Beckett stumps up pounds 1m to tackle millennium bomb

The Government yesterday bowed to criticism that it was not doing enough to tackle the millennium timebomb by announcing that pounds 1m is being ploughed into an initiative to tackle the threat posed to the nation's computer systems.

Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, told the Labour conference in Brighton that the money would be used to fund a new campaign, Action 2000, dedicated to addressing the problems that could be caused by computers being unable to deal with the date change in the year 2000.

The campaign was one of a number of initiatives unveiled by Mrs Beckett as part of what she styled as a "partnership for prosperity" with business to boost the economy.

Robin Guenier, executive director of Taskforce 2000, has been warning for months that the Government was courting disaster by failing to recognise the seriousness of the millennium timebomb and take action to fund a proper campaign.

It has been estimated that the timebomb could cost up to pounds 4bn and 6 million jobs unless action is taken to avert the looming threat.

Mrs Beckett said the DTI money should be supplemented by further funding from the private sector. "They say that the future belongs to those who prepare for it and today we must prepare for the new millennium," Mrs Beckett told the conference.

She also confirmed that a new unit would be set up within the department to examine and identify future trends in technology and an extra pounds 10m for the foresight programme to focus it more on small and medium-sized businesses.

Mrs Beckett also reiterated her commitment to a strong competition policy which put "contented consumers" ahead of vested commercial interests. "We will make sure that business cannot stifle competition at the expense of the family budget," she promised.

She also announced that, as part of the review currently being undertaken of utility regulation, funding would be increased for the Gas Consumers' Council to ensure that customers had the advice they needed to exercise their rights.

Mrs Beckett further pledged that she would soon be publishing plans for implementing the EU's Working Time Directive - a guarantee that people do not have to work excessive hours and get an annual holiday.

Her speech to the conference coincided with a survey showing that business leaders backed many of the Government's key policies. Nearly eight in ten managers said a minimum wage pitched at pounds 3.50 would not damage their business, 54 per cent said part-time employees should have the same rights as full-time staff and 54 per cent said employers should be required by law to negotiate with a trade union where a majority of their staff wanted that.

The survey, conducted by the Institute of Management, also found that 80 per cent felt relations with Europe had improved since the election while 69 per cent felt the pound should join a single currency provided economic convergence criteria were met.