HC Deb 08 June 1998 vol 313 cc716-28 3.57 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement reviewing progress on tackling the millennium computer problem within central Government and the wider public sector.

Since my last report to the House on 3 March, I have conducted a further round of inquiries on Government Departments and their agencies, and I am now also able to give a picture of progress in the wider public sector. I am arranging for the completed questionnaires received from Departments in May—and summaries of them and their reports on wider public sector bodies—to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and published on the internet.

Overall, Departments' plans have remained stable since the March review, and very little change in scope has been found necessary. We can now identify target dates for business-critical systems. Most of the returns show progress in correcting business-critical information technology systems. A few show dates uncomfortably close to the end of 1999, although they do not involve organisations that provide services direct to the public.

The overall target dates, and the completion dates for non-critical systems, have moved by a larger margin. There are still cases in which testing seems to have started without a sufficiently defined strategy, and some plans still contain too little information about embedded systems and telecommunication systems. I am following up those issues with the Departments concerned.

The majority of returns have shown little or no change in the overall cost estimates. Departments are now firming up their estimates, and, although some previously small estimates have increased significantly, the overall costs have increased only slightly—they are now £402 million, compared with £393 million in the last round. Departments expect to meet those costs from their existing IT budgets, and only a minority of returns showed that it was necessary to reallocate funds from other budgets. We do not expect operational budgets to be affected.

A majority of the returns showed that Departments and agencies feel that they have adequate skills to undertake the work, although there is a heavy reliance on out-sourcing and consultants. Although about a third of returns stated that shortages of skilled staff could impact on year 2000 programmes, none of the Departments reported a significant loss of skilled staff owing to the millennium problem—where skilled staff turnover is usually high, there seems to be no difficulty in recruiting new staff. Most of the organisations reporting difficulties are small agencies, but the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office also reported that difficulties were being encountered in some areas.

The returns highlight the fact that a number of Departments and agencies are still experiencing difficulties in securing responses from IT suppliers about product compliance. I am asking all Departments and agencies to continue to press for that information. The returns show that many of the major Departments have conducted a full risk assessment and developed business continuity plans. That is a critical issue for all Departments, and Ministers and I will be monitoring it closely.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has asked me to report on the position there. Baseline plans for the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Departments were published in December 1997. The current quarterly monitoring process shows that Departments are making good progress, and remain on course to meet the deadline of 31 December 1998 for the conversion and testing of systems, although a small number will not be ready until early 1999.

In response to the concerns expressed in the House, the Prime Minister has extended the remit of the ministerial group on the millennium date change, which I chair, to include the wider public sector. It is, of course, the responsibility of the chief executives of the quangos, authorities and trusts to take effective and timely action on the date change problem to ensure that there is no material disruption to the services they provide, and that appropriate contingency plans are in place.

Nevertheless, the House will be concerned that the public sector as a whole continues to operate effectively after the date change; the ministerial group will take a close interest in progress on that. Ministers have for some time been in touch with the key organisations that they sponsor to emphasise the importance of tackling the date change problem and to help with advice and support. I have asked them to report on those organisations, and I have placed a summary of their responses in the Library and on the internet. I am also encouraging all non-departmental public bodies, organisations and other bodies in the wider public sector to publish their plans for millennium compliance.

The quality of the responses varies. They show that all the organisations covered are aware of the problem and are taking action, but there is clearly a long way to go before we have a complete picture. Some of the organisations are small, and the century date change has few, if any, implications for them. However, others—such as the national health service and local authorities—are critical to ensuring a satisfactory continuation of key public services over the millennium; they will need to reassure the public that they will be able to provide those services.

The National Audit Office report published last month stated that the framework for managing the remedial process in the NHS was in place, but that tight control was needed to ensure success. I welcome the NHS executive's statement that the millennium date change problem is its top non-clinical priority; I expect other wider public sector bodies similarly to treat it as a priority. There is not a great deal of time left to put systems in place if progress has so far been slow.

Ministers and I will be paying particular attention to monitoring progress in those key areas and reporting to the House regularly. The best way to reassure us all is for the bodies themselves to keep the public informed of their plans.

