2000 bug may halt new laws for months

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FEARS OVER possible millennium bug computer problems could force the Government to delay bringing in new laws for six months from September.

The Cabinet Office admitted yesterday that a number of departments will stop making changes to their computers later this year, so that full testing for the bug's effects can be made. But such a freeze will also make it impossible to enact new laws, which now rely on computers. "It will be up to individual ministers and departments to consider the balance between millennium compliance, and pushing forward with other programmes," said a spokeswoman.

Taskforce 2000, the independent advisory group, said this would hit big departments such as the Inland Revenue, which is still struggling with updates, and the Department of Social Security, even though it has tackled most of its millennium bug problems.

Across all government departments, legislation should only be introduced if it was "very, very, very urgent", said Robin Guenier, head of Taskforce 2000, otherwise it could introduce new problems in systems that have been fixed.

Ian Hugo, a computer consultant with 20 years' experience who prepared a wide- ranging report for Taskforce 2000 on public sector readiness, said: "All change destabilises IT systems. You don't want major changes late in the year. It would make it impossible to implement changes in legislation. However, this `change moratorium' is exactly what many big private-sector organisations are imposing."

Computers are now essential to implement new laws. They calculate tax entitlements and benefits, track payments and issue cheques. It would be unthinkable to introduce legislation that bypassed them. However, a moratorium on changes to core systems would effectively mean only the details of existing laws could be changed.

The freeze from 1 September 1999 until 29 February 2000 will allow sufficient time to test systems that might not recognise next year as a leap year.

Mr Hugo said there was no point in waiting until next year to reprogram machines. "If they are going to fail, they will fail next year too, and it will take just as long to repair then as now."

The report also says that there is a "serious risk" that the police's National Criminal Intelligence Service system, which is used to co-ordinate data about criminals, will fail in the new year.

Mr Guenier voiced "great concern" about the readiness of the Metropolitan, Sussex, Avon and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, Cheshire, Hampshire and Warwickshire police forces to cope with the millennium bug. He said: "Computers run society nowadays. Any failure could have an impact on the public."

However, John Evans, the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, who is leading a committee on police forces' readiness to deal with the millennium bug, denied his force had even been on the taskforce's list of forces facing disruption. He said the report was based on "outdated information".

Mr Guenier replied that it was based on the most recent data publicly available. "If we could have constant access via their websites to what's happening, we could assure ourselves of the situation," he said.

Mr Hugo criticised local authorities for not publicising their preparedness. He said that reports giving an average of how ready they are may be disguising the fact that some councils are seriously lagging.

The millennium bug is the result of many computer programs using two digits rather than four to represent a year. That leads to problems recognising pre and post-20th century dates. Dealing with it often involves rewriting and extensively testing programs.

Main Points

t Freezing changes to computer systems could prevent implementation of new laws - but it will be "a matter for departments and ministers to balance" priorities

t Seven police forces running "unacceptably late" in tackling bug, part of a "very depressing picture"

t "Serious risk" that the National Criminal Intelligence Service computer will fail

t Some fire brigades in "very poor shape indeed" and may not be ready

t Local authorities' individual readiness unclear

t The good news: air traffic, nuclear systems, Bank of England pose "no significant risk" of failure