HC Deb 08 July 1998 vol 315 cc1057-9
4. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

What assessment he has made of the relative preparedness of Government Departments and agencies in respect of millennium compliance. [47922]

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

The results of the June quarterly review show that central Government are making good progress in achieving millennium compliance, although greater attention needs to be paid to embedded systems and to telecommunication systems. Departments have typically completed about 30 per cent. of the necessary correction work and 25 per cent. of their testing. On the whole, departmental plans have remained stable since the first review in March and all Departments now have target dates for completion of work on critical systems.

Fiona Mactaggart

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his continuing review of the matter and his openness about it. However, I should like to press a matter that I have raised with him before, which is using agencies, where appropriate agencies exist, to ensure the proper preparedness of different parts of the public service. I am especially concerned about the role that the Medical Devices Agency could play in providing a centralised test of different pieces of equipment used within the health service, so as to stop different parts of the health service and different health service trusts repeating each other's work. Will he give me an assurance on that?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend has raised this matter on a previous occasion and it is a pertinent point. The whole issue of the national health service has caused some concern in the House and, during our recent debate on it, I expressed my concern at the fact that there are still gaps in the national health service and local government—a view supported by the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission. Since that time, the NHS executive has completed its own review, which is more encouraging. It shows that satisfactory progress is being made in over 90 per cent. of NHS organisations. I am still concerned about the other 10 per cent. I shall draw the attention of the NHS executive to the specific point raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Is it not the case that, on this unique issue, no one can really say—not even the Government—how well we shall be prepared to respond to the problems until the first midnight of the new millennium? Is it not essential that we have contingency plans prepared, put in place and tested well before the end of next year?

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman is, as always on this issue, absolutely correct. We shall probably not have to wait until 1 January 2000 because various other dates, such as 9 September 1999, will trigger difficulties. We need contingency plans in place and that is why the Government have established MISC4 and MISC4(P) to look at those issues and to try to ensure that there are contingency plans across both the private and the public sectors because one interrelates with the other.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look again at something that I have suggested before, which is a practice on a Saturday or Sunday where we could take 10 per cent. of public services, wind the clocks forward and test the embedding technology? I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has evaluated that. Can he comment further?

Dr. Clark

We are looking at that proposal. It may not be possible to do that in every Department, but we believe that there may be opportunities in certain sections to try that experiment. It is something which we are trying to evaluate now.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Is the Chancellor in a position to guarantee that at least the public utilities such as water, the sewerage system, electricity and so on will continue to work? If not, when will he be?

Dr. Clark

We are discussing those very issues in the Cabinet Committees dealing with the matter. We have papers by the week from the various Departments and the territorial Departments which explain how the public utility suppliers are trying to cope. We must consider the interrelationship between the public utility suppliers and the contingency plans that will be necessary because, if one fails, they will almost certainly all fail. We are taking this seriously and there are almost weekly meetings of Cabinet Ministers looking at the matter, and getting the best advice possible.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The situation in the NHS is still worrying, with perhaps 10 per cent. of projects behind schedule. How will the Minister ensure that the people responsible are held to account, because accountability is an essential part of any meaningful target setting? Has the right hon. Gentleman persuaded the Prime Minister that, in the interests of accountability, he should remain as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster until the millennium so that he can be held to account?

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point about accountability, and nobody has a monopoly of knowledge in that sphere. I hope that every hon. Member will take it upon herself or himself to ensure that they are confident that their local health trust is following the course of action outlined in the excellent document by the Audit Commission entitled, "A Stitch in Time". We have set in place a template for the national organisation—the national health service—with its millennium project to try to deal with the outstanding issues. We also need action at local trust level. I urge hon. Members to assure themselves that their constituents are being satisfied and protected in this respect.

Forward to