The importance of the year 2000 issue is also widely recognised in the European Union. At the meeting of EU Ministers of Public Administration at Lancaster house on 20 May, Ministers agreed to review progress at the next meeting in Vienna and to exchange information on the action that Governments were taking to help ensure continuity of operations in the public and private sectors.

They invited me to take the lead, and I have today started the process by sending the UK's contribution to this exercise to my European colleagues.

Finally, a new team has been formed within the Cabinet Office reporting to me and the President of the Board of Trade. That "year 2000 team" has strengthened arrangements to drive forward action on the date change, both within Government and through working with Action 2000 in the private sector. The reports we have so far show that the message is certainly getting across, and they provide some reassurances that action is being taken. Equally, they show that we cannot afford to let up the pressure, and that we still need to monitor progress closely. That I will certainly do, and I will continue to report to the House on a quarterly basis.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy for making that statement. It is most welcome for a Cabinet Minister to come to the House to explain the truthful position about a worrying problem. However, the content of the statement was extremely worrying. It shows the Government at last becoming concerned about the consequences of their own delays and dithering. They are beginning to see the danger of copying the style of Ethelred the Unready—[HoN. MEMBERS: "What did the Conservatives do?"] We left matters in good order; then this Government wasted more than six months before they realised that they had to get on with the job.

The Chancellor now tells us that some Departments are leaving it very late. He says that some do not know how to tackle embedded systems and telecommunications—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should listen, because this is very serious for the services that they and their constituents will want.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Get back to the planet Zog.

Mr. Redwood

That was an extremely rude remark from a semi-sedentary position, and the hon. Gentleman ought to know better.

Some people do not know which of the products that they own will work. Meanwhile, costs are going up. Most chilling of all, the Chancellor cannot tell us what the position is for the health service and local authorities, or what the position will be in our hospitals and schools come the millennium.

So will the right hon. Gentleman today confirm that, instead of lecturing the private sector further about the dust in its millennium eye, the Government's efforts will now be concentrated on dealing with the log in the public sector's vision? Will he confirm that the total cost for the complete public sector will now be in excess of £3,000 million? Will he tell us how those sums will be found, in particular by the health service and by local authorities, when both are complaining of cuts and inadequate grants? Where will the money come from? What is he going to do about seeing that it is there?

Will the right hon. Gentleman today give us a guarantee that all medical equipment and systems in the national health service will work on 1 January in the year 2000, or will have been replaced in good time before that date? Will he confirm to all pensioners and people relying on housing benefits or on income support and similar payments that all those will be paid to the right people in the right way at the right address after 1 January in the year 2000? Is he able to confirm personally and on behalf of the Government that all schools and colleges—all educational establishments—will be able to function normally on or after 1 January in the year 2000?

In short, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House a millennium guarantee from the Government that the public sector will be up and running on 1 January 2000? This feeble and cautious prevarication of a statement will not do. The House, and the country, deserve something clearer and better—nothing less than a guarantee that all will work.

Dr. Clark

The right hon. Gentleman is right in one sense. The previous Administration left the task in good order: the cupboard was bare, but it was very tidy. They left us with practically no plans to work on, although I concede that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who was the Science Minister, worked hard to interest his colleagues in the issue.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that we had waffled and dithered for a long time. We have just received a report from the National Audit Office, "Managing the Millennium Threat II". The first report came in May 1997, and as soon as I received it, I began to take action. We assessed the situation, and I wrote to Departments. We achieved some movement across Government towards having the issue taken seriously.

We have never lectured the private sector. When it comes to millennium compliance, the private and public sectors will have to work together, and we have tried to work to share experiences. I pay tribute to those in the private sector who have helped us to devise our plans.

