HC Deb 15 December 1999 vol 341 cc273-80 3.32 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

I am pleased to update hon. Members with the results of the final monthly review of progress in tackling the millennium bug across government. The completed questionnaires, on which the review is based, will be placed in the Libraries of the House and published on the internet as usual.

The report follows my written statement to the House on 25 November 1999, Official Report, columns 183-85W. In addition to a report on central Government, I am also reporting on preparedness across the national infrastructure, including key services delivered by the wider public sector.

I am pleased to report that work on business critical systems is now complete in all Departments and agencies. That means that systems have been fixed, tested and successfully put back into operation. Business continuity plans and millennium operating regimes—BCPs and MORs—are essential safeguards against the impact of unforeseen bug failures and the other particular pressures of the millennium holiday period. All Departments and agencies also have robust and tested BCPs and MORs in place, and are keeping those arrangements under review so that they can continue to deliver essential services. An immense quantity of work has been undertaken across government to ensure completion of work on business critical systems, BCPs and MORs. I congratulate Departments and agencies on their continuing efforts.

For the central Government millennium operating regime, the Government will be operating a millennium centre from 31 December to 7 January. Staff in the centre will be drawn from the Cabinet Office Year 2000 team and Cabinet Office secretariats, supplemented by staff from Action 2000 and volunteers from other Departments; from the Y2K media co-ordination unit, supported by Departmental press officers; and from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport millennium unit.

The centre will collate information from Departments about any significant millennium problems in the sectors for which they have policy responsibility. There will also be links with similar centres in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with the Government offices for the regions. More than 200 people in all will be involved and the team in the centre will provide up-to-the minute briefing to Ministers and the media on the emerging picture. On 26 October, Exercise Herald tested the arrangements and demonstrated that they were sound, and further improvements have been made in the light of that work.

The Government millennium centre will post all press releases and statements during the millennium period to a special website, which will also act as a signpost to other sites of interest. The website will give the public and the media easy access to information about the situation in the UK as it enters the new millennium. All this information can be found over the millennium period at www.millennium-centre.gov.uk.

Independent assessments of the readiness of the national infrastructure with respect to Y2K compliance and business continuity planning have been undertaken as part of the national infrastructure assessment project run by Action 2000. Organisations within the programme were also required to have robust millennium operating regimes in place in order to achieve the top blue rating.

The process of independent assessment of the state of preparations for the date change of the UK's national infrastructure has given us one of the most—if not the most—comprehensive and objective pictures of national readiness for the date change in the world.

In my last statement to the House, I confirmed that all areas of the national infrastructure were rated as 100 per cent. blue. This means that independent assessors have not identified any risk of material disruption as a result of their full assessment, and that the public can expect a normal service. These sectors included utilities such as electricity and water, as well as police, fire, telecommunications and health care. I am pleased to report that all sectors remain 100 per cent. blue and that they will keep their state of readiness under constant review between now and the end of the year.

While there can be no absolute guarantees, the overall aim set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—to ensure no material disruption to the essential public services of the UK as a result of the millennium bug—should now be achieved. The Government and those who provide services across the national infrastructure have invested a monumental effort to meet that objective. We have less information about other countries, so we cannot be confident that there will not be problems elsewhere, but we have taken action to assess and minimise the impact of those problems on the United Kingdom.

Of course, no matter how much testing has been done, the possibility of some failures still remains, although if these occur, they are likely to be localised and short term. That is why we place so much emphasis on the need for robust and tested business continuity plans to be put in place, so that essential services can continue to be delivered.

Any disruptions that may occur over the date change could be related to bad weather or the length and scale of this year's celebrations, as much as to the millennium bug. The Government have, therefore, widened their preparations to deal with all aspects of the millennium. Even at this late stage, and with so much work completed, we cannot afford to be complacent. We need to ensure that the necessary monitoring work continues through the final weeks.

The Government will continue to lead by example and to be open and transparent about our work. I will make a further statement to the House, probably in January, on the impact of the date change on central Government and the national infrastructure.

