HC Deb 17 June 1998 vol 314 cc323-30 12.30 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I am grateful to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for responding to the debate. He is a senior Cabinet Minister and he, at least, recognises the importance of this issue. I am delighted that he is present to respond to the Audit Commission's report "A Stitch in Time—facing the challenge of the year 2000 date change", which was launched today. This report is an alarm bell which should shake the Government into action. It is a shocking account of the dangerous unpreparedness of local authorities, health trusts and emergency services in tackling the enormous problem of the millennium bug.

The millennium bug is a problem that any date-sensitive equipment will have when we switch from the 1900s to 2000. To save memory, many pieces of equipment use only the last two digits of the year: 1998 becomes 98, 1999 becomes 99 and 2000 becomes 00, which is exactly the same as for 1900. My credit card has already been refused by a petrol station because the two digits at the end of the expiry date are 00. I am used to my credit card being rejected for other reasons, but not for that.

We must remember that, in 2000, many people will not go back to work until 4 January, and that 2000 is a leap year. What has the Prime Minister said about the millennium bug problem? On 30 March 1998, he said: If we don't tackle this problem, the economy will slow as many companies divert resources to cope with computer failures and some will even go bust. So the millennium bug is a serious issue. This is one deadline that is non-negotiable. Normal processes will not meet it. This must be treated as an emergency.

Unilever has gone so far as to suggest that the millennium bug could cause a worldwide recession. Problems are already occurring. There is the famous story of the food consignments that were rejected three times because the computer kept reading the date 2000 as 1900. In 1996, a date time problem shut down two aluminium smelting plants in New Zealand. It took 1 million New Zealand dollars to open them up again.

Many people think that the millennium bug affects only their personal computers, but nothing could be further from the truth. In 1995, 200 million computers and 7,000 million pieces of equipment with date-sensitive timing or embedded systems were sold worldwide. So 7,000 million pieces were sold in one year alone, and that was three years ago. The problem does not affect just personal computers.

Page 11 of the Audit Commission's report paints a vivid picture of the day in the life of a director of finance of a local authority. His diary entry reads: Drove into the office to pick up some homework—chaos on the roads despite the lack of traffic—seemed to be a problem with all the traffic lights en route. Pulled up to the car park—barrier refused to open—must be a problem with my swipe card. Left car on road. Walked up the drive to municipal offices and noticed that a ground floor window had been smashed (why no alarm?)—make a note to speak to head of security on Tuesday when he gets back from the Bank Holiday. Punched in the door entry code—wouldn't allow me in! Had to climb in through the broken window!!! Lifts on my floor didn't seem to be working. They can't all be out of commission? What on earth is going on? Still—at least our IT people made sure this Millennium Bug problem hasn't affected our main financial system. We do not usually associate traffic lights, lifts, door entry codes, burglar alarms and barrier controls with the millennium bug. A crematorium had to spend £30,000 to replace its embedded chip. Those are all serious problems.

The British Medical Association contacted me yesterday. It is extremely concerned about the Audit Commission's report. It lists some of the problems that it foresees will occur on 1 January 2000. It includes: lists failing to work infusion pumps and ventilation equipment needing resetting freezers storing blood and IV fluids malfunctioning radiotherapy and chemotherapy equipment unable to deliver correct dosages". It says that GPs will also be affected by loss of patient records hold ups and errors in screening programmes delays in securing vaccines equipment failures disruption to call answering services. Dr. Kenneth Robertson, chairman of the BMA's information technology committee, has warned: Doctors need to realise that any piece of electronic equipment more complex than a fan heater is likely to be affected by the millennium problem.

Yesterday, the chief of the health service, Sir Alan Langlands, stated rather worryingly that he "could not guarantee" that all patients would survive. He would not put a figure on the number of likely deaths. However, in the Daily Express yesterday a leading doctor from St. Bartholomew's hospital, who is also a computer expert, estimated that the figure could reach 1,500. We were reminded of the three-day computer breakdown in the London ambulance service in 1992, which is alleged to have resulted in 20 deaths.

The report does not seek to sensationalise. It states: For the national health service and local government, there are serious risks to life and health. It further states: hospitals could be susceptible to a malfunction of medical equipment … that communications systems used by the emergency services might fail to work, increasing risks to the public… Traffic lights may stop working, increasing the risk of accidents". The Audit Commission reports that, even with all those risks, less than 10 per cent. of local authorities and health trusts have contingency or appropriate plans in place. It says that half the local authorities and trusts have not prioritised what is to be done, and less than a third of local authorities and trusts have documented their strategy for dealing with the problem. The report states that only a third have undertaken a review of existing support and maintenance contracts, only a third have made specific budgetary provision and a third still have no IT inventory for the equipment or contracts.

