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Millennium Bug

Volume 342: debated on Thursday 20 January 2000

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

12.32 pm

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

As I promised the House on 15 December, I am reporting back on an event that was unique in human history—the millennium date change—and its effects—

The whole House will agree that the effects of the millennium date change on central Government and the national infrastructure in the UK were a unique event. The unprecedented feature of the date change is that it stimulated an IT project that met its deadline. I am pleased to confirm that so far, as predicted, it is business as usual in the United Kingdom. In what is believed to be the largest co-ordinated project since the second world war, thorough and detailed planning across government and the national infrastructure, both publicly and privately controlled, ensured a smooth transition over the date change.

There is no doubt that the work had to be done. The millennium bug was shown to have the capacity to wreak havoc among services which, though essential, we take for granted. The Government's objective in that work was always to ensure that the bug resulted in no material disruption to essential services. That objective has been achieved.

No Government Department has reported any significant problems. The alert status, contingency arrangements and staff cover of Departments and agencies over the date change meant they could deal quickly with the minor Y2K bug problems that were discovered. Across the national infrastructure, electricity, gas, water and telecoms as well as offshore oil and gas industries continued to operate as normal, and the markets and financial sector successfully resumed full trading on 4 January.

The Government spent an estimated £380 million on tackling the millennium bug in our own systems, although without needing to make special further additions to Departments' budgets. The investment made was both necessary and beneficial. Continued payment of benefits, pensions and child support could be ensured only by essential and major system changes. Many of MAFF's internal systems, such as those for processing common agricultural policy payments on time, required corrective action or replacement.

In the wider public sector, NHS trusts and Government agencies found problems that needed to be fixed. Problems in gas repayment meters and electricity prepayment meters were found and fixed. Elsewhere in the private sector—everywhere from finance to food and transport to telecoms—major potential problems were found and fixed, in time. There were, and no doubt will continue to be, further minor glitches.

Here in the UK, a retailers' card reader problem before the date change affected about 5 per cent. of terminals in shops, and hence the public. Although such problems needed to be rectified, there have been no further reports in either public or private sectors of problems which have caused a significant inconvenience to the public.

The sorts of failures experienced typically have been incorrect date displays appearing on internal reports and read-outs. They have had no impact on customers. Those problems were corrected swiftly and had no impact on operations precisely because organisations were on the alert for problems and had put business continuity plans in place. The same pattern has been evident internationally—no material disruption, but concrete problems. For example, both France and the United States experienced problems with military satellites.

However, the relief that success creates should not obscure the very real difficulties that have been faced and overcome—problems whose nature and scale could indeed have caused major disruption in our economy and society. The failure of many critical systems within a short space of time over the date change would have been disastrous, and literally thousands of faults—many of them serious—had to be dealt with before the date change. The work of Government Departments, of Action 2000 and of service deliverers was vital in ensuring that the infrastructure continued to work as well as it did.

A huge amount of preventive work was done on the bug across the world, including in Russia, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Those who came late to the work benefited from the advice and experience of those already prepared. However, not one of the 173 countries which attended the largest-ever special meeting in the history of the United Nations in June last year failed to recognise that all faced some serious problems.

The investment made will yield real benefits. All organisations have probed their operations in depth, and replaced or discarded much that was out of date or no longer needed. Many have discovered long-standing flaws that were not fully recognised in the past. For example, as part of the work on assessing critical services that might be affected by the year 2000 problem, the Dutch Government identified a resources issue in their emergency call-handling posts—their equivalent of 999—which potentially could have caused the entire system to crash if as few as 140 or so simultaneous calls had been received.

There has been global co-operation in which knowledge has been freely shared. We look forward to that co-operation continuing in many fields. Moreover, there are other lessons to be learned. This was recognised early on as a management issue, and not just an IT issue—and was so handled. That may well be why it came in on time.

Prioritisation of business-critical systems worked. That is why the public experienced little disruption, despite the problems that have arisen. Business continuity planning was successful in working around those problems that did occur and millennium-operating regimes meant they could be and are being fixed. The breadth and depth of that experience will have continuing value.

Similarly, proper and wide-scale planning ensured that 3 million people—by the police's estimate—attended the millennium celebrations in London alone without serious incident, and similar celebrations throughout the UK passed off successfully. I will be publishing in February detailed returns from Departments on the impact of the millennium bug, and this will be followed by a more detailed report on lessons learned and benefits captured.