As we approach the final days of the millennium, I pay tribute to the vast number of people in the UK across the public and private sectors who have worked tirelessly, and whose effort is almost without equal internationally, to meet the goal that we set of ensuring no material disruption in our country as a result of the millennium bug.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I apologise to you and the House, Madam Speaker, for my somewhat uncharacteristically quiet voice. I seem to have contracted a virus resulting in some form of bug.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

Did you catch it from John Redwood?

Mrs. Browning

Most certainly not.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making the papers available to me at half-past two this afternoon. I join her in paying tribute to those who have worked across the country in an operation that has gone on now for a long time. I have studied the detailed papers that the right hon. Lady deposits in the Library from time to time, and it is clear from reading them that a lot of work has been done in both the private and public sectors, although I did detect a slight hint of "www.not.me.guv" in the right hon. Lady's voice, in case something goes wrong. We all welcome the fact that at this date, which is so close to the end of the year, she has been able to give us such a reassuring statement.

The right hon. Lady stated that all systems have been completed. Will she confirm that that includes the testing of contingency plans? She will recall that, during her previous statement to the House on this subject, I asked about one or two individual contingency plans that still had to be tested—especially those for the Ministry of Defence. The official papers show that the MOD was not due to complete testing until December. It would be reassuring if she could confirm those points.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that lessons had been learned after Exercise Herald on 26 October. She announced the use of a website to be used by the Government millennium centre to deal with any problems. Which member of the Cabinet will have responsibility for the centre over the new year? Will it be the right hon. Lady or, perhaps, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam)? In the event of major problems, will there be a ministerial presence at the Cabinet Office centre?

Since the right hon. Lady made her previous statement, Northern Ireland has taken responsibility for its own preparations in this matter. Will she confirm that there has been a smooth transition from Whitehall to Belfast? Some late contingency plans in Northern Ireland were outstanding, such as the plan for the payment of teachers' salaries? Have those plans been sorted out?

A recurring theme in the deposited papers is that of remuneration packages in the public sector. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that all such packages have been agreed for those who will be working over the new year bank holiday to deal with any potential problems that might arise? Several of those plans were outstanding. It is important that lack of preparation should not impede the presence of key staff on the night, and afterwards, if there are problems—especially in the public sector.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her courtesy, and that of her officials, in briefing me extensively a little while ago, so that the Opposition were aware of some of the detailed background planning that has gone into the preparations.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, especially for her final remarks. I accept her thanks, especially for my staff and for the Government advisers who took part in that briefing. I am glad that she found it helpful. I am happy to record that for her to have gone through that heap of material in the Library was probably above and beyond the call of duty. I am grateful to her for confirming that it shows the position clearly.

The hon. Lady asked me about the testing of contingency plans at the MOD. I confirm that that work has been completed. She asked about responsibility for the millennium centre. In general, I am primarily responsible for the centre. There will be ministerial presences in the Cabinet Office during the period. The work will be shared among different Ministers; all Departments will have someone on standby and several Ministers will be available to the centre.

The hon. Lady asked me to confirm that work in Northern Ireland had been completed. I can confirm that. We experienced no problems during the handover and the transition. I am not aware that there are any outstanding problems on remuneration, although she will be aware that that matter has been settled in the individual organisations.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that earlier in the week, when I asked the vice-chancellor of a university with strong science departments what was his greatest concern about the millennium, he replied, "It's not physics or chemistry; it's the possibility of burglary and vandalism". Given that the police—like the rest of us—have families with whom they may want to spend the millennium, what can be done to monitor obviously vulnerable situations?

May I be allowed a second question? Earlier in the year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly said that he paid much regard to his talks with the Russians about the Soviet Arctic fleet. Now that relations with the Russians have unfortunately cooled, have those talks continued?

Mrs. Beckett

I hope, to some degree, to reassure my hon. Friend on his important point about the need for public services, such as the police, to continue to work over the millennium period. He is right to say that the police, like the rest of us, wish to spend time with their families. Although I am pleased to be able to pay tribute to the work of the police as a public service, my hon. Friend may not be aware that, despite that wish, all police leave in all parts of the country has been cancelled. The same applies to other emergency services, such as the fire service. The House will wish to place on record the debt of gratitude that we owe to such public servants at all times, but particularly for the commendable spirit that they have shown in these preparations.