The country is facing a serious crisis of epidemic proportions. This electronic plague will affect us all. Cap Gemini, a computer consultancy, has predicted that one in seven organisations in Europe and America will not be able to complete the necessary work on time, even if they started now. The Audit Commission report states: National health service trust chief executives have expressed some concern over the resources that are required to undertake a thorough testing programme. Few feel that they have the expertise or resources to test any but the simplest systems. What are the Government doing? We had an indication of that from the Prime Minister 10 weeks ago in his speech on this subject. What has happened since? Not a lot, other than the passing of 70 days: we are 70 days closer to the millennium time bomb. The Prime Minister's action plan is risible. It is like sticking a band-aid over a bursting dam. It amounts to a national publicity campaign. Has it started? If so, where?

In a written question, I asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how much had been spent on this wonderful advertising campaign, but the question has been given to the Department of Trade and Industry to answer. Who is in control of the issue? With all the confusion of responsibility, we still have no noticeable campaign.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans

No. I am sorry, but I have only limited time.

There is an advice hotline for small and medium businesses. How well publicised is that? How many have used the hotline? Is the telephone number an official secret? Another of the Government's earth-shattering pledges is co-operation with the BBC on raising awareness of this issue. That has also passed me by—perhaps they are working it into an episode of EastEnders. It is depressing enough as it is, but imagine how much more depressing it would be if disasters were to befall Albert square because of the inaction on solving this problem. Even the Old Vic might have to close.

Task Force 2000 has predicted that a civil emergency can be averted only by spending £50,000 million. It estimates that £12 billion of that would be for public services. Even the Government admit that £3 billion-worth of public spending will be required.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to what almost certainly will happen in less than two years' time. Is he aware that I have a Bill before the House called the Millennium Conformity Bill, which is due for Second Reading on 3 July? It would enable us to avoid many of the problems that he has highlighted. The Government have a last chance if they support the Bill and recognise that they have a responsibility to ensure that we avoid the problems to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, to whom much credit is due for raising the issue earlier than many other people. I pay tribute to his campaign. We wish his Bill well on 3 July and shall be interested in the Government's reaction.

The Prime Minister has admitted that an extra £3 billion will be necessary in the public sector before 31 December 1999. He has also admitted that there is a shortage of 50,000 people with IT skills, and especially bug skills. He has announced the training of 20,000 bug busters, but that is 30,000 people short. It is like bridge builders deciding to construct only 40 per cent. of a bridge. It is nonsense. If there is a shortage of 50,000 bug busters, we should ensure that that number is trained.

We are not working to a movable deadline and we do not have the luxury of continuing this essential work for 27 months into the millennium, because that is what a shortage of 50,000 bug busters means. The resources are a joke. Although the Prime Minister has said that an extra £3 billion will be needed in the public sector, he has announced the switching of £70 million of technology money to the bug problem. Some of that will be spent on training the 20,000 bug busters and on increasing the Action 2000 budget to £17 million. That £70 million is less than 2.5 per cent. of the money that is needed to sort out the problem. The Prime Minister stated: Your supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. There seems to be a few weak links in the Government on the problem.

Many companies are getting on with the job. United Utilities, which serves my constituency, has assured me that it will be millennium compliant by the end of this year, and Lancashire Ambulance Service NHS trust says that it will be ready by March 1999. However, the Audit Commission report clearly states that trusts and local authorities are well short of the commission's benchmarks. The report states that there is still time, but it concedes that there needs to be prioritisation. The country needs to know now the progress of each local authority and trust in tackling the millennium bug problem. The best way to do that is to publish all the information, perhaps in some sort of league table, so that people know what is going on.

In his millennium bug speech, the Prime Minister said: We want to encourage open scrutiny and feedback. That must be right, but it will happen only if the public have all the facts.

Task Force 2000 refers to confused lines of responsibility. Action 2000, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is taking the issue seriously, the President of the Board of Trade and committees have called for a clear line of responsibility. The Chancellor of the Duchy should take full control and should feed information straight to the Prime Minister on this issue. We are asking chief executives in industry to take control and we should be prepared to do that too. There should be a one-stop shop to tackle the millennium bug.

