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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. In view of the importance of the issue, the Opposition welcome regular quarterly progress reports to the House. It is like old times being able to ask her a few questions about how progress is developing.

Labour politicians think that their job is managing the media, rather than the Government. Nowhere has that been more obvious than in their mismanagement of the millennium bug. [Laughter.] Labour Members should not laugh because this is a serious problem which the Government are not grappling with.

As the executive director of Taskforce 2000 has said:


His report found a lack of money committed to the task, predicted, in his words, death by 1,000 cuts for some public services, and concluded that Departments have left action desperately late, with inadequate testing.

Reading between the lines, I think that today's statement confirms that. The Taskforce 2000 report was endorsed and welcomed by none other than the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who, until recently, was helping the right hon. Lady in government to sort out the problem.

The Government have alternated between panic and complacency. The Prime Minister told us:


Then the public sector under ministerial control went to sleep and fell far behind, as we heard yet again today.

We have been told by the Secretary of State for Scotland in a leaked letter that there could be substantial disruption to public services in a just over a year's time. He warns that the Army should be on standby to sort out the mess. Then the Leader of the House pops up to tell us that the problem has been overstated; chaos has been postponed by a soundbite.

Meanwhile, we learn bit by bit of the depressing reality of a public sector far from ready for the next century. Nine Departments are reported as being way behind in their preparations by Taskforce 2000. What is the use of a Department of State getting ready for the millennium by 2002 or 2003? How can the Department of Trade and Industry spend so much time and effort telling British business to get ready and then spectacularly fail to prepare itself, as the report reveals?

Over at the Foreign Office, the same report states:


Some would say that under the Foreign Secretary, that would be business as usual--but we expect better and so do the public.

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The Home Office programme is marked down as "very high risk", and that was before it knew that it had to make the decision on General Pinochet. At the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, we hear that


is being displayed.

Most worrying of all, the Secretary of State for Health refuses to guarantee that no patient will suffer as a result of the millennium bug. Will the right hon. Lady come clean and tell us whether all intensive care beds will work on the due date? Will all casualty departments operate properly? Will the power be on in all our homes and offices? Will flood defences work? Will all telephone and traffic systems function? When will the nine Departments that are so far behind catch up? How many bugbusters have been trained and appointed? Will all the 20,000 bug busters that we were promised be in place, and might that be before 2000? Why have the Government spent so little time and energy on sorting out the problems in the public sector while spinning so much to the private sector about the importance of the problem? What financial help will be given to health authorities and councils?

We left this problem in good order. There was plenty of time. People at the time said that we were thinking ahead. This Government have been in office for 18 months--the critical 18 months--and very little has happened. Britain is well behind, thanks to the disappointing performance of the public sector, presided over by the Government.

The Government have shown themselves incapable of managing this big changeover. The right hon. Lady should offer more than a few soundbites and platitudes. She should give a deeper, sober assessment of where the problem lies. She should pledge firm action to ensure that the public services work well in just over a year's time. Above all, she should offer the public a millennium guarantee that everything will work properly on 1 January 2000. If she is not prepared to, it will confirm our fears that the Government are way behind the clock and out of their depth.

Mrs. Beckett: I am sorry to say that although I have moved to a different Department, as far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned nothing has changed. He talked about our managing the media, not governing, but his comments bore even less relation to reality than they used to when he was opposite me at the Department of Trade and Industry.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the previous Government left the programme in good order. I have assiduously refrained from saying it with quite this bluntness since I have been answering on this matter, but they left it in the hands of Taskforce 2000. Not a little of the venom behind some of the comments made by that organisation comes from the fact that it is no longer in its hands but in those of a different organisation headed by Don Cruickshank, who, in the right hon. Gentleman's day, was director general of the Office of Telecommunications. He commands a great deal of public confidence and support.

I have assiduously refrained from being as rude about Taskforce 2000 as it is about everyone else because we welcome anything that raises awareness and acceptance of the fact that there is a problem that all organisations need to recognise and tackle. However, the

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right hon. Gentleman would be wrong simply to take at face value what is said by Taskforce 2000, which, in some cases, straightforwardly misunderstands what is said. Moreover, in many other cases, events have very much moved on since its last report.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Government going to sleep on the matter. Far from doing any such thing, within three weeks of the general election, we commissioned the work that led to our being able to publish--for the very first time--the type of information that I am now updating in the quarterly statement. Moreover, the body that we established--Action 2000, under Don Cruickshank--has undertaken an independent assessment of the problems across the national infrastructure. We are the first country to make such an assessment. Therefore, far from being behind the game, as the right hon. Gentleman seeks to pretend, we are very much ahead of it.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a leaked letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly well aware--as the letter did leak--my right hon. Friend was writing about issues involving the Territorial Army. He was as well aware as every other Minister that there is a normal procedure of preparedness and contingency planning, during which plans for civil authorities to call on aid are occasionally considered. He was only referring to the existence of such contingency plans, which are in permanent existence. They existed under the Conservative Government, and they are being updated now to deal with a foreseeable contingency--the arrival of the millennium date change.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned comments on the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that come mostly from Taskforce 2000, and demanded a whole string of guarantees. I shall deal with a couple of the points that he made.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the national health service. The NHS has made it plain and public that it is now making satisfactory or good progress. I have already pointed out to him that the Audit Commission--I have much more confidence in it than in Taskforce 2000--described the NHS's work as a well-managed programme and said that, of all the groups that it surveys, the NHS has made the 1best progress since the previous quarter. The fact is that 93 per cent. of NHS organisations are said to be making satisfactory or good progress towards compliance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the bug busters programme and how many people have been trained. Almost 1,000 people have completed their training, and about 5,500 are now signed up in the programme, which represents a very sharp increase in demand. It took some time to establish the programme because it has to be a quality programme. There are 970-odd such programmes in place. There has been a substantial increase in the number of those signing up, and we hope that that will continue.

The right hon. Gentleman called for a deeper, sober assessment, and tried to pretend that the United Kingdom is falling behind. A few weeks ago, I attended an international conference on the matter that was attended also by people from Taskforce 2000, who I am sure were

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made aware of the views expressed at the conference. I was gratified--although, given that we are internationally vulnerable, slightly alarmed--to hear someone from the International Chamber of Commerce say that, of the 130 countries whose programmes she had studied, not only was the United Kingdom much the best prepared, but the British Government had done much more than any other Government to prepare.

In answer to the string of issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised, I tell him that every Department and agency has stated that its business-critical system-checking programmes will be completed and that business-critical systems will be rectified, tested and back in service by 31 December 1999.


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