Funding crisis threatens Taskforce 2000

Taskforce 2000, the group set up by the Government to raise awareness about the looming computer millennium problem, is facing an imminent funding crisis which could force the organisation to close later this year, despite commitment by ministers to publicise the issue.

Funding for the taskforce, set up last year with a pounds 170,000 grant from the Department of Trade and Industry, runs out at the end of this month. No budget has been allocated for the next financial year. If the Government fails to provide more money, the taskforce would be left with less than pounds 100,000 from other commercial donors.

Margaret Joachim, a computer consultant and one of three senior staff on full-time secondment to the taskforce, warned that the organisation's work had not been completed. She said: "We have undoubtedly raised awareness, but that is only the first stage of informing large and small businesses about the problem. This is a real difficulty for whichever party wins the election. We have a bit of money left over for the next financial year but it won't last forever."

The millennium problem has arisen because most computer systems in the world can only recognise the last two digits of a year and will not be able to cope with the date change in the year 2000. Programmes used by retailers are already rejecting date-coded products and credit cards with expiry dates beyond 2000, assuming they are almost 100 years old.

Solving the problem is forecast to cost industry billions of pounds, while the DTI recently estimated the Government alone would need to spend pounds 1bn to sort out its computer networks. Computer experts fear systems could shut themselves down after the date change, causing chaos."

A DTI spokeswoman confirmed that no new cash had so far been allocated to the body. "We're committed to the objectives and are ready to listen to any case they want to put to us about their future plans."

The latest threat to Taskforce 2000 is an embarrassment to Ian Taylor, minister for Science and Technology, who set up the organisation and who has turned the issue into a personal crusade. Mr Taylor's obsession with the issue has already raised the eyebrows of other ministers.

Apart from its three seconded senior staff, two of whom are paid for by their existing employers, the taskforce has the free loan of a City of London office and two secretaries. Most of the cash has been spent on publicity material and work carried out by a public relations agency.

So far the organisation has revealed a worrying lack of interest in the issue from large companies. A recent letter to privatised utilities asking what precautions they were taking to protect their computer databases received replies from just a third of those questioned.

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