HC Deb 17 June 1999 vol 333 cc571-9

1.6 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

I am announcing today the results of the sixth quarterly review of progress in tackling the millennium bug for Departments, agencies and key parts of the wider public sector. I have arranged for the completed questionnaires on which the statement is based to be placed in the Libraries of the House and published on the internet.

To allow people to see at a glance how well individual Departments and agencies are doing, I shall also be publishing tables showing their performance against a number of key criteria. There are still areas of concern, which I will highlight, but the most important message of the review is that, overall, the Government are on course to be millennium compliant well before the end of the year.

When I made the previous statement, I said that most Departments expected to have finished work on their business-critical systems by July. That remains the case, although there has been slippage in some Departments. I remind the House that completion is defined as all systems being corrected, tested and back in service. By that definition, more than 80 per cent. of government's business-critical systems are now completed. Of the programmes that are running into the second half of the year, most have already completed the bulk of their work.

That is welcome, but my principal focus in this statement, naturally, is on those Departments and agencies that plan to complete their programmes in the last quarter of the year. I am concerned that these are tight deadlines that allow little room to deal with unexpected problems.

All Departments and agencies that have planned completion dates in October or later need to pay particular attention to such planning. The target is that all Departments and agencies should have full business continuity plans in place and tested by the end of October. I am pleased to report that, already, three quarters of Departments have considered how to ease pressure over the new year period. Over the coming months, we shall be working closely with Departments to ensure that they all have appropriate management plans in place to deal with particular pressures over the new year period. These millennium operating regimes will be reported on as part of the quarterly monitoring process within government and the wider public sector and will be included in the infrastructure programme of Action 2000.

I will be writing to ministerial colleagues about the completion dates for business-critical systems of the Inland Revenue, the National Insurance Contributions Office and the Planning Inspectorate and about the slippage in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency programme. I have asked colleagues to keep tight management control of work on the remaining systems and to ensure particular focus on business continuity planning in the time that remains.

I have also written to all ministerial colleagues to suggest that they consider whether they can ensure that key staff working on year 2000 issues in Departments and agencies should not be moved between now and the end of the critical period, in line with good practice in the private sector.

I am pleased to be able to report that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made up the slippage reported last quarter, although I still have concerns because it operates in nearly every country across the world, and that poses a particular challenge in ensuring continuity of service.

The progress of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces has been sustained, and I am particularly encouraged that some elements are ahead of schedule despite the impact of events in Kosovo. In other areas there is little room for slippage, and they will need to be kept under close review. However, the Ministry is confident that Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force front-line units will be compliant by late summer. Overall cost estimates remain relatively stable, with only a slight increase since the last review—from £420 million to £430 million. Nearly half the returns show no change in total estimates.

Key parts of the wider public sector are now subject to independent assessment as part of the infrastructure project. I shall continue to report on them here, and they will report regularly to the national infrastructure forum.

The results of the most recent health service quarterly review in England were announced on 21 May 1999, covering the period up to 31 March. The number of organisations reporting good or satisfactory progress was consistent with earlier reports, at 90 per cent. The estimated cost of their remedial year 2000 work has been slightly reduced, to about £310 million for the whole project.

All NHS organisations are required to be fully prepared, with compliant equipment or effective contingency plans, by 30 September 1999. Organisations that are lagging behind are being visited by teams from the NHS executive regional offices and the NHS year 2000 central team, and are being required to develop action plans to enable them to be on schedule. Her Majesty's fire and police inspectorates are now completing the first stages of their programmes of independent assessment of the fire and police services in England and Wales, and the results of those inspections will be made public in the national infrastructure forum on 13 July. The aim is that, by September, no risk of disruption involving the millennium date change can be identified in any force or brigade.

Summary information provided by the Audit Commission indicates that, while all types of local authority have made progress during the last six months, there is still a wide variation between the best-performing and poorest-performing authorities. The results of independent assessments of individual local authorities will be presented by Government offices to the national infrastructure forum on 13 July.

We are now fewer than 200 days away from the date change—an event which, I am sure, is now beginning to seem more real to many people as they start to make their preparations and plan their own celebrations. It is clear from the overall picture of central Government and the wider public sector that a huge amount of work has been done, and in many instances that work has been almost completed; but much needs to be done in the time that remains. Departments that plan to finish their programmes in the last quarter must ensure that they have robust continuity plans which have been tested, and we shall monitor their progress in that regard.

I know that the House is likely to take an increasing interest in progress on these issues. Hon. Members may find it helpful to be reminded that I intend to report on a monthly rather than a quarterly basis in future.

The hallmark of the Government's approach has been our practice of being open and forthcoming with information, and encouraging others to follow our lead. We intend to pursue that approach.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I thank the right hon. Lady for making her statement available to me earlier today.