I would again like to pay tribute from the whole House to the vast number of people in the UK across the public and private sectors who have worked tirelessly to ensure no material disruption in the UK as a result of the date change—not least those who staffed the Government's millennium centre, which kept the media and the public informed. Our success in meeting the threat of the millennium bug is testimony to all their efforts.

The UK rose to the challenge of the millennium bug. As one of the world leaders in the field, we successfully advised others on how to meet it and assisted them to do so. For that work, and that of all who made the celebrations possible and successful, we owe a debt of gratitude, and we have together earned the right to pride in what has been achieved.

I thank the right hon. Lady for the early notice that she gave me of this statement and for coming back to the House with a follow-up report on the millennium bug, as she promised to do in December. I join her in congratulating all those in the public and private sector on the work that they have done and the smooth transition that has followed.

Although the Leader of the House paid tribute to many of the organisations and individuals involved, I noted that she did not mention the fact that the project was begun by the previous Government. Given the generosity of her remarks, I hope that she will accept that I wish to pay tribute to those of my colleagues who were involved at an earlier stage in the preparations for that smooth transition.

I hope that the Leader of the House will recognise that, in the final phases of the preparations for the year 2000 change, we were pleased to receive the information that she supplied. That is especially true of the information that she shared with me personally, and I wish to place on record my thanks. The information was both helpful and constructive. I shall miss our exchanges across the Dispatch Box on the subject, but I am sure that there will be other occasions.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. As she says, these exchanges will no longer take place, but they have been constructive and for the general good. As she will be aware from the briefings that we were able to share with her, because so little went wrong in practical terms, compared to what might have happened, the real danger—with the benefit of hindsight—that had to be overcome was a public reaction that might have caused problems that could otherwise have been avoided. The approach that was taken by Opposition Front Benchers under her stewardship was helpful in ensuring that we did not exacerbate a potentially difficult situation. I appreciate that assistance and I am happy to put that on record.

I accept that preparations began just about under the last Government, in July 1996. I am also happy to confirm that the potential impact of the date change was recognised much earlier and very fully by some Conservative Members, not least the hon. Member for Hexham, I think. [Horn. MEMBERS: "Bournemouth, East]. I am sorry, I mean the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). I have duff information which is the result of human error and nothing to do with the millennium bug. Several hon. Members from both Conservative and Labour parties, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), have long taken an interest in the issue and the Government appreciate the support that they gave in helping to raise awareness of potentially difficult problems and in ensuring that that was done in a way that did not create further unnecessary difficulties.

I wish to add my thanks to both Front Bench teams for the way in which they have tried to co-operate to tackle the problem. I also wish to thank those who have worked so hard to make the transition appear so seamless. I urge my right hon. Friend robustly to reject the line of opportunists who have claimed, late in the day, that we have wasted vast amounts of public money, which was not the case. Will she also confirm that the management of the central Government Departments ensured that we took the opportunity to make large investments in upgrading to new IT technology? Not only did we overcome the problem of the millennium bug, but we have sound investment in IT for the next two to three years.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I hoped and anticipated that he would be here, as I want to pay considerable tribute to him. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was understandably anxious to gain credit for those Conservative Members who had taken some action on this matter, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) is very well aware of the great step change required by the programme and in the funding for it. He made that change within three weeks of the general election that brought this Government into office.

My right hon. Friend may not have spotted the fact in the information that has been made available, but he will be happy to learn that his initial forecast of the cost to central Government of dealing with the problem was accurate to within £10 million. That is because, contrary to early projections, a possible increase in the required expenditure has turned out not to be necessary. That is a rare example of an accurate forecast of the cost of such a project.

However, my right hon. Friend is also right to stress the value of the investment that has been made, and the potential dangers. British Nuclear Fuels plc had reported that fire alarm systems in some of our nuclear power plants were not compliant. It could have been very serious if an alarm had failed to work in the event of fire. My right hon. Friend will know that the United States Government took the trouble to keep running three non-compliant systems alongside the equipment that replaced them. All three of the non-compliant systems in that control group failed.

The Leader of the House is right to praise IT staff in the United Kingdom across the board for their work on the project. However, as Chairman of the Information Committee, I should like to add my thanks to the many staff in Parliament who kept our systems running perfectly throughout the millennium period.

