a high specification computer is £25 over 36 months with no interest charges or credit checking. If an employee with a salary of £20,000 made payments on a piece of computer equipment worth £1054.11 over three years the net tax and national insurance saving made by the employee would be £347.88. There would also be a saving of £134.93 for the employer.

The three PCTs in Lincolnshire together with the hospital trusts and the ambulance trust all set up HCI schemes in October last year. The hospital, Lincolnshire Partnership Trust, enjoyed the biggest take up among Lincolnshire organisations with 11 per cent of staff taking part in the scheme. Take up in the rest of the Lincolnshire trusts varied from 7.75 per cent to 9.5 per cent.

Chris Sykes, HR adviser to West Lincolnshire PCT, says: "The early feedback I had from staff has been positive and a number of people have commented that this scheme was ideal for them as they could not afford a one off lump sum payment for a computer on the high street."

There are 34 HCI providers registered on the HCI Alliance website which is currently considering an accreditation scheme. GCat, the government catalogue of approved providers for IT and telecoms related goods and services, has a list of seven HCI providers.

They are Dell, Elonex, Fujitsu Siemens, HP, IBM, PCWorld Business and Viglen. Products available through these providers include PCs and laptops, printers and scanners and business, learning and home entertainment software. When guidelines for the scheme were launched last year Patricia Hewitt, trade and industry secretary, said HCI schemes can help realise personal and professional potential.

She added: "For employers HCI schemes are about maximising potential in the work place. Basic computer and technology skills are now regarded as essential for the majority of jobs. With home computer access IT confident employees have greater capacity to contribute to an organisation’s overall performance and adapt more easily to new roles and opportunities.

For more information see the GCat pages online and the DTi Home Computing Initiative pages.