As the right hon. Lady will know, the Government inherited a clear target: in the public sector, including Government Departments, the criteria for 2000 compliance were to be met by December 1998. It is worrying, therefore, that in June 1999 we should still be receiving reports of instances in which Government and public agencies have yet to comply with those criteria—although I accept that the right hon. Lady's report was upbeat in comparison with some of her previous reports.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady has now decided to report on a monthly rather than a quarterly basis, as we have now entered the last six months of the year, but how will that be dealt with? When the House is sitting, will the right hon. Lady continue to report from the Dispatch Box? How will the matter be handled over the long summer recess? When the House reconvenes in October, we shall be close to the target date.

Will the right hon. Lady comment on some of the concerns that she herself identified? Will she in particular respond to the concern about the Inland Revenue and National Insurance Contributions Office? There is already concern about the failure of NIRS2—the national insurance recording system—which is causing much distress to many people, particularly those who are seeking to draw their state retirement pension. Has she been able to identify how that might be compounded if that Department does not meet its target, or to make the necessary arrangements? Those who wish to claim disability benefits for the first time, often as a result of injury and accident, will be particularly distressed if that facility is under pressure.

The statement referred to the Ministry of Defence. It recognised that, despite the huge demands of the war in Kosovo, the MOD has made progress, but, in December 1998, the MOD put out a press release about RAF aircraft being mission capable. It said that the RAF would be compliant in that regard by 31 May this year. Was that target met? The right hon. Lady has expressed concern about some areas in the MOD. How will those be affected by its new commitments in respect of the continuing presence of British forces in Kosovo and the Balkans generally?

The right hon. Lady will be aware that, in the fourth report, Britain was first in the league of European countries that were already undertaking compliance preparations for 2000, but that, by the fifth report, Britain had slipped to eighth. Is she able to tell the House that the position has been restored and that the progress that she has mentioned in her statement means that we are back at the top of the league, above our competitors and partners elsewhere in the world?

The right hon. Lady mentioned that she hoped that staff in Government Departments would be retained by those Departments to see their work through, but what flexibility is there in those Departments? If a particular Department needs more assistance to meet its target date, will there be some transfer of key staff to help it to do so?

I ask one additional thing—and it is relevant. The document entitled "The Millennium Bug: Facts Not Fiction", which has been distributed to every household, is easy to read and is designed to help to answer questions from consumers about domestic matters relating to the millennium bug. It gives an Action 2000 website for further information for the public. It also gives a telephone number, a helpline.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, when members of the public telephone that helpline—0845 601 2000—there is no one to answer the telephone? The line simply refers them to the website address that is already printed in the document. Clearly, many people, particularly elderly people who are worried about a hospital operation, for example, or people who are worried about whether they should travel on an aircraft, want to talk to someone about what is happening. If they do not have access to a website, the helpline will be pretty ineffective.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities; I am sure that she is particularly delighted with them in respect of the millennium bug. May I take this opportunity to offer her and the new Front-Bench team a briefing on much of the detail of millennium bug matters, which I hope will be helpful to her, and which we are happy to give to all hon. Members?

The hon. Lady said that we inherited a compliance target of December 1998. That is true, but—with no disrespect to her, because she is new to these responsibilities—a target was about all that we did inherit. We inherited a rather small organisation with a very small budget of £500,000 and the job of raising awareness, but not much else.

One feature of this particular delightful issue is that, as time goes by, everyone realises that the problems caused by millennium compliance are more complex than had been anticipated. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is nodding, as he is very familiar with the issues.

The problems, therefore, are taking longer to deal with than had been anticipated. Moreover, people who had not shown sufficient foresight are finding that the problems are costing more to deal with than they had thought. Therefore, although we certainly hoped to meet the December 1998 target, we are doing much more than people anticipated would have to be done when the original targets were set.

I confirm that I shall come to the Dispatch Box to make the quarterly statement, unless we receive strong representations to the effect that no one wants to hear anything more about the issue. Over the summer recess, we plan to make information available, perhaps in the Library and on the internet. However, if the hon. Lady or other Opposition Members have other views on how best to make information available to Members, perhaps in a circular, I should be more than happy to listen and perhaps to take them on board.

The concern that has, quite rightly, been expressed about the Inland Revenue relates to a number of specific systems with later delivery dates. However, the majority of remedial work being done for the Revenue has been completed, and much of what has been fixed is already running live. Much work has been done in addressing those issues.

NIRS2 was built to be 2000 compliant, and the work that is still being done is to test interfaces with other systems. The testing that has been done to date has not revealed significant problems, and we hope that that will continue to be the case.

Ministry of Defence front-line units are expected to be compliant by late summer, and much more work has been done in addressing compliance issues—in both the RAF and in the other services—than it was feared had been done. I believe that the hon. Lady's concerns on those issues have been dealt with.