An IT professional commented to me yesterday that he thought that we should have a millennium bug every year—not to create work for staff in the IT sector, but because he said that the bug problem had forced reluctant managements to modernise their systems in a way that they would not otherwise have done. The right hon. Lady was right to refer to the matter as a management issue.

Will the right hon. Lady consider building on the structures set up to deal with the millennium bug to ensure that all sectors are talking to each other as we move into a world increasingly dependent on IT, and in which IT systems are increasingly interdependent on each other?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Information Committee of the House. He and his colleagues were instrumental in examining what the House needed to do. I entirely share his view that, as always, the staff of the House deserve a great tribute from us for their work in keeping our systems going.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to identify some of the benefits that have emerged. The forced modernisation of systems is certainly a factor, but top managements across the developed world—and especially in countries such as our own—have been forced to engage with the questions of why and how they use IT, in a way that has not happened before. That has had considerable benefits already. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that part of the work now being undertaken is to identify and capture those benefits, for Government and across the wider economy.

A number of valuable lessons have been learned. For example, it appears that the extent of contact with small and medium-sized companies through the Government's information programme on this matter has been greater than in any previous programme.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. For the first time since I came to the House, a statement for which I asked at business questions one Thursday has been delivered the following one.

My right hon. Friend raised an important point in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) concerning the benefits that have been identified throughout the country. Would it not be helpful if Departments, when they make their reports, identified the benefits that have accrued to them, in terms both of the year 2000 issue and of the other managerial changes brought about as a result of the exercise?

I am glad to have been able to satisfy my hon. Friend's request on this occasion, but I hope that he will not take that as a precedent. It is not always so easy to arrange statements.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify the need for Departments to work out and declare the benefits that have accrued to them, and to learn from them. That is exactly what we are seeking to encourage them to do.

That this country has avoided problems so far is great credit to the right hon. Lady, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), Action 2000 and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) pointed out, the previous Government, who established Task Force 2000 in response to my Adjournment debate in May 1996. However, will the right hon. Lady confirm that we are not yet out of the wood, since many computer systems have yet to come up against a millennium computer date that they will not recognise, and since a special threat is still posed—a unique threat for this century—by leap-year day, 29 February. Will the right hon. Lady warn against complacency?

I am happy to endorse the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks about me. I suspect that we are all a great deal happier to share the credit today than we would have been had we had to share the blame instead. But that is fine—it is in the national interests as well as in ours.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we are by no means out of the wood. Although I say that prioritisation and contingency planning worked—that is a very important lesson—and we have, as far as one can judge, avoided almost completely any impact that would cause problems for the public, the hon. Gentleman, and others in this House who have expertise and have been following the issue, will know that we have not avoided impact altogether. Hundreds of examples of problems—some of them quite serious in terms of running organisations—have occurred across the world and will have to be tackled. I have no doubt that many others will be uncovered.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are seeing something of a recurrence of a problem that he will recall from the very beginning. The greatest difficulty then was getting people to share information because their lawyers told them not to, apart from anything else. People who have problems do not necessarily tell the world about them so, while not encouraging the blame-game that exposes organisations that have had difficulties, we must ensure that they and others learn from them. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that problems will occur until the end of year at the very least, and people must be aware of that.

May I also add my congratulations to everyone involved? Will my right hon. Friend's report give a Department-by-Department analysis of embedded chips and their cost and, if possible, put that information in the public domain?

Secondly, I echo some of the remarks that have already been made, in that neither this Government nor the previous one have, in the past 10 years, received plaudits for the way in which they bought and delivered computer systems. We are all guilty. The people who have has been involved in the preparations have clearly learned a huge amount. It would be great if my right hon. Friend's report could recommend that they take over the way in which computers are bought and designed, and systems put into place. That would stop a huge amount of waste. Will my right hon. Friend consider that?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and it is one of the issues that will have to be considered when the reports come in. I have taken note of his point about embedded chips. I have a feeling that we may have already asked Departments to do that, but I will make sure that his point is conveyed. There have been some comments in the press to the effect that, internationally, people did not bother to do things. A good example of latecomers benefiting from the experience of others is that people could identify where it really mattered to search for embedded chips and where it was pretty unimportant. My hon. Friend is right to identify that as an area of work that needs to be covered.

