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Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Having worked in the information technology industry for 20 years, I get very depressed when I hear unfounded comments. Some of the Cassandra-like comments that have been made about impending doom are not helpful, particularly when there is a serious problem. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are other key dates in 1999, starting with 1 January, that are just as critical? I used to programme things that finished on 9 September 1999 as the end of the record; in other words, we could shut down on 9 September 1999 and wake up again on 1 January 2000.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most likely scenario is not a major problem, but such a volume of minor individual problems that the help desk and emergency officers cannot cope? What is my right hon. Friend doing to counter that and give support to help desks? What are local authorities doing to prepare for that scenario?

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose comments are more informed than those of others might be. He is right to say that there is more than one critical date in 1999. I take some comfort from that, because it means that those small and medium businesses that continue to ignore the problem as if it will go away, despite everyone's best efforts, should have their minds concentrated as the effects of other dates are reported.

I also share my hon. Friend's view that all that we can be confident of seeking to deliver is an assurance that there will be no material disruption of public services and that the public will be inconvenienced as little as possible. We should have no credibility if we pretended that we could ensure that nothing would go wrong, particularly as Britain is an open economy and a nation that trades internationally.

My hon. Friend may be right in saying that many small matters will go wrong. We are trying to encourage all organisations to identify their areas of greatest vulnerability and to put in place contingency plans for the unforeseen impact of the millennium date change. My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that the problem is more complex than it sometimes seems, but I hope that it is less sinister.

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham): I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for her courtesy in letting me see it beforehand. I compliment her on the vigour with which she is tackling the millennium problem, which many have identified as a serious matter. I thank her for her candour in identifying areas that have worrying delays, particularly in local government and NHS trusts.

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Does the right hon. Lady recall that the Science and Technology Committee produced a report on the issue about a year ago? We commented that the Government expected local government, the NHS and other public services to find the money to fix the millennium bug from existing budgets and were not giving additional funding. With time running out and some delays having been identified, will she talk to her friends in the Cabinet and impress on her colleagues that emergency extra funding may be necessary, particularly for local government--perhaps through extra capital allowances?

To ensure that vital public services remain running at the start of the millennium, will the right hon. Lady have a word with the electricity generators and distributors and the insurance companies before her next quarterly statement? I have heard reports that some companies have found that their insurers will not insure them for their electricity supply over the relevant period. That was brought to my attention by Bird's Eye Walls, which will have tonnes of ice cream stuck in deep-freezes and will want to keep it cold.

Will the right hon. Lady also try to encourage the media not to pick up on scaremongering stories which are not helpful? The last thing that we want at the millennium is for people to panic and everybody to try to take money out of a hole in the wall or fill up the car with petrol. There may not be enough notes in circulation or refined petrol onshore for everyone to do that.

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I am familiar with the report that was published some time ago by the Committee on which he serves. He will appreciate that, since then, taking account of that report and other matters, the Government have completed their comprehensive spending review and allocated substantial extra resources to public services, including the health service and local government.

I welcome informed comment and helpful advice. We also picked up on the most recent Public Accounts Committee report and followed its suggestion that Departments should produce initial contingency plans by January 1999. We are certainly willing to take useful advice on these matters.

We are talking to the electricity generators. More important, we have encouraged suppliers of the key services to talk to one another, although that has taken a great deal of effort from Action 2000 and involved a great deal of time. When we began working on the problem, the main difficulty was that many key organisations and companies, perhaps on the advice of their lawyers, were refusing to reveal their plans, despite being dependent on one another. Through the infrastructure forum, we have finally begun to overcome that major problem.

My understanding is that most insurance companies--although there may be some specialists--will not offer cover on the millennium date change impact itself, which, they reasonably argue, is a foreseeable contingency. However, if one is insured against a freezer going down but that happens as a result of the date change, any loss may still be covered. It is important that people identify and seek to rectify any insurance problems, as I am sure happened in the example that the hon. Gentleman gave.

I whole-heartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman's final remark. We must strike a difficult balance. We want key people in major--or minor--organisations to take

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seriously their responsibilities for the continuity of the core services and businesses that they supply; they should not think that they can leave to the IT people what is a business continuity and management issue. If people panic, however, that will bring about the dangers that we are trying to avoid. A rather alarming statistic is floating about: if, across the world, about 6 per cent. of people try to take money out of the banks, a financial crisis could be precipitated. There is no need for such a crisis, so that is another important message.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Given her engineering background, my right hon. Friend is better placed than most of us to understand the importance of the issue for the nuclear industry. I refer her to the written answer given on 19 October in column 1015 by my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry on the software reliability unit headed by Professor Bev Littlewood and the proposals that it was to make to the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee. Has the unit come to any conclusions?

What is being done about the terrible problems in eastern Europe? For example, there are terrible, scary stories that Smolensk in Kozlodoy--which has close relations with our nuclear industry--has a very relaxed attitude. Moreover, has anyone asked any searching questions about what is happening in the Soviet Arctic fleet? We are all going to suffer--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am having some difficulty in relating what the hon. Gentleman says to the matter before us.

Mr. Dalyell: The question whether we have responsibilities--with our technical expertise in terms of the millennium bug--to do something about eastern Europe and developing countries has been raised. I ask a general question: are we looking after our own self-interest by trying to help them?

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I do not have the answer to his detailed question, but he may find that someone has that information at DTI questions tomorrow; otherwise, my hon. Friend can ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry to write to him.

My hon. Friend's example about the concern in the nuclear industry is a good one in terms of highlighting the fact that we should be sensible and responsible in terms of ensuring proper compliance, but not foolish. The Taskforce 2000 report, to which the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) referred, said that BNFL's programme provided no useful information and no basis for confidence. However, that judgment was made on the first return for the wider public sector bodies, and the company has now provided more substantial information.

The key issue is that BNFL's compliance strategy has been approved by all nuclear safety committees, and has been accepted by the nuclear installations inspector. We are doing everything we can. The Health and Safety Commission considers that the reports reveal a generally satisfactory position, but the HSC is keeping its evidence under review.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the wider impact of this problem across the world--something of which we are very mindful--and we have striven with might and

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main to raise the issue in international forums. We did so when we held the presidency of the EU, and we have continued to do so in the presidency of the G8. Our embassies and contacts across the world have been urged to raise the matter with the Governments of the countries concerned, and some of the pressure seems to be getting through. In particular, in eastern Europe there seemed to be an initial assumption that, because the countries operated on different dates, they might be unaffected. However, the information technology does not necessarily operate in that way.


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