Blair to hire 20,000 for millennium bug army

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A 20,000-STRONG army of "Bug Busters" is to be trained to tackle the threat posed by the millennium computer date- change crisis, Tony Blair will announce today.

In an article for the Independent, he says the "technical timebomb" poses a "serious threat to our economic performance" and the possibility of "major disruption to essential services such as benefit payments or even emergency services such as hospitals, the fire service and the police".

The Government will offer grants to train young people, the older unemployed or retired people to help companies deal with the bug. Mr Blair says it will help them launch careers in information technology.

The Prime Minister, who has tabled the millennium bug as an item for discussion by the coming meeting of the G8 countries in Birmingham, is to attend a conference on the problem in London this morning. Computers are threatened by the bug because millions of programs have been created on the basis of a two-digit year, like 98. When they turn to zero, zero at the end of next year, many will be unable to distinguish between the year 2000 and 1990. The full consequences of that confusion, and the chain- link reaction of computer crashes cannot be known until the millennium itselfyear.

Mr Blair says in today's Independent that although the Government is leading the way in raising awareness, only 37 out of 128 countries borrowing from the World Bank said they were aware of the problem and only six had set up awareness- raising campaign organisations like Britain's Action 2000.

But, while awareness of the problem was complete in the UK, a quarter of companies had not started taking action.

"So there has been progress, but not enough." Mr Blair says pounds 70m set aside in this month's budget will be used to help small and medium companies to develop information-technology skills to assess and fix systems which would be hit by the millennium bug.

"We will offer a pounds 1,300 time- limited grant for people to train in how to look for and solve the year 2000 problem," he says.

"If we get the response from business we are looking for, there will be an army of 20,000 `bug busters' fully trained between now and next April."

Mr Blair, who estimates the cost of dealing with the problem across the public sector stands at pounds 3bn, also announces that he is increasing the budget for Action 2000 from pounds 1m to pounds 17m and putting pounds 10m into a new World Bank Trust Fund to provide experts on training to developing countries in the hope that other European and developed countries will follow the lead.

Mr Blair says in today's Independent that John Prescott, deputy Prime Minister, and Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the Local Government Association, are writing to every local authority leader and chief executive "asking them to set up their own task forces to raise awareness in their local areas and to co-ordinate action between the private and public sector locally".

Tony Blair writes, page 17