Will the right hon. Lady accept in retrospect that this is an illustration of both sides of the House coming together and of the House working at its best? The right hon. Lady said that there was no reason for undue alarm, although she could not hit the notion on the head entirely. However, people are suggesting that there will still be a major problem when we move from 00 to 01, at the end of this year and the start of the next. Will she analyse that in the report which she says that she will publish in February?

The report may well touch on those issues. The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is one of the points at which there may be further problems, but everyone who has been involved with the project recognises that there will never be another crunch point when so many different occasions come together as did at new year. For those who think that this is not really the millennium and who have strong views about the technicalities, there may be great celebrations next year, but most of us will not be celebrating on quite the same scale. The combination of events exacerbated the scale of the problems and the difficulties of dealing with them.

In her report, will my right hon. Friend take account of three lessons in particular? First, will she consider the international co-operation, particularly the presence of Russian officers at various centres over the new year? The same process should be repeated when other crises arise so that an exchange of information may continue. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) courageously decided to put a great deal of information into the public domain against the conventional wisdom. Will the Government learn lessons from that about the benefits of freedom of information and open government, and will my right hon. Friend bring the point to the Home Secretary's attention? Thirdly, will she take note of charlatans who continue to provoke doom and gloom long after corrective action that they had asked for has been taken?

My hon. Friend, like my hon. Friends the Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), took a great interest in the millennium bug and have followed things carefully. My hon. Friend is entirely right about international co-operation. The Government have received great credit across the Commonwealth because of the practical support and financial advice that we gave. He was correct, too, to say that the co-operation between the militaries of the United States and Russia was unprecedented, and I am confident that other benefits will arise.

My hon. Friend was also correct to refer to the risks taken, and the courage shown, by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. I have said many times that Britain was seen as a world leader on the millennium bug, among the principal reasons for which were our communication across the national infrastructure and our putting information into the public domain. People, including the United States co-ordinator, went on the record to recognise the worth of that.

My hon. Friend will recognise that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares his view about the worth of releasing information, but is concerned to ensure that the proper balance is struck in decisions about how to release information. My hon. Friend was quite correct in his general remarks about the benefits arising from our handing of the matter and the likelihood of long-term knock-on effects.

The Leader of the House rightly said that we owe a debt of gratitude to the teams of software writers who ensured that we did not endure a national disaster. Does she accept that many of them were freelancers? Does she realise that we face a second millennium bug when the Government impose IR35 on 5 April? Is she aware that that will drive thousands of software writers and other information technology experts out of the United Kingdom? Thank God we shall have no major millennium problem next year because, if we did, we would be unable to cope with it once the software writers had left this country to earn money abroad.

The nature of the millennium bug project and the degree to which it affected the national interest meant that few people tried to make party politics out of it. One exception was the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) who, along with his many more unconstructive and, with the benefit of hindsight, entirely nonsensical remarks, demanded that I should take the blame for anything that went wrong over the millennium. The other exception is the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) —typical.

I, too, declare my interest in the subject and thank the public services for defeating the bug. Does the Leader of the House think that the experience gained over the past year will help to ensure that future IT programmes for the various Departments will be finished on time; will not cost far in excess of the original estimates; will be bug free; and will work?

Although I would be too cautious to say that that would be the case, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right to state that those are the characteristics of the project and that they teach us some important lessons. The project can be achieved, if it is tackled in the right way—with the right objectives and management. Not only does that teach important lessons: it undermines the arguments of those who, on many other occasions, on many other IT projects, say that it is impossible to do those things. It is not impossible, if we get it right. The challenge to us all is to get those projects right in the future.

Those computer systems that were sensible enough to devote 11 bits to the date so as to allow four digits were resilient. However, doom and gloom will strike on 31 December 2048. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she is working night and day in order to eliminate difficulties at that date?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He has now sensibly placed it in Hansard; consequently, I am confident that it will be noted by the Government of the day—in which it is just possible I may not be serving. Let me acquaint him and the House with the fact that my report to the Prime Minister on this matter included the suggestion made to me that there may be knock-on effects when today's new-borns retire. Although I am aware that my right hon. Friend bows to no one in his regard for his children, or in his responsibilities as a father, I took the view that he might not be too worried about the pension of a child who is not yet born.