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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Statement is as follows:
"The problem is widely understood to pose serious and potentially catastrophic hazards in all organisations, in both public and private sectors, in every country worldwide. It affects mainframe and personal computers and any device containing a microprocessor chip that manipulates dates, including telephone equipment, lifts, air conditioning, lighting, clocks, timers and control equipment.
"Checking and where necessary correcting every system is a detailed, laborious process, and there is a fixed deadline for its completion. My right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade is leading efforts to raise awareness of this urgent problem throughout the private sector.
"The principal responsibility for ensuring that systems are millennium compliant rests with individual departments. They are also responsible for ensuring that organisations in the wider public service sectors that they sponsor have the necessary guidance and information. My role is to co-ordinate activity in central government, assess progress and provide guidance. The Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency in my department has produced comprehensive guidance for departments on how to deal with the problem. This is available publicly.
"Immediately after taking office I asked to receive, as soon as possible after 1st October, detailed and costed plans, showing how the departments and agencies were tackling the problem. My officials have now analysed those plans. On the basis of those plans I am now able to confirm that all departments and agencies have work in hand and scheduled for completion in time--many by December 1998, the majority by March 1999 and a small number later in 1999. Some departments will, in general, give priority to correcting business critical systems and may leave systems of minor importance until later.
"The total estimated cost indicated in the plans is just over £370 million. Most of this will be spent in the current and next two financial years. That is less than some estimates but is based on careful calculation by departments and their advisers, and I have no reason to believe that it is not of the right order. But this is something that Ministers and I will monitor carefully.
"The Government's policy is that the cost will be met from within planned allocations, and the evidence from the plans is that almost 97 per cent. is so covered. Many costs will be accommodated in maintenance and system replacement budgets. In some cases, departments will bring forward investment plans and adjust their priorities.
"Guidance published by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency asked departments to consider whether staff shortages would inhibit progress. The plans as a whole do not suggest that this is a serious problem at present, but I shall keep a close watch on this. I have written to departments asking for further clarification and will ensure that that will be covered specifically in subsequent reports.
"Overall, my assessment is that we have established the measure of the problem and set in hand plans which are realistic and achievable. But the bulk of the actual remedial or replacement work is yet to be done, the timetable is tight and there is little margin for error. This is the challenge. The programme needs continuous monitoring, and I shall be checking progress regularly and report to the House on a quarterly basis starting next spring.
"It is also my intention that we should be open about the scale of the problem and our progress in dealing with it. I am therefore arranging for all the departmental reports to be placed in the Library of the House and published on the Internet; and I shall ensure that progress reports are also made available on a regular basis.
"Finally, I can announce today that we are re-inforcing and strengthening our effort in two significant ways. First, a ministerial group is being set up, under my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, to drive forward action to tackle the year 2000 problem across the public and private sectors. I shall be a member of that group, chairing a sub-group which will co-ordinate and drive forward the action for which central government departments and agencies are responsible.
"Secondly, we have asked Don Cruickshank, the chairman of Action 2000, to re-inforce this effort across both the public and private sectors by keeping in close touch with the ministerial group and advising on best practice from the private sector.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement in this House. It is a Statement which I think I can say I welcome unreservedly. I personally have always called it the "millennium bug", but perhaps that invites confusion with Peter Mandelson, so the "millennium bomb" will have to do.
I am delighted that the Government are not just concentrating on their own problems but are taking in those faced by the private sector, and our economy as a result of the problems that the private sector faces. It seems akin to a public health problem: it is something from which we are all likely to suffer. If we do not do something about it generally, we may suffer serious national damage; and even if we do do something, we will expect individual companies to die, and unless we are careful people may also die. I am delighted to see that the Government are treating the issue with the seriousness demonstrated by the Statement. I am also delighted that they are showing realism as regards the extent and difficulty of the problem; that they are committed to openness; and that they are committed to a wholehearted participative approach by government and by senior people within government.
