Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. White indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett: I see that my hon. Friend agrees. The IT does not necessarily operate in terms of different dates, and that has now been brought home to those countries.

We are seeking not only to raise the matter internationally, but to make contributions--and to encourage others to make contributions--towards tackling the problem. On last hearing--a couple of weeks ago--we were, I am sorry to say, the only country in the world to have contributed to a World bank fund geared towards helping developing countries to solve the problem. We put £10 million into the fund, and we are encouraging other states to do the same.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Some of us understand why the Leader of the House would not want to make a statement that tended to further the growing anxiety about the problem. However, I hope that in future she will strive to sound less complacent than she did this afternoon. Given that she has wisely started to refer to the need for Government Departments and agencies to develop contingency plans against any possible failures, will the right hon. Lady undertake today to gather those contingency plans together and publish them by Easter next year, so that there can be wide consultation on them before decisions have to be made on how to deal with whatever failures occur?

Mrs. Beckett: First, I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's acceptance that we must strike the right note. However, I reject totally his suggestion that the note that I struck was complacent. The many concerns that we have expressed could not in any way be said to support that. As a prominent member of the previous Government, the right hon. Gentleman should be as aware as anybody that we have substantially increased the programme of work that we inherited from them.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we had begun to refer to contingency plans. We have done so for the very good reason that, although we have always understood the need--and warned of that need--for contingency planning, it was right to put more emphasis on tackling problems that could be solved. As we get nearer the changeover date--obviously, we continue to press people to take action to solve problems--we recognise that more effort must be put into contingency planning.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would publish the plans by Easter. I said earlier that we have told Departments to draw up initial contingency plans. When we have had a chance to assess them, we will

2 Dec 1998 : Column 912

discuss whether to publish, and how much of the plans we can publish. Our record of openness in this matter is not matched anywhere in the world, and if he goes to the Library or studies the internet he will see the degree of openness that exists, right across the public sector in the UK.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Does my right hon. Friend share my surprise that, out of the tens of thousands of sources throughout the world, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) could find only one from which to derive his information? Is he a chap with a chip on his shoulder?

On a positive note, may I commend to my right hon. Friend the work of the Government office for the north-west and MERIT, which are working hard to try to raise awareness--particularly among the SMEs in the north-west, where there are difficulties? Perhaps such organisations could be used at a regional level to help solve the problems that my right hon. Friend has identified in terms of local authorities.

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is well aware of the importance of the issues. He has good contacts with local authorities and organisations in his area that are seeking to tackle the problem. My hon. Friend the Minister for London and Construction and I attended a conference in London this morning to focus attention on planning across London and, in that context and others, we are working with the Local Government Association to increase awareness and to encourage people to seek help.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): Is the Leader of the House aware that, yesterday, the Assembly of the Western European Union in Paris debated the effect of the millennium bug on European defence and security, and resolved that we could not conclude that the computer systems involved in the defence alliances of the WEU and NATO would be millennium compliant? What discussions are the Government having with our allies to ensure that our collective defence will not be at risk in 395 days' time? Will she confirm that there is no internationally agreed definition of millennium conformity, which seems to be a recipe for disaster when countries and companies do talk to each another on this issue?

Mrs. Beckett: We are continuing to seek to raise awareness internationally of our concerns about the matter and to encourage other Governments to pursue the same proactive stance that we have taken. We are mindful, as are my colleagues in the MOD, of the importance of the issue in terms of operational readiness. We have been encouraging discussion of that matter across international boundaries.

The hon. Gentleman believes that it is alarming that there is no international agreement on what is meant by millennium compliance. I take his point, but all I can say is that that is inevitable. If he took part in the discussion in the WEU, he would be well aware that there is a great disparity of acceptance, understanding and awareness of the issue in the international community. There are those who show all the signs of regarding this as merely something got up by the Anglo-Saxons to embarrass everybody, and they have not been taking it seriously at

2 Dec 1998 : Column 913

all. That highlights the reason why we must take all the precautions and make all the contingency plans that we can--because we are vulnerable in respect of our supply chain.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Tendring district council in my constituency, which yesterday signed up to the Government's commitment to the year 2000 action pledge? Part of that commitment was a commitment to report to the local community every 100 days to show any progress that it had made. Will my right hon. Friend encourage all other local authorities to follow that example?

Mrs. Beckett: I am doubly grateful to my hon. Friend, because he has reminded me of something that I meant to say in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White). I do indeed congratulate Tendring council on signing Pledge 2000. So many valuable initiatives have been taken by Action 2000 that it is hard to pick one out, but that is certainly one.

I referred earlier to the anxiety that existed some time ago when it was impossible to get companies and organisations to talk to each other because of their nervousness about rendering themselves legally vulnerable. The whole idea of the Pledge 2000 programme is that people will undertake to be open with each other, to share information about their operational readiness, to offer advice and to discuss areas of common concern. I whole-heartedly agree with the call for openness. This morning, my hon. Friend the Minister for London and Construction and I told London local authorities that one of the most important things that we could all encourage our local authorities to do was to be open about their plans and preparations.

Mr. Redwood indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett: I am glad that that commands agreement.

If we find that a local authority is not making preparations as we would hope, that in itself will be a useful spur; if we find that it is, that will be a useful reassurance to the local populace. I entirely share the view that openness is key.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I am sure that the Leader of the House will have read with some alarm Cap Gemini's claim that, when the Labour party came to power, Britain was first in the European league table for millennium compliance but that we slipped six months ago to second and are now at eighth. We can all argue about who is to blame, but surely the key problem is that, when people, especially those in the public sector, have checked their systems for compliance, they then need money to put right any problems.

I do not think that a single word was said in the local government settlement about what the fire and police services and all our local councils will have to spend to meet the Government's expectations. Too many organisations have written to their suppliers saying, "We expect your kit to work on 1 January," and then reported to the Government that they have done everything that they need to do for the millennium.

Mrs. Beckett: Of course I am aware of the Cap Gemini survey. I am perfectly happy not to blame anybody,

2 Dec 1998 : Column 914

because viewing with hindsight is easy. I am more than well aware that organisations that have spent a huge amount of time, professional effort and money on the matter believe that planning should have started way back in 1994 and 1995; so if the hon. Gentleman wants me to apportion blame, he should not look at the present Government.

In fact, I do not blame the previous Government, because at that stage nobody anticipated that this would take so long; but it is a bit silly to try to turn this into a party political matter, when we have done far more than our predecessors, starting on the day we were elected.

The Government have substantially increased investment in public services. Indeed, we have been called reckless by the Conservative party. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced only a few moments ago--I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here--the most generous settlement for local authorities for seven years.

Of course we are concerned about the fire and police services. The police and fire inspectorates are working with different organisations, and many detailed arrangements are in place in the police service, for example, involving publication of plans on its website and on that of ACPO.

It is certainly not the case that the Government--or anyone else in this country--will simply accept an assurance that everything will be fine. I cannot say that everything is fine with the Cap Gemini survey. I have no wish to cause any ripples in the Foreign Office pond by naming countries, but we know perfectly well that some of those that are shown on the survey as better prepared than the United Kingdom have done almost nothing to prepare, because they do not believe that there is a problem. That casts some doubt on the reliability of the information in that survey.


Next Section

IndexHome Page