HC Deb 02 December 1998 vol 321 cc902-16 4.38 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

Since the previous quarterly review, which I announced on 9 September, we have continued to monitor closely the progress that is being made by Departments and agencies in tackling the millennium bug. We have also taken steps to improve the quality of information about those key parts of the wider public sector which, for the first time, we included in the review last time. I have arranged for all completed questionnaires to be placed in the Library of the House and published on the internet.

The Government are leading by example in making public our plans, and our openness on the issue has been much welcomed by business and other organisations that need to prepare for the bug themselves.

It is important to recognise that the millennium bug is not simply an information technology issue, but has to be approached and managed as a business issue—a threat to every organisation's ability to deliver its core services and carry out its core functions. Failures in external suppliers or partners could have an impact on Departments and agencies, and that needs to be recognised and taken into account in planning for 2000.

Over the past quarter, we have been placing increasing emphasis on business continuity, including supply chain issues and contingency planning. To reinforce the importance of the issue, I have asked all Departments to ensure that they have initial business continuity plans, including contingency plans, in place by January 1999.

Slightly more than a year has passed since the Government first published details of Departments' and agencies' plans for tackling the bug, and this is the fourth quarterly review of those plans. It is clear that steady and determined progress is being made by the Government as a whole in tackling the bug, particularly in respect of business-critical systems. The overall cost estimate remains stable at about £400 million.

Three quarters of Departments and agencies have now completed 50 per cent. or more of the necessary correction work on business-critical IT systems. That figure is up from half the Departments and agencies in the last quarter. Two fifths have completed 90 per cent. or more of the work, which doubles the figure for the last quarter. I am pleased in particular by the quality of the programmes and the progress of the Department of Social Security, the Department for Education and Employment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. I am encouraged that a number of the smaller agencies are reporting completion of all the necessary correction and testing of their business-critical IT systems.

Despite the generally good progress that is being made across central Government, and the overall quality of Departments' year 2000 programmes, the review has highlighted a few organisations that have individual systems with late completion dates or whose targets have slipped. They are the Medicines Control Agency, the Inland Revenue, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and the Departments of Finance and Personnel and Health and Social Services within the Northern Ireland Office. I have written to colleagues to raise these concerns.

In view of the importance of the armed forces to national security and the wider public interest, their rectification programmes are a particular priority. It is vital that the progress made to date be sustained.

The last review highlighted concern about progress in tackling problems in telecommunications and embedded systems. Considerable progress has been made in those areas over the past quarter, and almost all Departments and agencies have now completed their inventories of these systems. The target completion dates for work on business-critical telecommunications systems are now comparable to those for critical IT systems in most Departments. However, the target completion dates for critical embedded systems are slightly later on average, mainly because of the difficulty in identifying all vulnerable systems, and the reliance of Departments on suppliers to provide solutions. I shall be raising this issue with colleagues.

In most cases, Departments and agencies have also had assessments of their year 2000 programmes carried out by their own internal auditors. Some of the larger Departments—for example, the Department of Social Security and the Ministry of Defence—have also used independent external consultants as a further check.

I am reassured that there is little evidence of a serious, widespread IT skills shortage across central Government. Only nine of the 80 returns reported skills shortages, and those were smaller agencies on the whole. A number of Departments have taken practical steps to retain staff where necessary, in the form of a recruitment and retention allowance.

There has been real progress in tackling supply chain issues. A large majority of Departments have now identified and contacted their key suppliers, and report an improved level of response from their suppliers.

Over the last quarter, we have also been working with organisations within the wider public sector to improve the quality of information in their returns. I am particularly pleased with the returns for the BBC, British Nuclear Fuels, and the police and fire services, which give us a far more accurate picture of preparations in these key areas. The returns for British Nuclear Fuels, the BBC, the Civil Aviation Authority, including National Air Traffic Services, London Transport, the Bank of England, and the Post Office show that all are continuing to make good progress.

The Environment Agency has a key role in flood defence and pollution prevention and control. The agency is particularly dependent on embedded systems, but its current return shows that work on two of its critical systems is not scheduled to be completed until the second half of 1999. This is a cause for concern, and I have written to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to raise this issue.

Reports by police forces in England and Wales show that, on the whole, progress is satisfactory. However, in a number of cases, completion of work on business-critical systems is not expected before the last quarter of 1999. The Home Office will be working with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Information Technology Organisation to see to what extent these target dates could be brought forward. In addition to the cumulative report that we are publishing today, each force is also publishing today its response to our questionnaire on the United Kingdom police website. Police forces in Scotland are also making satisfactory progress, and all work on business-critical systems should be completed by the end of the third quarter 1999. ACPO Scotland will be publishing the returns from individual forces on its website.

Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services has set up a task group to lead work in addressing the bug throughout the service and to ensure that brigades take the necessary action. It will urgently address the needs of those brigades that are giving the most cause for concern. Fire brigades in Scotland are well advanced and all compliance work should be completed in good time.

The details of the most recent quarterly monitoring returns from all NHS trusts and health authorities in England are being published on the internet today. The returns show that steady progress continues throughout the NHS as a whole. However, the review also showed that a few trusts and authorities are lagging behind in their preparations for the bug. Again, that causes concern and is being followed up urgently by the NHS Executive regional offices.

The estimated cost of dealing with the year 2000 problem in the NHS now stands at about £320 million, a slight increase on the previous quarter's estimate of £310 million. The NHS in Scotland and Wales is also making satisfactory progress. Quarterly reports of progress throughout the Scottish health service are available on the Scottish Health website.

The results of the latest NHS review are consistent with the Audit Commission's recent analysis of progress throughout the NHS, which was published on 11 November and entitled "Time Marches On." The Audit Commission's report commented that many NHS organisations have made "significant progress" over the past six months, but noted that a small number were lagging behind.