I have a few concerns which arise principally from the list appended to the back of the Statement setting out details regarding individual departments. It seems to me that some departments which are planning to be ready in March 1999, like the Employment Service, are likely to have substantial problems which may well cause great disruption. Any slippage from those dates will give us great cause for concern. I hope that the noble Lord can confirm that those target dates will be monitored carefully and that before the next report is made to Parliament--I understand that will be next spring--there will be some checking up on the reality of those target dates to make sure that they are not slipping and that the key services will be covered as it would cause a great deal of disruption if they went down at the end of 1999, or indeed perhaps earlier in 1999, as the millennium dates start to be entered into the computer systems.
It seems to me doubtful whether it is satisfactory that the Coastguard Agency, which has direct responsibility for human life, is waiting until mid-1999 to deal with its problems when a sum of £100,000 only is involved. They could surely be dealt with much faster than that. The Department of Social Security is waiting until September 1999 to deal with many of its systems. That allows little time for slippage. It should follow the example of the Ministry of Defence which is responsible for a great many more computer systems than the Department of Social Security, and which expects to get everything done by January 1999. That allows reasonable time for slippage with systems of that scale. I do not believe that the social security timescale allows for that. One must expect, from what it predicts, that there will be some disasters and some great inconveniences flowing from that.
I have one or two suggestions on which I should like to hear the Government's reaction. First, the Government will in the course of all these investigations discover a number of concrete examples of where the millennium bug would have caused problems. I hope that they will undertake to publish details of these in a central and easily accessible form so that people who fear that their similar systems may be affected can see the extent of the problem and what kind of systems are being infected. They may turn out to be publicly available programmes which have been bought by many people in the private sector. It is difficult for private sector enterprises to admit to this kind of fault. The Government have been courageously open about this. I hope that they will make their openness more accessible and individuals will not have to look through the individual reports of 100 or so different departments and agencies to find out what systems have gone wrong, if indeed--and it is not clear from the Statement--the reporting would extend to that.
Secondly, I hope that when they report next spring we shall have some indication from the Government whether they are satisfied with the progress being made in the major private systems which could have a major effect on the economy of this country. One thinks of telecommunications, banking and similar systems. I hope that the Government will be in touch with the major enterprises in those areas to assure themselves that those enterprises are not likely to cause problems for us all. I hope that they will also be able to cover such areas as the National Health Service--where there is a potential for severe threat to life--local authorities, fire and police, all of which must be facing problems in this area, and none of which are covered by this Statement. As a whole I welcome the Statement and congratulate the Government on it.
Lord Methuen: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I take a personal interest in this problem as I was one of the instigators of the problem some 20 years ago when I was writing programmes when there was a different cultural climate in the computer industry to that of today.
I believe that one of the major problems will be the lack of people with appropriate skills who are available to tackle this problem. Many of the systems involved are so-called "legacy systems" which were written many years ago. They used different computer languages and they used different people, many of whom, like myself, have now retired. There is a major problem in finding those with the skill base to tackle modern systems let alone these older systems with the amount of work that is involved. When one couples that with the amount of work that will be required to introduce EMU into the City systems, one sees there is a real shortage of skilled personnel to carry out that work in the timescale that is envisaged both for EMU and for tackling the millennium bug.
A major problem is posed by systems that no one knows anything about such as the "embedded systems" with micro processors which control all kinds of process plant. Again, many of those are ancient systems and the firms which created them may have gone out of business. Records may be scarce and there is also the question of having the resources to mend these systems. I think in particular of the air traffic control systems which I believe are largely now being replaced in this country but are perhaps more of a problem in other countries. There is a major difficulty in that area.
I believe that the private sector is a disaster area. Figures have been suggested of the order of £30 billion. Some firms, such as that which I used to work for, Rolls-Royce, were considering this problem seven or eight years ago. At that time its costs, on my reckoning, were something in the order of £1 million. Many firms are nothing like as advanced in their consideration. As the millennium approaches, we shall see more and more private sector firms in a catastrophic state.
The Minister has said nothing about local government. The same problems apply there. The previous Government suggested that systems would be available to local government to help support their conversion costs. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. Perhaps the Minister will also comment on the skills and resources that the Government think are available countrywide to meet these requirements. It has been said that one should not fly between 30th December 1999 and 2nd January 2000. We generally welcome this Statement. I hope that the Government's figures are accurate both as regards timescales and costs.
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