People have a right to know about fresh action that the Government will take in the light of today's shocking report. Excuses will no longer do. Half-measures would be an improvement on what has happened so far, but they would be totally inadequate. Enormous sums will be needed, but from where will they come? A Library paper on the millennium bug states that public bodies are receiving no additional funding and are expected to meet the costs of the millennium bug from existing budgets. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy expect us to believe that that is at all possible, given all the other pressures on local authorities and health authorities? Where will they find the extra money? Will it have to be diverted from services and from care functions?

The Government seem to think more about their millennium dome than about the millennium bug. Spending large sums on the one is a folly: spending so little on the other is a disaster. The Government have a responsibility to get a grip on the problem, and the Minister must tell the country what they intend to do.

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

I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on obtaining the debate and on his prescience on realising that the Audit Commission report was published today. I agree 100 per cent. that we must face the problem of the millennium bug, but there is no point in panicking. It is a problem not just for this country, but for the world. The hon. Gentleman was right to welcome the first-rate report by the Audit Commission. It is called "A Stitch in Time" and in a sense that says it all. It makes the observations to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded and it concludes: The problems are not insurmountable but urgent action does need to be taken. I agree.

The report is a management paper. It is a mantra, a handbook that local authorities and the national health service can use to try to make sure that they meet the problem when it arrives. I hope that every senior manager in the NHS and in local government reads it, because it is a major step forward. The warnings are chilling and we cannot run away from them. I intend to publicise the report and to tell local authorities and NHS trusts that they must address the problem with much more urgency.

The Audit Commission report makes it clear that it is the responsibility of chief executives and senior officers in local government and NHS trusts to address the issue. Chillingly, it also says that organisations or managers may be legally liable for any injuries or losses that are caused by failures in the system. There is no hiding place for anyone who tries to run away from tackling the problem.

All hon. Members have a responsibility to make sure that their constituents, the people to whom we are responsible, have proper services on 1 January 2000. I hope that all hon. Members will contact their local health trusts, health authorities and local authorities to make sure that they are tackling the problem seriously and that they have a copy of the report. It is important for all of us to play our part.

Not surprisingly, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley alleged that the Government had been guilty of inaction. I refute that, but I do not want to be too heavy on the point because, when we took over about 13 months ago, we were 13 months further away from the problem. It is now more of a problem than it was 13 months ago. Apart from one or two honourable exceptions, a few of whom are in the Chamber, few people in the Conservative Government and only one former Minister, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), took much interest in the issue. When I inherited it and received from the National Audit Office in May last year the first report, which was called "Managing the Millennium Threat", I was appalled by what little had been done and immediately set about trying to tackle the issue.

What have the Government done to counter the millennium bug threat? First, we have set up two Cabinet Committees to drive forward action across the public and private sectors. Even if we are successful in tackling the problem in the public sector, that on its own is not enough because, in a complex society such as ours, the private and public sectors are interwoven to such an extent that, if one fails, both will fail. We think immediately of hospitals, which are very much in our minds. We think immediately of the emergency services and ask whether the ambulances will continue to run; that is a public service, but one usually calls for an ambulance by telephone, which calls into question one's confidence that the private telephone services can meet the need to make emergency calls. I am confident that they can, because British Telecom is ahead of the game in that respect, but it is a good example of the interrelationship between the public and the private sectors. That is why we have set up the Cabinet Committees to ensure not only that there are contingency plans for emergencies, but that across the sphere of social activity, both private and public, there is an enmeshing of action and that problems are being solved.

Dr. Michael Clark (Rayleigh)

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, when he appeared before the Select Committee on Science and Technology a few months ago, he gave the Committee a statement of confidence that all the emergency services would have their priorities right by 2000. In the intervening months, has his confidence increased or decreased?

Dr. Clark

My confidence has increased. I have had reports from the ambulance services in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland telling me that they have looked at their procedures and are continuing to do so, which has reassured me considerably.

I do not want to sound complacent, but I am much happier about central Government than about the public sector generally. I was encouraged by the official report published in May this year by the National Audit Office, which examined one of the most difficult central Government Departments—the Department of Social Security. The report's summary stated: The Department's approach to project management complies with the best practice recommended by CCTA. I am not saying that we have got everything right, but we have a firmer grip on the issue where it affects central Government. That effort has been helped by my quarterly reports to the House and, even more so, by our having put on the internet and laden the Library of the House of Commons with the detailed plans, updated every three months, of every central Government Department. One of the key points in the Audit Commission report is that openness and transparency are among the cardinal weapons with which we can fight the problem, as is the extension of best practice.