On the Arctic fleet, I can tell my hon. Friend that, whatever the developments in general relations with Russia, there has continued to be an exchange of information, advice and co-operation. Those exchanges have taken place not only with ourselves, but with our allies. I am not aware of the specific circumstances of the Arctic fleet, but I will inquire into that. However, as I know that other work and the exchange of information has continued, I see no reason to doubt that it has continued in that case.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I join the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in congratulating the United Kingdom's information technology industry, in both the public and the private sectors, on the way that it has faced this technical challenge. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I also express my appreciation to the right hon. Lady for the responsible and sober way in which she has reported to the House on these matters. That has contrasted well with the scaremongering and the attempts to make political capital that took place in the early days about what is essentially a technical challenge.

Will the report that the Leader of the House will present in January cover some of the wider issues about costs in the public sector, and will it deal with the contractual issues for Government bodies that deal with annual rather than rolling budgets?

At a domestic level, I invite the right hon. Lady to congratulate the staff of Parliament who have worked very hard to get our systems in place. I know that she has been able to write to all Members to tell them that our systems will be up and running across the millennium period. Although our constituents would probably place access to on-line Hansard slightly lower down their list of priorities than access to electricity and gas, that small example of how to approach the problem reflects very well on the staff of the House.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I shall certainly convey his thanks to all the staff who worked with me on preparing this statement. I know that his comments will be much appreciated.

I shall obviously consider the issues that we want to cover in the report back to the House. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the indications about costs suggest that they are remaining stable at about £430 million for central Government. It is harder to assess more widely than that. Figures of £1 billion and £3 billion have been suggested, and the wider costs will no doubt be of that order of magnitude. The hon. Gentleman will probably know that the costs to central Government are about a 16 per cent. increase on what was anticipated in 1997, but the figure has stayed roughly stable for quite some time.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and interesting point about contractual issues. It will be interesting to see how they develop. One of the helpful features of the work that has been done is that it has encouraged an exchange of information rather than a contested relationship between bodies that have mutual inter-dependency. That has seen us very well in the run-up to the date change, and I hope that that attitude and experience will continue.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Can we have an assurance that the nuclear industry—both the nuclear power generation sector and the reprocessing sector—has been required to undertake to the Government that it is fully millennium compliant? Can we also be told whether Foreign Office officials have been monitoring the level of compliance by the nuclear industry in other parts of the world?

Mrs. Beckett

In addition to the assurances that it might have been required to give the Government, the nuclear industry in this country has been required to give assurances to the independent nuclear installations inspectorate, which has monitored the detail of its work and its continuity plans, such as they may be, its operating regimes and so on. All that has been independently assessed and cleared by inspectorate staff.

My hon. Friend asked about the monitoring of nuclear industries overseas. Part of the Foreign Office's work has been to provide as much information as it can, in the widest possible context—not just in the context of the nuclear industry—about the position throughout the world. Again, international enforcement agencies have been monitoring the position. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), there has been much international exchanging of information, advice and support in that sector. Obviously, that gives us some of the reassurance that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) seeks.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

What additional remuneration will people who are working directly for Departments get—as opposed to the additional remuneration that other people in the public sector, such as nurses and doctors, will get?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that because there is no overall fixed regime. It has been left to Departments to make the arrangements that they need and to come to agreements with staff. Obviously, in some Departments there is a normal expectation of continuity of service that will be needed over the millennium, so different arrangements have been made by different Departments.

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

My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK's role has been commended as a model of good practice internationally. However, she will also be aware that the millennium bug can lead not just to failure, but to misunderstandings. In view of rising tensions in Grozny, in particular, and in other parts of the world, can she assure the House that allowances have been made for those misunderstandings to be taken into account by the Ministry of Defence, particularly with regard to nuclear warnings? Can she assure the House that, given that the millennium bug could affect us on a number of key dates throughout next year, she will continue to report to the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I will be happy to keep the House informed. Whether we will need to have the sort of regular reports that we have had during the latter part of this year remains to be seen, although my hon. Friend is right to say that there are other key dates, in particular, obviously, the end of February.

My hon. Friend asked about misunderstandings. He may know that, for example, the American Government and Russian Government have not only exchanged information and kept each other up to date, but are to exchange personnel, so a huge amount has been done internationally to try to ensure that difficulties do not arise unnecessarily.