The right hon. Gentleman asked two specific questions, the first of which was about the total cost. No one has any idea what that will be for the public sector. However, on 30 March, the Prime Minister announced a major initiative on the millennium bug, and he said that he felt that the current estimate of up to £3 billion was probably as good a guess as any.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the national health service and the Department of Social Security. Let me refer him to the second NAO report, which, regarding the NHS, states on page 6: The framework for managing the remedial programme is now in place but its size and its complexity are such that very tight control will now be required at all levels to ensure success. We accept that, and shall work to ensure success. On the DSS, the report simply says: The Department's approach to project management complies with best practice recommended by CCTA. No one pretends the solution is easy. There is a major problem, which must be tackled, and I am trying to work with the House, as all of us have a responsibility to ensure that this country and its citizens do not suffer when 2000 comes around.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in certain parts of the country, skills shortages and poaching by other firms are causing a problem in the public sector? Does he accept that we are getting close to the date on which that will cause millennium problems, which could come in the autumn of this year? His comment that some programmes may slip into 1999 was worrying; can he assure us that testing will not be squeezed as a result of that slippage?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, because of the actions of the Government, most significant problems have been addressed, and it is not likely that we will hit a major problem on 1 January 2000? What is more likely is that there will be a large number of small problems, none of which individually will be problematic, but all of which taken together may cause serious difficulties. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps that he proposes to take on that? Finally, what steps does he propose to take to help third-world countries for which there will be a major problem?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend has considerable expertise on these matters, and he has poignantly identified the key areas. We are certainly aware that, although there may be no skills shortage today, the problem will become more difficult as we move towards the key date. It was partly for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £100 million in the Budget for improving IT excellence, 30 per cent. of which will go towards trying to tackle the millennium bug.

We are prepared to offer up to £1,300 per trainee for people from small companies and others—companies which may not be critical but which are none the less vital for society's interconnections—to go for training. We have also established MISC 4, a Cabinet Committee completely committed to considering contingency planning and the interrelationship between various aspects of both private and public industry and service providers.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I welcome the Minister's statement, and especially the announcement that his working group's remit will be widened to cover the whole public sector. That is an important, if slightly belated, step in the right direction. Will he confirm that much of the statement—this certainly applies to the figures that it contains—refers simply to central Government Departments rather than to the wider public sector and the public services on which the ordinary citizen depends? We are delighted that ministerial laptops will be working when the new millennium comes, but will the computer systems in Kingston hospital, and indeed in hospitals throughout the country, still be operational?

In response to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the Minister said that the Prime Minister's figure of £3 billion was the Government's best guess. That does not reassure anyone that the Government have a firm grasp of the problem. Can we have a more detailed breakdown of that best-guess figure? Given that national health service trusts were asked to submit their fully costed plans for tackling the millennium bug by the end of March, can the Minister now tell us the total cost of the bug to the NHS?

Given that the Chancellor said that there would be no extra funds to tackle the problem, what impact will there be on waiting lists? Does the Minister accept that widening the remit to cover the wider public sector will be a Canute-like gesture unless it is accompanied by new resources and a new sense of urgency?

Dr. Clark

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I invite him to help me in the task of trying to ensure that his local health authority and trust, and indeed his local authority, can sensibly analyse the position and draw up and publish plans. I happen to believe that right hon. and hon. Members have a responsibility to persuade bodies in their constituencies that are not directly answerable to the House to follow what I regard as a sensible and open approach.

The hon. Gentleman chastised me for having no figures for the national health service. The figures are vague and difficult to collect. The National Audit Office undertook an audit, and—I am speaking from memory—estimated the cost to be more than £200 million to £250 million. I think that it is on the low side, but it was the NAO's best estimate when it published its report about three weeks ago.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's activity on this problem over the past year, and especially his willingness to make quarterly reports. The National Audit Office report makes it clear that Departments and agencies have plans of varying quality, some of which—one hopes that these are from the smaller agencies—amount to no more than one-page letters about what they have done so far. What activity is his Department undertaking to chase up those agencies and Departments with poor-quality plans, and ensure that they will be able to deal with the problem in plenty of time?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend quite rightly draws to our attention the great disparity of preparedness, especially within NHS trusts. The National Audit Office report says: one fifth of the NHS Trusts and Health Authorities thought they would need right up to the end of 1999 to ensure that all their IT systems were year 2000 compliant and 10 per cent of NHS Trusts were not confident that they would achieve this. Frankly, that is not good enough, and I have written to the Secretary of State for Health, who is, of course, in touch with the chief executive of the national health service, to point out that that is not good enough.

