HC Deb 04 February 1998 vol 305 cc1029-31
1. Mr. Ian Bruce

What progress is being made in tackling the millennium computer problem within Government Departments. [25355]

4. Mr. Sutcliffe

If he will make a statement on the progress being made by Government Departments to address the millennium computer compliance problem. [25359]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)

Following my statement to the House on 27 November 1997, I made note of the comments raised by hon. Members, and wrote to the Departments and agencies responsible for further information on skills shortages, embedded systems and contingency plans, which were hon. Members' key worries. Those responses have now been received, and they have been placed in the Library of the House and published on the internet. So far, I have published more than 1,600 pages on the internet and that is in line with the open process of public scrutiny which I began in November. In addition, last week my ministerial group on the millennium date change problem relating to central Government held its first, very positive, meeting and further action will arise from that.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that full reply. He probably knows that early-day motion 661 congratulates the Government on the open way in which they are tackling the millennium problem, but I am somewhat sad to have to say that I am thinking of removing my name from that early-day motion because of the lack of clarity. We keep being told that more and more committees are being set up—first, it is the Prime Minister, then it is the President of the Board of Trade and then it is the right hon. Gentleman himself—but we do not really know what is going on. Will he start to put some oomph behind this issue and, instead of dismantling what was there previously, get on with the job, get it done and try to make people feel that both the Government and business will be ready on time?

Dr. Clark

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not withdraw his name, because he does pay tribute to the Government's openness in their approach to the problem. No one should be complacent, but equally, we must not be alarmist. We must work towards meeting the millennium deadline and that is the Government's objective. We will work in an open way across central Government, which is my responsibility, across Government Departments, which have responsibility for various other organisations, and across private industry. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is no use central Government getting it right if private industry has not got it right.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Is it not the case that the current Government are being far more decisive on this issue than were the previous Government? It is right and proper that the information is publicised in the way it has been. Does not the fact that the documents are published every three months show the Government's commitment to open government?

Dr. Clark

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Clearly, the year 2000 problem needs constant monitoring. I am determined to make sure that the Government keep a good grip on the issues and that we report fully to the House of Commons. By publishing the detailed departmental estimates, we are being as open as possible so that everyone can see the state of play. As I promised, I have written to my ministerial colleagues asking for their three-monthly update and, as soon as I have received that information and my officials have looked at it, we shall report it to the House.

Mr. David Atkinson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that computer systems in the public sector—crucially, in some hospitals—failed to recognise the date of 29 February 1996, a leap year, which caused problems? Has he taken account of that experience in his strategy towards the millennium compliance of computer systems in the public sector to ensure that in the year 2000, which is also a leap year, we do not experience similar problems?

Dr. Clark

We are aware of the manifold problems arising from the millennium 2000. The date of 29 February 1996 was not the only one to cause problems; the date of 9 September 1999 will be another. I am writing to my ministerial colleagues with responsibility for public services asking them if they will write to their relevant local authorities, national health service organisations and other public bodies to try to ensure that they carry out an inventory and audit of their progress similar to the one that we are conducting at central Government level.

Mr. Miller

Whether or not the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) withdraws his name from early-day motion 661, when my right hon. Friend receives the report from his Cabinet colleagues, will he ask them to look carefully at the spirit of the motion, which was tabled with all-party support, as they prepare the next batch of reports? Departments could make some serious progress if they followed the spirit of that motion.

Dr. Clark

I thank my hon. Friend for tabling the early-day motion and I thank the hon. Members who signed it. It pays tribute to the open way in which the Government have approached the subject. I have drawn it to the attention of my colleagues; it is important because it raises awareness of the millennium 2000 problem, which applies not only to central Government, but to other public bodies and private industry.

Mrs. Gillan

Notwithstanding the new-found letter-writing skills of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Government can hardly be proud of their slothful and inadequate progress on the millennium problem, as the right hon. Gentleman has made only one statement in nine months and the ministerial committee only bothered to hold its first meeting the week before last. More alarming is the fact that it is now evident that businesses and industry are revising their costings upwards daily and that the Government still have no idea of the final costs of finding a solution to the millennium problem. With fewer than 90 working weeks until the millennium, can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he can solve the problem in time? How much will it cost? On what basis has he made his costings? Where is the money coming from?

Dr. Clark

That question comes a bit rich from a representative of the Conservative party, which left this Government with no plans whatsoever to deal with the millennium 2000 problem. When I took over my portfolio in May, one of the first things I did was to ask about the problem; I found that nothing had been prepared.

To respond to the question, we have published 1,600 pages of the detailed report on how central Government Departments are tackling the problem. I challenged the information technology industry in this country to trawl through those documents, to make an analysis and to try to identify any shortcomings in central Government plans. Not a single response has been received from private industry or from the hon. Lady on where we are going wrong. We are being open with the House; the figures are available and will be updated. They may vary as time goes on, but the key issue is not to try to score points, but to ensure that we meet the millennium deadline in the year 2000.