The hon. Lady also asked about the United Kingdom's place in league table reports. I am not up to speed with the latest report—there may not yet be an updated one—but I fear that they are pretty meaningless. In many cases, international—not United Kingdom—league tables are based on what is said by those who are responsible for the matter in a particular country, and, frankly, the less they know about millennium bug problems, the more likely they are to say that they have no difficulties and the higher up in the league table they go. Therefore, such information is not terribly useful, and I cannot enlighten her on the latest results.

We are endeavouring to ensure that any problems are dealt with by using Government staff resources. Until now, we have not found it necessary to transfer people to deal with outstanding problems, and we hope and intend that it will not be necessary to do so.

The booklet helpline is intended principally to allow people to order more copies of the booklet. However, the hon. Lady has made the important point that the booklet may lead people to conclude that wider information is available. We shall give some thought to the matter. Nevertheless, I thank her for her welcoming the booklet itself.

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

I congratulate the Government on the very encouraging progress made on the issue by most Departments. Nevertheless, I was worried by one comment made by the Leader of the House—about some systems being completed by 30 September 1999. The fact is that 9 September 1999 is a critical date, as it will be used by many systems to designate the end of a file. I am concerned that the issue has not been fully addressed, and hope that the next report will tell us the extent to which it has been.

Two other points were not dealt with in the report. First—I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence are here—the rusting ex-Soviet Arctic fleet had non-compliant software. It is still a major danger. Now that the war in Kosovo is over, can we renew our efforts to exchange information with the Russians to try to ensure that it is not a danger by the end of this year? Lastly, just-in-time systems are a particular problem for third-world countries. In a global economy, we are only as good as the weakest link. How has our support for third-world countries been going?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in these matters. Thought has been given to the impact of 9 September. People are very conscious of the problem. As far as I am aware, most organisations that have carried out testing have not encountered the range and scale of problems that had been feared. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue. Testing is taking place.

Ministers at the Foreign Office and at the Ministry of Defence continue to exchange information and offer advice and support to the Russian Government on the Arctic fleet, as do several other allies. There is excellent co-operation on that. I am sorry to say that we are by some measure the largest contributor to the World Bank's fund to provide assistance to developing countries. The scale of the problem may be less in those countries, but even on a smaller scale it could be serious for them. We continue to offer advice and financial support through the World Bank and by other means. We are giving further consideration to whether we can take other steps to help those countries to meet some of the problems.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I thank the Leader of the House for the advance notice of the statement, which shows both progress and areas of concern. When will the tables to which she referred be published? In view of her frankness about the value of the international tables, it would be worth knowing whether those at the top of her tables know the least about the problem. Will the information be available in good time for us to study it before her statement next month?

The fire and police authorities will not get the all-clear until the national infrastructure forum on 13 July. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied that there will be sufficient recovery time should that all-clear not be forthcoming? Excellent progress has been made in the national health service. Has the right hon. Lady made any arrangements for the Government to meet the additional budgeting pressures caused by achieving compliance? Should there be problems and should a recovery plan be needed, will the Government make proposals and offer the necessary funding support?

Mrs. Beckett

Our tables are not based on responses from those who may or may not know much about the problem. Like all the information that we are publishing, they are based on independent assessment in which we have confidence. I understand and expect that the tables will be out later today. If I am wrong, I shall make sure that the hon. Gentleman is notified as speedily as possible.

The independent assessment of the fire and police services should be complete for the July national infrastructure forum, but not before. The hon. Gentleman talks about time for recovery. The point of the process is to identify where work remains to be done and to ensure that plans are put in place so that it is done. That is why I propose to make more frequent statements as we move towards the date change, so that I can give the House a view of progress that has been made in areas of difficulty. The point of targeting the work that still needs to be done is to meet the relevant deadline. Similarly, the NHS was among the first of the public services to begin to address the issue as far back as 1995, although—in common with everyone else—NHS staff wish that they had started earlier. They believe that their budgeting is robust. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that I said in my statement that the financing expectation has shifted slightly, by some £10 million. In the context of the NHS budget, that is a marginal shift, and we do not anticipate that extra resources will be needed. It was expected that Departments would plan for the programme in their ordinary budgeting process.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

I welcome the thorough statement that my right hon. Friend has made. Can she confirm that the business-critical systems in the Department of Social Security are already compliant, and can she assure the 11,000-plus families in my constituency who are entitled to the record rise in child benefit announced in the Budget that they need have no worries about getting that benefit?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is right: it is important that people realise, through the receipt of the correct benefits, that the Government have made substantial increases in, for example, child benefit. It is also very important that DSS systems work effectively for those people who are dependent on benefit. The DSS is well up to speed on its preparations, but it is making contingency plans and preparations for any unforeseen difficulties that may arise.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Has not the right hon. Lady's statement confirmed the repeated warnings that she has rightly made that there is no guarantee that we will avoid problems in the new year, which is why insurance companies will not provide cover against the millennium bug? Have not the Government been unbelievably complacent in failing to use the opportunity afforded by the booklet "The Millennium Bug: Facts Not Fiction", which went out over the weekend, to give a clear warning and to urge people to take sensible precautions to avoid disruption in their daily lives? Will the Government produce further advice on the practical measures that people should take now to avoid panic later? Will the right hon. Lady also warn householders to beware bogus callers offering to make their domestic equipment millennium compliant, which is unfortunately what is happening?

