HL Deb 03 November 1998 vol 594 cc135-8

2.50 p.m.

Lord Razzall asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are confident that the private sector has the structures in place to be millennium compliant by 1st January 2000.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, awareness of the year 2000 problem is now pretty universal among companies but latest research for Action 2000 shows that action, particularly among firms employing between 10 and 250 people, is lagging behind. We will continue to encourage the private sector to make this a top priority.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, can he, first, confirm recent newspaper reports which state that the bug-busting campaign launched by the Prime Minister in March 1997 aimed at medium-sized enterprises has attracted very few of them? Secondly, can he also confirm that the concern of Action 2000 leads to a demand for significantly greater funding from the Government? Will he confirm that concern and tell us whether that extra funding will be available?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the bug-busting campaign which was indeed announced by the Prime Minister is at a very early stage. As the noble Lord knows, £30 million has been allocated to it by the Department for Education and Employment. However, it really only started in July of this year and much of the early effort had to be spent in establishing satisfactory quality standards. Indeed, it would not have been any good introducing it en masse until we had done so.

As far as concerns the noble Lord's second question, I can confirm that I had seen newspaper reports about additional money for Action 2000. Money has, of course, already been increased for the latter, and if any further applications for money come to us we will consider them sympathetically.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the Minister aware of what I can only describe as a scam being carried out by a very well-known company, Pitney Bowes, which provides franking machines to industry and commerce? The company is persuading customers to change their franking machines, ostensibly under existing contracts, in order to safeguard them from the year 2000 bug and involving them in a five-year contract for £16,000 when a new machine can be bought for £1,300. Can the Minister tell the House what the Department of Trade and Industry is doing to prevent such scams and what redress customers have in such circumstances?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Countess has made a very serious allegation about which I had not heard. The word "scam" sounds to me as indicating something illegal as well as something commercially undesirable. I hope that the noble Countess will perhaps discuss the matter with me. We can certainly talk to the appropriate authorities.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the Council of Europe has called on the OECD to organise an international test day for millennium compliance? Would my noble friend support such a test day being organised on an international scale?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords. I had heard suggestions about a test day. However, I do not think that it would be appropriate, nor does Action 2000 believe that it would be appropriate. Indeed, there are too many different kinds of problems, and businesses and individuals are at far too many different stages of development of their responses to the millennium bug problem for any particular day to be appropriate.

In a sense, there will be a compulsory test day on 9th September next year because many computers are programmed to cause trouble on the 9th day of the 9th month of 1999. Therefore, on that day we will have some forecast of what might happen at the end of that year.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a particularly difficult aspect of the problem is embedded chips? Will the Government give special advice and guidance to smaller firms to deal with the problem, which can be most costly to resolve?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. Problems with the real-time clocks are relatively easy to deal with, and problems with bios-clocks are slightly more difficult to deal with. However, problems with embedded chips—let us say, to take an extreme example, in underwater survey equipment—are extraordinarily difficult to deal with because in many cases, particularly with smaller items of equipment, the cost of finding and replacing the faulty embedded chip would be greater than the cost of the material itself. That is the kind of advice which Action 2000 is giving to small and medium-sized enterprises. Indeed, its hotline is receiving 10,000 requests a week.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, do the Government have any plans about helping ordinary consumers in their homes as regards this millennium bug? It is not only large organisations, government departments and small and medium-sized firms which will be affected; indeed, there is an awful lot of household equipment involved. One is aware of the fact that this will happen in the middle of winter and one wonders about central heating systems for the elderly, refrigeration plant, and so on. Is there any advice available in that respect? Those of us who normally take out home insurance policies are now beginning to notice information about this in the small print which states that such companies will not be responsible. Therefore, do the Government have any plans for guidance in that regard?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there is much wild talk about equipment in the home—not, I hasten to say, from the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. Indeed, people are talking as if it would be a tragedy if a toaster did not work on 1st January 2000. Nevertheless, the noble Baroness is quite right to mention more complicated equipment, such as central heating systems. Advice is indeed available for individuals in that respect. While responding to the noble Baroness, perhaps I may commend the very lengthy and informative article in the Sunday Times this week which included such advice for individual households as well as for businesses.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, on reading the latest government report on the problems that they face with the millennium bug, does the Minister recognise that it is clear that local authorities will fail to meet the target; that the MoD is having to abandon important systems because it cannot meet the target; and, indeed, that there will be immense disruption in the private sector? Do not the Government consider that it is part of their duty to the public as a whole to put systems in place to ensure that, whenever such disruption occurs, the public are protected from it as far as possible?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords; we have always done so. Within three weeks of coming into office the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set in place a monitoring system in the public sector exactly because, as the noble Lord said, we recognise that there is an interface between the public and the private sector. Throughout the past 18 months we have given priority in the public sector to business-critical systems—in other words, those systems which will also affect the private sector. Classic examples of that would be if there were power failures, for example, which would affect everyone, both in the private and the public sector. Another example would be a breakdown in the supply chain where people who have nothing wrong with their own systems find themselves in trouble because their suppliers or their customers are not compliant. I agree with the thrust of the noble Lord's question, but I do not agree that the Government have been negligent in tackling the problem.