The Audit Commission also reported on the progress of local government throughout England and Wales in "Time Marches On." That is expanded on in analysis that it published today as part of this quarterly report. It shows that, although authorities that were already making steady progress are continuing to catch up on the benchmark, the proportion of authorities that have not completed an inventory of their IT and embedded systems is unchanged from the previous statement.

That is a source of considerable concern. The Local Government Association and Local Government Management Board have increased their efforts to engage local authorities at all levels through regional meetings and guidance. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will discuss with them and the Audit Commission how best to target assistance to areas that are the highest priority and where the greatest difficulties are being experienced, particularly as shown in the report on district councils. The appointment of a full-time year 2000 co-ordinator by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in October is helping to ensure that Scottish local authorities are making consistent progress.

Looking at the overall picture, I believe that good progress continues to be made throughout central government and the wider public sector in tackling the millennium bug. However, I have identified a number of areas where there are key concerns. The Government will pursue progress rigorously in those areas over the coming quarter.

The Government continue to take the millennium bug extremely seriously. Little over a year remains until the century date change and we will maximise our use of the remaining time to ensure that we are in the best possible shape to meet the millennium. We have pursued that objective since we took office; we will continue to do so.

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: The public sector is in trouble. It has been slow to get to grips with this and now is forced to engage in damage limitation. 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: by treating this as an emergency, we can make Britain one of the world's best prepared countries". 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: Only 'minimum functionality' will be available … around the turn of the century. Some would say that under the Foreign Secretary, that would be business as usual—but we expect better and so do the public.

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 a dismayingly flippant approach to the problem 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 bug busters 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 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 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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 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 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, 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.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House has spoken of a greater emphasis on contingency planning. My constituency is close to Manchester airport, so I am well aware that contingency planning is not adequate to deal with air traffic control. Can she give some assurance to my constituents and any others who might be affected that air traffic control procedures will not be tested by aircraft having to experience difficulties in 2000 but will be certified as safe before then?

Mrs. Beckett

As I have said, all Departments and Government agencies have said that they expect to be millennium ready. We are in constant contact with organisations such as the CAA and the national air transport system, and they are sharing their preparations and plans with us. We are continuing to monitor the situation. The organisations' preparations are well regarded, but no one is complacent and we are continuing to put information in the public domain.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

References have already been made to the concerns of the Secretary of State for Scotland about the effect of cuts in the Territorial Army on its ability to deliver emergency services in the event of any disruption. Is it wise to make any reductions in preparedness for civil difficulties caused by the millennium bug, when the Leader of the House is, understandably, not in a position to give us a guarantee that there will be no disruption to public services?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to stray into the territory of the strategic defence review and its aftermath. which I fear I am disinclined to do. Of course we will have the normal contingency planning in place. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had extensive discussions with the contingency planners and intends, heroically, at no little personal sacrifice, to be on standby on the key night; but the whole thrust of our work and programme is to try to ensure that there is so little material disruption to public services that there is no need to call on contingency services.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In her list of prime culprits, the Leader of the House omitted to mention the Department of Trade and Industry. The Taskforce 2000 report, published on 11 November, said: We were critical of this Department's plans in our last analysis and remain so … less than half of the progress to be made on business critical IT by September has in fact been made. Is that slow progress not attributable to the fact that the present political management of the Department of Trade and Industry is even worse than that of the immediate past?

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly cannot countenance for a second any criticism of my successor, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is doing an excellent job.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What about your predecessors?

Mrs. Beckett

Even less do I criticise them.

Yet again, we are relying on the analysis—if one can call it that—of Taskforce 2000. It is certainly true that the DTI has encountered more work than was initially anticipated, and that is entirely consistent with what is happening elsewhere in the public and private sectors. That has been the forecast for some time, but the Department is still on course to meet its declared deadline of April 1999 for business-critical IT. The estimated completion dates for embedded systems and telecommunications, for example, are deliberately cautious, so they should be well founded.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I welcome the sober and systematic approach of the President of the Council in her statement, which contrasts with those who seem to want to predict the coming of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse creating attendant panic. Does she agree that people who make statements suggesting that hard-working IT staff in the public sector have not dealt professionally with the issue are insulting those staff? In a spirit of sober analysis of the problems, may I draw her attention to the new national insurance recording system, which has a potential late delivery date of 31 October 1999, as some of the recent deliveries of systems by the private sector to the Department of Social Security have faced a few small problems in implementation?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and his understanding of the issues. I am aware of some of the problems that have occurred, but I am sure that he is aware that independent analysis of the work of the Department of Social Security has suggested that it is going well. I suspect that his point is slightly different, because the Department has had problems with its computer systems in the past, but it has done much work on them recently.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Given that one company, Unilever, has estimated that the costs to it alone of the millennium bug will be £300 million, is the right hon. Lady satisfied with her estimate that the cost to the entire national health service will be only £320 million

Mrs. Beckett

We are saying that that is the further cost as we see it now. I am familiar with the work of Unilever and impressed by it. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Prime Minister's adviser on the matter is Dr. Anderson, who was in charge of millennium compliance at Unilever. He has brought a wealth of experience and information to the issue, including the basis of the observation which I made earlier that it is now clear that we should all have started work on the matter much earlier. That is partly why I am happy to recognise a general responsibility for the problem: it does not lie in one quarter rather than another. Under Dr. Anderson's overall supervision, we continue to monitor, probe and assess the cost to various Departments, and we hope and believe that we have the measure of it. We may see some small increase, and that has been the experience over time at Unilever, but as we get closer to the date change our confidence in the accuracy of the financial predictions should strengthen.