We have to ensure that the message on best practice, which the national health service executive is keen to expound, is got across to those trusts which do not appear at this stage to have taken on board the seriousness of that message. Therefore, we are putting as much pressure as we can on the NHS to try to ensure that those trusts that we and others have identified do better.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

May I start by welcoming the Minister's statement that his remit is being widened? It seems necessary from the report that he quotes. The Comptroller and Auditor General, if I can summarise the thrust of that report, says that, broadly speaking, centralised Departments such as the Department of Social Security are doing well. Decentralised departments such as the NHS give much more cause for concern.

The Minister quoted a figure from the report on the cost that the NHS has cited. The report also says that that cost looks very low compared with that of other sectors. He cites the likelihood of hitting the target. I think that the report says that nearly one in six health authorities are unsure whether all their clinical equipment will be up to speed by 2000.

My concern is that, given that the aim is to meet the requirements out of the existing budgets of the NHS and of other decentralised departments, and given, as the Minister says, that the costs of meeting this problem will escalate geometrically as 2000 comes closer, we do not have the makings of a financial time-bomb. I should like to hear him tell the House how he will intervene to prevent both costs and risk to the public escalating as we approach 2000.

Dr. Clark

The right hon. Gentleman approaches this in what I accept is a commendable manner. He accepts that there is a problem, and I hope that he will try to help us to deal with it; his questions certainly suggest he will.

In addition to having the National Audit Office report, soon we should have a report from the Audit Commission, which will allow us to make a better assessment of the picture in the NHS and in the other delegated authorities. Plainly, we have a better picture of the central Government Departments, because we have been working with them for almost 12 months now, whereas we have just brought the other public sector authorities within our scope.

Because of the various structures that we were not responsible for setting in place, such as delegated authorities, we do not have the hands-on authority that we may have had in days past, so it is a question of persuading trusts and authorities that they must meet the deadlines. Indeed, I will be asking the relevant Secretaries of State to get the message across to the respective bodies that they must start to take these issues seriously.

On costs, the Audit Commission suggested that the costs of the NHS would be between £200 million and £850 million, although the estimate from the NHS trusts is at the lower end. I agree with the NAO that that is very much on the low side.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Under Mackinlay's law, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all his work on this?

May I ask for clarification? First, on the current situation with regard to Cabinet Ministers, will the actual state of each Department be put in the public domain? Secondly, I understand from all the research I have seen that it would be very unwise for any country to go into a single currency and cope with the millennium bug in one year. I wonder whether he might pose that question when he goes to Vienna, and bring back an answer.

Thirdly, is there any value in having a practice day for the millennium bug? It is dangerous to go to one date and hope that the systems are going to work. Is there a way that we could try systems in 10 per cent. of Government agencies and 10 per cent. of other agencies on a particular day in October or November this year, which is possible? It would be much better to do that than to try them all on 31 December 1999.

My final worry is that the top 60 Microsoft products, including Windows 95, are not millennium-compliant.

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable about these matters. I can confirm that the detailed plans and the complete responses from Cabinet Ministers will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and on the internet. They add up now to more than 2,000 pages.

As for the Vienna issue, we have examined millennium compliance and the euro. Ever since the Maastricht treaty was signed in 1992, the countries that intend to sign up to the euro have been aware of the dual problem involved.

I do not know enough about a specific testing period; I will certainly look into it. To give my hon. Friend some idea of progress so far, we believe that about 30 per cent. of systems have been completed and about 25 per cent. have been tested. The Cabinet Sub-Committee has recommended that, once internal testing has been done, we should do random testing with outside experts to double-check the facilities.

I was not aware of my hon. Friend's point about Windows 95 and the other Microsoft pieces of equipment—but I fully understand it.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

The Chancellor was generous about my efforts, and we certainly share his desire to ensure that the public are protected from a failure of systems at the millennium. Some simple things can go wrong and cause havoc. For instance, I was born in 1945; will his systems show me as being 55 in 2000, or minus 45, or not born at all? The difference is important, not just to me but to the records that the Minister is keeping.