My hon. Friend was good enough to refer to the UK being seen internationally as a model of good practice. The House may like to know that our original Action 2000 leaflet "Home Check" was reprinted in Canada and Jersey and by Reader's Digest in China and Australia. It has been distributed to all Shell staff world wide. The business packs are being used in the United States, France and Greece. The business and domestic packs are being used in Sweden, India and worldwide by Cable and Wireless.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the information and the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, for his work. However, we must not forget my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who started the work two and a half years ago. It is commendable that we have done all this and I congratulate everyone.

I am slightly nervous that everything is web-centric. Will the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 carry information and hotline numbers during the period? Many people will not have access to computers at school because they will be shut down. What proposals do we have to stop merchant ships and aeroplanes that are not millennium compliant docking or landing?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend asks about information being available. Representatives of the news media will be in the Government's millennium centre. They will operate freely—they will not be under our control in any sense. They will be free to report the information that they are gathering. We anticipate that some of the television media, the Press Association, and other such people will be there. We also anticipate being able to make information available, if required, on Teletext, so that it is more readily available.

My hon. Friend asked about hotline numbers. We are encouraging people to gain information about local services, which are the ones that supply their home or place of business, by collecting local numbers. From this week, there are to be advertisements in 550 local newspapers, placed by and in conjunction with local service providers, to disseminate information widely among the general public.

My hon. Friend also asks specifically about ships and airlines. I understand that any ship that has not been able to provide assurances about millennium compliance will not be on the high seas, will certainly not be allowed into port and will probably not be released to leave port in the run-up to the date change rollover. No airline is currently expected to face problems over the United Kingdom. The only airline over which a query hangs, in that it has been unable to satisfy the authorities as to its millennium compliance, does not fly into or out of this country.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Given that the right hon. Lady has rightly and consistently warned the House that there are no guarantees that there will be no disruption in the first weeks and months of the new year, what is her personal advice to ordinary people, such as domestic householders, on the sensible precautions that they should have taken or should be in the process of taking?

Mrs. Beckett

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He has followed this issue since the beginning—indeed, his interest commenced far earlier than most others. His expertise is well known and I am grateful for the interest he has always shown. The only personal advice I would offer to people—indeed, the advice I intend to follow myself—is simply to make the sensible preparations that they would make for any Christmas and new year, with some slight additional recognition of the fact that they should expect more unexpected visitors who might eat and drink rather more heavily than usual.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

We welcome full compliance and acknowledge the substantial efforts, including the right hon. Lady's, made to achieve it. However, does she agree that a certain competitive tension between Departments and Government agencies to be the first to achieve the desired objective is a good thing? Consistent with that principle, will she say which Department or agency was the last to achieve full compliance and give the reason for its tardiness?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right: there is something to be said for people learning from each other and sharing best practice. However, in response to his point about potential competition between Departments, I would point out that the key to what has been achieved throughout the public and private sectors is co-operation and exchange of information. He asks me to identify which was the last Department to complete its work and to give the reason why. I think that it was the Ministry of Defence, and the reason is simple: that Ministry has infinitely more systems than any other Department. Memory tells me that, of about 30,000 systems throughout government that needed to be assessed, the Ministry of Defence has about 10,000.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My right hon. Friend has been engaged in probably the largest contingency planning exercise in peacetime. It would be a great pity if all the data that have been collected were simply to be shoved aside after the key dates had been reached. Will she ensure that all Departments and Government agencies retain the data and make them available to all authorities involved in emergency planning, and to any expert groups that might be set up, with a view to extracting the best information for future planning purposes?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right: there has never been such an exhaustive reassessment and testing of diverse arrangements, including contingency plans, carried out in peacetime—the scale of the work is unprecedented. He will be pleased to learn that the Government have already set in hand a thorough process of assessment, so that we can learn as much as possible from the experience of those weeks and months, and that we intend to make that information available.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest and for the support that he has shown in this issue. As he has asked me about the things that we can learn, and as it is the eve of Christmas, I thought that I would share with the House one of the more interesting pieces of information made available to me. It is that in its testing of non-critical systems, Customs and Excise has included the need to test the hairdryer for sniffer dogs. Its continuity plan is that if it fails, it will use a towel.