Mrs. Beckett

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge and experience on this matter. He is right to say that there can be no guarantee that nothing will go wrong, because peak vulnerability will occur at a time of possible bad weather and a long and disruptive holiday.

I was a little sorry that the hon. Gentleman descended into such criticism of the Government's message and the balance of the booklet, which comprises some 16 pages of practical advice. The Government are anxious to ensure that people take what sensible precautions they can against any difficulties. The hon. Gentleman will understand that the balance of that message is difficult to get right, and the Government keep the matter continually under review. While we want people to be aware of anything in their lives that might be affected, we do not want to encourage the development of behaviour that will create problems where none need exist.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) asked about the Soviet Arctic fleet, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talked about informal advice and support. However, I put precisely the same question to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who replied: I am pleased to say that Igor Ivanov has accepted my invitation to visit Britain as my personal guest, and that issue will certainly be high on our agenda."—[Official Report, 14 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 30.] Have those vital talks with the Russians been in any way injured by what has happened in Kosovo?

May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on 9 September 1999? She said that the Government are conscious of the problem. It may not be enough to be merely conscious of it, because it is desperately important.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to identify the importance of the dialogue with Russia. It is my understanding that that important exchange of information has not been affected in any way by recent events. Indeed, the recognition of such common problems has helped to hold the international community together in the face of difficulties that might otherwise have tended to drive us apart.

There is no complacency about 9 September, but Action 2000 has advised us that although people have been testing for the impact of the code, no cases have yet been found of the date causing equipment to fail, so people are somewhat less concerned than they were at an earlier stage. I assure my hon. Friend that everyone is none the less mindful of the fact that there could be problems. We continue to keep the matter under review.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern that, although planes may not fall out of the sky on 1 January 2000, some third countries—by her own admission—have not made the preparations in air traffic control that we and other European Union countries have made? What has she done in conjunction with third countries to identify the routes that are most at risk, so that passengers from Britain and other European countries can be informed that they are not advisable to take on or around 1 January?

Some local authority services in North Yorkshire are still only on amber. Can we have an assurance that by the magic date of 9 September 1999 they will have undertaken all preparations to ensure that they are millennium compliant?

Mrs. Beckett

I myself have not taken action to chase up the issue of air route advisability; it is my job to nag those who are responsible and make sure that they do it. The international authorities have been collecting information and we are hopeful that, slightly later in the year, some useful information will come into the public domain. A great deal of work is being done and we are mindful of the fact that public confidence will be assisted by knowing broadly where people stand.

The hon. Lady is right to express concern about local authorities: the picture across local government has been somewhat patchy. We understand that there has been substantial progress both in authorities that were already doing quite well and in those that were not doing so well. The Audit Commission continues to monitor and assess that work and will publish further information towards the early part of July. As that information is published, we will seek to get authorities to identify areas where work still needs to be done and ensure that they plan to do it. We welcome any pressure from hon. Members on their own local authorities to help us to get that message across.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there have been misleading reports that some police forces and fire services may not be ready for the challenges of the millennium bug, creating unnecessary worry about those essential services? Does she agree that the reports were based on out-of-date information and that much work has been done, not least in Merseyside, to ensure that police forces and fire services will not only be ready to face the challenges of the bug on the due date but are on course to be ready three months before it?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that there was rather misleading publicity about some information that was already more than a little out of date. Fresh information about the status of individual forces and fire brigades will be available in July.

I take this opportunity to remind the House that those misleading reports stated that some police services were still classed as red—that is, that the risk of material disruption could not be ruled out. That does not mean that such forces could not operate: any deficiency in any critical part of a force's programme would mean that that force would be classified as red, as some were much earlier in the year. The whole purpose of this process is to ensure that any such deficiencies are identified and dealt with. However, other areas of a police force's work are often completely unaffected.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

One of the concerns in my constituency is that the services provided by the Department for Education and Employment should be compliant and that services will continue to be delivered accurately and on time. Will my right hon. Friend say whether the Department's compliance programme has been completed? Are the business continuity plans on target and ready to be tested?

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, I can indeed tell my hon. Friend that that Department is on course and on track. We are now encouraging all Departments to give more thought and planning to their contingency preparations. That information will also be placed in the public domain.