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Millennium Compliance

6.22 p.m.

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:

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My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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6.27 p.m.

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.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is aiming for the end of September 1999. One likes to think that it is not that important these days, but that timescale is

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dilatory. The Treasury is aiming for the end of March 1999 with an estimated cost of only £100,000. Given how crucial the Treasury is, that is unacceptable. I cannot see why it cannot hasten that timescale a great deal. The Valuation Office of the Inland Revenue has given a date of the end of 1999. A day's slippage on that will put it into the black hole. Presumably it is being careless about this because the Valuation Office deals with taxpayers rather than the rest of government. Again, that cannot be acceptable. As I say, the Ministry of Defence, which faces the bulk of this problem--over half of it--seems to be doing well. The Office for National Statistics appears to be pretty dilatory, too. One way or another, there are some individual departments within this schedule which will bear watching.

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.

6.34 p.m.

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.

Last year I asked a number of questions of the previous government as to how matters were progressing. I received suitably bland responses from

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them. Having looked at the documents which accompany the Statement, I, too, am worried about the anxieties which have been expressed on costs and timescales. I shall not go into them in such detail as the previous speaker but I wonder whether the costs have been reasonably assessed. I have heard costs suggested of a greater order of magnitude.

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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