Is the Chancellor following best private sector practice—for example, when it comes to risk assessment? Such risk assessment has led private sector companies to prioritise already. That is, of course, a good deal more sensitive in the public sector, because it implies that some functions may not continue through the millennium. Is the Minister copying the auditors in the private sector? From this year, some large companies' accounts will be qualified—a practice which could be applied to the NHS trusts.

What concerns me about costs is that a failure to provide a ballpark figure would imply that no proper audit of the problem has been carried out by some of the decentralised public services. That is not a great criticism of the Chancellor, but it is very worrying if we do not yet have a grip of the size of the problem.

Inevitably, at some point, Government Departments will refuse to deal with private sector companies that cannot guarantee that they are compliant. In the private sector, cut-off dates are beginning this year, not in 1999. Will the public sector start refusing to deal with private sector companies in this position—on 31 December 1998 or thereabouts?

Dr. Clark

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his pertinent points. I sincerely meant the tribute that I paid to his work.

I hope that I have already made it clear that we are trying to work with the private sector. We accept that it is often way ahead of the public sector, and we have a great deal to learn—we are still learning—from its experiences. Some of those advising us are prominent private sector figures.

The first lesson that we have learnt is that prioritising is critical—we have made that quite clear to all central Government Departments. The second lesson is the issue of testing and having external testing, just as, in a financial context, one has external auditors to check one's own internal auditors.

Regarding the hon. Gentleman's point about the NHS, on 15 May, we sent round a circular to the NHS making it clear to the trusts and to the NHS authorities that they are responsible for getting this right. We made it clear that the ultimate responsibility for millennium compliance within a trust rests with the chief executive of that trust—that is spelled out in words of one syllable.

We understand the hon. Gentleman's third point about the wider public sector, and I accept that he was not making a cheap political point. There are problems: having devolved power to try to enable increased efficiency, one is left without the hands-on authority. I think that we have got the message of awareness and necessity across to central Government; we have not managed to do so with the same success in the wider public sector, but we intend to do so.

The hon. Gentleman's final point related to testing equipment that we are buying in, and I have installed a testing and checking regime. Although, since September last year, we have said that every piece of equipment that central Government buy in ought to be millennium-compliant, I am insisting that there is random, routine testing of the equipment to ensure that compliance standards are met. I am working in the hope that, as the market for equipment in central Government is so large, no supplier would be so foolish as to supply us with equipment that was not millennium-compliant, because we are carrying out checks.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although it is welcome that the Government are bringing forward plans to catch up with the neglect left behind by the previous Government, it is an outrage that so many information technology suppliers are still selling goods and products that are not millennium-compliant? Have the Government any plans to take legal action to recover some of the costs incurred by the public sector as a result of duff and defective products being sold by such companies?

Dr. Clark

As I said, I have now installed a new regime whereby there is random testing of equipment supplied. The answer to my hon. Friend is that, if we find equipment that is not up to scratch, we simply send it back, and think very hard before offering a contract to that supplier again.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Chancellor said that his latest estimate of the cost to Government Departments of dealing with the millennium date change was £402 million, and that he was confident that that could be met out of information technology budgets, rather than, as he put it, out of operating costs. He then went on to a guesstimate, saying that he thought that the problem would cost up to £3 billion in the wider public arena.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned in particular the NHS, in which the problem would cost somewhere between £250 million and £800 million, but is he satisfied that it will be possible to meet that sum, without—in respect of the NHS, I use the term "operating costs" literally—the quality of services provided being affected? If he cannot answer that now, can he give any indication as to when the other Chancellor—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—will be able to say whether Government money will be forthcoming to deal with the problem, or whether the cost will have to come out of overall budgets?

