HL Deb 25 March 1998 vol 587 cc1221-4

2.49 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the advent of the year 2000 will not involve paralysis as a result of the widespread inability of computer systems to adjust to the new date.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, all plans by government departments to tackle the millennium bug problem have been made public and are being closely scrutinised. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as part of his wider strategic role, published on 3rd March the results of the first review of these plans. The President of the Board of Trade provides support to the private sector through her department's Action 2000 initiative. Its aims are to help companies solve their millennium bug problems. She also chairs a Cabinet committee which is driving forward action across the public and private sectors to ensure that the national infrastructure is not damaged by the millennium bug.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Answer. Is he satisfied that sufficient is being done to ensure that the arrival of the millennium is not attended by massive chaos resulting from the fact that few computer systems were originally designed to cope with the arrival of that year? If the utmost care is not taken in the limited time available, the millennium could turn into a sour joke.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I would be foolhardy if I were completely satisfied—to use the word which the noble Lord has used. All I can say is that we appear to be ahead of the field compared with other countries. For example, we were the first to raise this issue in NATO. We have taken the lead in the G7 and in other international organisations. I think it is generally recognised that we are doing more both in the public and the private sectors to tackle the problem than most other people.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that anyone who buys a PC now can be satisfied that it is fully year 2000-compliant? Will he also confirm that there is software available in the public domain on the web to check whether the BIOS (basic input operating system) of an old PC is year 2000-compliant?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I can certainly confirm the noble Lord's second point. Software at under £30 is available which will enable a private user to check his PC and even to find out what to do in the event of a problem. All public purchasing has been millennium bug-compliant since September 1996. I am told that there are still some suppliers who refuse to give cast-iron guarantees to the private sector that what they are selling is millennium bug-compliant.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I think the House will well understand why my noble friend cannot give cast-iron guarantees on the generality of the problem. But can he at least assure us that those computer control systems which operate in the Palace of Westminster will be adjusted before the terminal date?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that question should be addressed to the chairman of the Library and Computers Sub-Committee rather than to the Government. However, my understanding as a member of that committee is that we are well advanced in our plans for tackling the millennium bug.

Viscount Chelmsford

My Lords, some six months ago I wrote to several Ministers in the DTI and several Cabinet Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, enclosing a report from the parliamentary group, EURIM which highlighted concern about information and communication technology skills arising out of the combination of the year 2000 problem and the need to make provision for EMU. At that time we flagged up the concern we had that legislators needed to take account of the ICT consequences that will arise out of future legislation proposals. Can the Minister tell me whether any formal monitoring proposals have been set up to consider problems that may arise for the private sector out of future legislation? Obviously, pensions is a classic case. As regards the public sector, is there any reason why we should not, in addition to the information on financial consequences and human resource consequences that appears at the front of Bills, also refer to information and communication technology consequences?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Viscount raises wide questions far beyond the issue of the millennium bug itself. That is not to say they are not valid and important questions. Certainly the extension of the remit of the Action 2000 working group which I mentioned, which has been set up by the President of the Board of Trade, would be considerable if it took into account all the matters that the noble Viscount has mentioned. We ought to concentrate for now on the millennium bug. However, the points made about future legislation are certainly valid.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the noble Lord indicate whether in the time now available the difficult problem of the embedded micro-processor chip can be effectively dealt with? Have the Government found that this is all likely to be rather more expensive than they indicated last November when the noble Lord repeated a Statement made in another place? I believe that the figure then quoted was £370 million. On review, is that figure still valid?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as regards the review I mentioned in my first Answer, which was published on 3rd March, the figure of £370 million is now £393 million. Frankly, I do not believe that figure either. I am sure that it will change as further inquiries are carried out. As regards embedded chips, that applies to real time clock chips and to BIOS firmware. These are cheap components; but, as the noble Lord says, they are deeply embedded. I think that probably the best solution for most users will be the kind of low cost programmes to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred, which can identify the problem and apply a durable fix.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, given the difficulties that the noble Lord opposite has mentioned and the fact that he is unable to guarantee that everything will be all right, will he say why the ministerial group has met only once since 1st May 1997? Will he also say why Taskforce 2000, which was set up by the previous government under the energetic leadership of Mr. Robin Guenier, has been replaced by Action 2000, which is now led by a part-timer who, I believe, was responsible for the fact that the latest telephone numbers have to be changed now every four years?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the ministerial group has met several times. I am a member of it and I have not been able to attend a single meeting because of other responsibilities. The noble Baroness is right to say that Taskforce 2000 has been replaced by Action 2000. It has a part-time chairman in Don Cruickshank who is of course the director-general of Oftel. However, as the noble Baroness may be aware, it has recently appointed a full-time chief executive, Gwynneth Flower, who has been the chief executive of the Central London Training and Enterprise Council. The budget for Action 2000 has been increased from about £1 million to about £10 million. It is not a question that we are not taking this matter seriously.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am sure the whole House welcomed the original Answer of the noble Lord, and particularly the statement that he made that this country is leading others in the precautions it is taking. I hope he will bear in mind the fact that it is possible for this country to be immensely affected by confusion imported from and generated elsewhere.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, of course that is right. One of the reasons it is perhaps more important for us to be ahead of the game is because we are so much a trading nation and so much of our national infrastructure is internationally dependent. I must confess that although I am sure we are doing what we can, I am by no means confident of the outcome. One of the things we have to consider is what happens if things go wrong. Perhaps we could have a kind of civil defence programme to be brought into force on 1st January 2000.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, would the noble Lord like me to help him reassure the House by telling him that when I borrowed a computer from the computer room the other day, I was assured that all House of Lords computers were millennium bug-free?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful for that. I thought that I had already given the assurance that all purchases by Government have been millennium bug-free since September 1996. There are other things that can still go wrong.