In the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extra £100 million for high-technology skills. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley acknowledges, £30 million of that is designated for use in training the 20,000 bug busters—the hon. Gentleman may deride that number, but that is 20,000 more than were planned by the previous Government. I emphasise that, when we took over, the cupboard was almost bare of ways to tackle the problem. We have also increased the Action 2000 budget to £17 million.

The last time I spoke on this subject in the House was 10 days ago, when I presented the information I had gathered in the most recent quarterly review of progress. I lay great store in reporting to the House of Commons, because it is one way in which we can monitor the progress achieved and decide whether we need to change direction or the speed with which we work. Since 8 June, I have written to all Ministers setting out the problems revealed by the most recent survey in respect of their Department and reminding them that there is no room for complacency. I have stressed again the problem of embedded chips and asked all Departments and agencies to continue to press suppliers for information about product compliance, because that is a serious issue.

I took up an assertion made during my last statement to the House, which was that even Microsoft's Windows 95 was not compliant. We are seeking greater clarification, but the answer I received was that it depends on how the system was established: if it was set up with two digits, as opposed to four digits, it is not compliant. I am pursuing the matter with Microsoft, but it is an example of how hon. Members have helped us in our efforts to tackle the problem.

I am also following up individual cases of slippage and insufficient testing strategies. We are monitoring closely what Departments are doing in respect of risk assessment and business continuity. In addition, I am encouraging the wider public sector to make information about their year 2000 programmes available in the same way that I have made available central Government information.

Mr. White

On the question of risk assessment, does the Minister accept that many public services will be unable to do everything and that what is important is that they do the things that matter, while remaining aware of what they have left undone? What is critical is that they get high-risk systems and embedded chips sorted out.

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. "A Stitch in Time" makes the point clearly that the real issue is not the technical aspects of the problem, but the breadth of the problem. Everyone who is informed on this subject agrees that we will not be able to do everything that can be done, which is why we need to set priorities. That is another message from the document, which gives me another opportunity to extol its virtues—it is full of good common sense.

All of us in the House have to use our influence and authority. A lot of responsibility is being delegated and a lot of power is being handed down to the working level, but it would be a great step forward if we could have the same openness in the wider public sector that we have in respect of central Government Departments. I would encourage hon. Members to urge the wider public sector to be more open and to give us more information.

Mr. Evans

To return to my earlier point, will the Chancellor publish the full details which have been accumulated? Will he tell my constituents where their local authorities and health trusts will find the extra money necessary to bring them up to the level at which they can test and, if necessary, repair any damage that may be done to their equipment?

Dr. Clark

We have already put on the internet and in the Library all the information that we have received from the wider public sector. I am not yet satisfied that I have enough information, but the hon. Gentleman should appreciate that this is our first run. When we had a go at central Government Departments, they knew how to respond to our efforts and each survey brought us more of the sort of information that we needed. I hope to make that sort of progress in the wider public sector.

On finance, we, like the previous Government, made it clear to health authorities, local authorities and all public sector bodies that the problem had to be addressed. We assured them that the problem existed and insisted that they made sure that their budgets took account of it, so there is no reason why extra money should be needed. We estimate the central Government costs at about £402 million. We have received conflicting figures for the national health service: the latest figure, quoted in "A Stitch in Time", is sightly more than £300 million, but I believe that future estimates will be higher. All the evidence from the private sector is that there will be a gradual, not dramatic, increase.

I have commissioned an infrastructure risk assessment to try to develop our understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities inherent in systems through0out the public and private sectors. I accept that there are gaps in the information that has been provided. We are trying to close those gaps and will continue to do so. I am pleased that we are making progress across the field and that we are working with our fellow Governments in Europe and throughout the world.

We tend to think of this as a domestic problem, but it clearly is not. That is why the Prime Minister raised the issue with the European Union, with the G8 and at the European-Asian conference. It is also why it was raised at the Council of Ministers meeting that I attended about three weeks ago. It was raised by another Government who asked for an exchange of information and best practice among European Governments, and I was asked to take the lead in that. I have sent the information that we have to the respective Ministers to make sure that not only are we doing all that we can to get it right but that other countries are doing the same.

I join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in complimenting the Audit Commission's document, which is first rate. The warnings are there for the chief executives. The responsibility is theirs. We shall keep the pressure on them, but, at the end of the day, they have to be in charge.

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