Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


13. Although most of our witnesses agreed that the century date change could potentially force errors in almost any system, product or process that incorporates a date reference, there are various estimates of the number of systems that are likely to be affected.[22] Taskforce 2000 told us that "most computer systems (large and small, old and new) and almost countless 'embedded' microprocessor chips are potentially affected".[23] Several bodies have recently undertaken surveys to ascertain precisely how many systems and organisations will be affected. In 1997, PA Consulting found, in a comprehensive survey in the UK and Ireland, that only 3% of organisations felt that their systems would be unaffected by the century date change, with a further 6% not knowing whether their's would be or not. The remaining 91% of respondents believed that the century date change either had or would have an impact on their organisation (see table 1).

Table 1

Expected Impact of the Century Date Change on Organisations

Expected Impact


Not impacted


Already impacted


Impact in 1997


Impact in 1998-99


Impact in 2000


Did not know




Source: Defusing the Millennium Time Bomb, page 18.

14. Taskforce 2000 told us that, left uncorrected, "80 per cent of computer systems of all kinds ... and something between 10 and 30 per cent of embedded systems will fail in one way or another".[24] Similarly, Greenwich Mean Time, a company formed specifically to address issues arising from the Year 2000 problem in PCs, told us that the majority of the 20 million PCs that are estimated to be in use in the UK at present will experience some form of hardware or software disruption.[25]

15. While we can quantify the number of systems likely to be affected, such statistics provide no qualitative indication of the extent to which organisations are likely to be impacted. There is an enormous difference between the consequences of failures in minor systems, like a pocket calculator, and a failure in a system which performs business or safety-critical functions. Moreover, while organisations may be able to cope with the failure of one system without any serious repercussions, the outcome may be completely different if a number of systems, minor or otherwise, fail simultaneously. Consequently raw statistics give little indication of the nature or degree of risk that century date change related errors may pose either socially or economically. We attempt to address this issue below but, in doing so, are conscious that these assessments are based on the assumption that no corrective or preparatory measures had been taken.

Potential Impact on Businesses and the Economy

16. The London Stock Exchange pointed out that there were few areas of commercial life "untouched by the implications of the Year 2000 date change" and most of our witnesses from the business community agreed that the consequences of failing to take remedial action would be significant.[26] For instance, SmithKline Beecham told us that "left unaddressed, the Year 2000 problem would arguably have been the biggest threat to business continuity that SmithKline Beecham has ever faced".[27] Railtrack told us "unless addressed ... the problem would cause serious and prolonged damage to the operation and hence the viability of the whole of the rail industry".[28] Shell UK believe that, had they taken no corrective action, "there would have been serious consequences in terms of failure to continue to supply oil and gas".[29] Failures to continue to operate on such a scale would clearly not only have a detrimental impact on national GDP but would also have implications for the performance of other companies reliant upon the services provided by those that had failed. Therefore, even though the implications of non-compliance vary from system to system, we find it incontrovertible that, in the absence of adequate remedial action to address the century date change problem, there would be a significant negative impact on the UK's future economic performance.

Potential Impact on Society

17. Other witnesses pointed to the potential of the century date change problem to affect individual citizens beyond the inevitable consequences of a downturn in economic performance. The Consumers' Association told us that "there is ... the possibility of consumers suffering financial loss, major inconvenience or breach of data protection safeguards" as a result of failures in, for example, transactions, billing and credit rating systems in banks or credit card companies; insurance company records; social security payment systems; workplace salary systems; or local authority administration systems.[30]

18. Malfunctions or failures in systems which perform safety-critical or essential operations, such as air traffic control systems; road or rail signalling; medical equipment; safety control equipment in factories or equipment controlling the labelling, storage and distribution of perishable foods, would present more fundamental risks to the public. For example, Thames Water, whose operational monitoring and control systems for major water and waste processes are dependent on embedded systems, told us "any failure of our services for a significant period of time would have a potentially serious impact on the public health of millions of people".[31]

19. Assessments of the nature of the problem and the potential impact that widespread malfunctions in computer and embedded systems could have on the economy, the national infrastructure and society at large, are important as they provide the imperative behind remedial action. However, as the Institution of Electrical Engineers told us, there has been "much 'hype' and scare mongering" in some reporting of Year 2000 issues and that, at times, "the consequences of failure to deal with the problems have been exaggerated".[32] Though predictions of doom generally have failed to account for the fact that some remedial action has already been, and continues to be, taken we, like the majority of our witnesses, conclude that the century date change problem could, if not solved, cause severe difficulties in many critical public services.

22  eg. Ev.pp. 24 and 161. Back

23  Ev.p. 1. Back

24  Q. 6. Back

25  Ev.p. 164. Back

26  Ev.p. 170. Back

27  Ev.p. 183. Back

28  Ev.p. 139. Back

29  Q. 145. Back

30  Ev.p. 221. Back

31  Ev.p. 159. Back

32  Ev.p. 161. Back

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