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. The truth is that nobody really knows—nobody knows how much it will cost either the private sector or the public sector. Those figures are only guesstimates, but each Department has made its own guesstimate, is aware of the costs and has budgeted accordingly. Let me make the general point that the replacement of IT equipment is in a very short cycle; in the past three years, the amount of routine replacement with millennium-compliant equipment has meant that the cost might not be quite as great as we thought it would be. The guess of £3 billion is the best guess that anyone has made.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the duplication of effort, especially within the health service, with different trusts all trying to solve the same problem? I am frustrated to see Conservative Members nodding their heads in response to this, because I believe that their changes to the national health service created the divisions that have led to lots of people having to do the same job. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that separate health trusts do not have to duplicate one another's work by instructing the Medical Devices Agency to provide a list of millennium-compliant equipment so that trusts can have a single source of reliable information about what is compliant?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend asks pertinent questions. I assure her that that issue has been considered, but NHS trusts have many aspects. For example, the information management group of the NHS executive gives advice and guidance on information technology issues; the Medical Supplies Agency performs a similar task on supply issues; the estates agency provides specialist advice and consultancy on estate matters, including equipment; and the Medical Devices Agency, to which my hon. Friend referred, is responsible for ensuring that all the necessary steps are taken and that individual trusts are aware of those steps. We are considering ways of ensuring that the advice given by different groups within the NHS is co-ordinated. I shall draw my hon. Friend's views to the attention of the NHS executive.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

About two months ago, during Scottish questions, I was given an unconditional assurance by the Scottish Office that the emergency services in Scotland would be millennium-compliant. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy give that assurance for emergency services in England, or was his Scottish colleague being somewhat heroic?

Dr. Clark

The Scottish Office has a slight advantage, in that its old mainframe computer was replaced in March, which means that the problems in Scotland are considerably eased compared with those in England. However, the Cabinet Committee is trying to ensure that the provision of health and emergency cover is dealt with.

That is not simply a public sector issue, because the provision of emergency services requires, for example, that telephone exchanges are working. That is what I meant earlier when I referred to an interrelationship between the private and public sectors. We all depend on one another, and we are working to try to ensure that contingency plans are in place at a national level so that there will be no serious problems in 2000.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Still on the subject of Scotland, does the Minister think that on Hogmanay 1999, any of us will be in a fit state to do anything, let alone cope with the millennium bug? Is there not some merit in the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sherry—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Sherry?"]—Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt)? That is what will happen on Hogmanay 1999. My hon. Friend suggested that there should at least be a dummy run on a Saturday and Sunday.

Will the Minister also consider the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), which was also asked by those of us present during the proceedings on the Companies (Millennium Computer Compliance) Bill in the name of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), when the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) was a Minister? My hon. Friend asked how developing countries should be helped with their problems, because, apart from anything else, chaos in their ordering and trading systems will hit us.

Dr. Clark

On my hon. Friend's latter point—it was remiss of me not to deal with this earlier, for which I apologise to him—it is important that we recommend best practice and provide help to other countries. The interrelationship that exists, as I pointed out, between the public and private sectors in this country applies equally across international boundaries. We are considering what assistance we can provide to third-world countries. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has taken every opportunity at every international conference since March to raise the issue of the millennium bug.

On my hon. Friend's other point, I was tempted to say that at least one person in Scotland should be in a fit state on Hogmanay 1999, but, in light of my hon. Friend's reference to a constituency in "Sherry", I am not sure whether that will be the case. I have said that we shall consider whether it is feasible to conduct contingency testing. I do not rule it out, but I shall seek expert advice on that point.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the popular belief—which has been strengthened somewhat this afternoon—that, by new year's day 2000, we may have witnessed the complete disintegration of the shadow spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), and possibly his entire party?

Dr. Clark

That is a little unkind. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is extremely consistent: he rubbishes this Government in exactly the same way as he rubbished the previous Government.

Mr. Stephen Timms (East Ham)

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the anxieties being expressed that there are not enough skilled people to do the work that must be done between now and the millennium. I welcome his reassurances this afternoon about the position in central Government Departments, but what is his assessment of the position on skills shortages in the wider public sector? Is there any evidence of a shortage of the skilled staff who are required in sufficient numbers to do the work that is outstanding?

Dr. Clark

I can go only on what Departments and public sector bodies tell me. With the exception of the Northern Ireland Office, the Ministry of Defence and several smaller agencies, they tell me that they do not envisage any particular shortage. However, I am advised by people in the private sector that, as we move towards testing time—particularly next year—there could be a shortage. We want to ensure that that does not happen, so we are trying to train 20,000 "bug busters" under the initiative outlined in the Budget.

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