Computer timebomb ticks under Labour

The Government was warned yesterday that 6 million jobs could be at risk if it does not stop dithering and act quickly to defuse the Year 2000 computer timebomb. Britain faces a human, business and technical disaster which can hardly be over-estimated. Time is running out. Yet hardly anything is being done, Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, discovers.
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Funds are reduced to "dribs and drabs", ministers are passing the buck, and the task of warning business about the threat posed by a mass computer breakdown at the turn of the century has been delegated to "one man and his cat".

Taskforce 2000 - "ensuring business continuity at the millennium" - might sound grand. Established at the instigation of the Conservative government, it is co-sponsored by the Confederation of British Industry and the Computer Services and Software Association.

But Robin Guenier, its executive director, yesterday blew the lid off a saga of bungling Whitehall complacency in an attempt to jolt the Government, business and the public into action.

The former chief executive of the Government's own Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, said: "I think it can be done, if senior ministers get a grip and put it on an emergency footing."

Mr Guenier, who works from his home, a cottage next to a pub car park near Wheathamstead, Hertfordshire, is so starved of funds that he has not even had a secretary for the last year. He described his operation as "one man and his cat".

He has the help of one civil servant, seconded from the Department of Trade and Industry, and two women who answer telephones from a "virtual office" in London. In July, he submitted a modest business plan to John Battle, the industry minister, begging for another pounds 450,000. Eight weeks later, he has heard on the "grapevine" that he has been allocated another pounds 100,000.

There has been no research into the scale of the problem, and there is not one penny available for advertising.

Because many computers are not geared to cope with a year ending in two zeros - 2000 - some of them will think they have gone back to 1900 at the end of 1999. Meltdown could force business to a grinding halt. The doomsday scenario includes empty supermarket shelves, aircraft grounded, international markets closing down, and hospitals being starved of vital medical supplies.

Mr Guenier said some Americans described it as the modern equivalent of the Black Death. The chief executive of a British company with an annual turnover of pounds 35bn told him it had been working on the problem for two years. "And still they're not confident of completing everything on time.

"I am not a doomsayer. I believe this is resolvable with political will, and the attention of senior people. But if you look at this over the next two years, it is as important as Aids, global warming and BSE combined. This is going to be devastating if we get it wrong."

Whitehall insiders said that Labour ministers had wasted time since coming to power. Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, took a keen interest before the election. After the election, she passed it on to Mr Battle, who has responsibility for telecommunications. He has now passed it on to Barbara Roche, a junior minister responsible for small business. She saw Mr Guenier for the first time on Monday.

At the meeting, Mr Guenier spelled out the threat. On the most optimistic assumptions, he said that any large or medium-sized business which had not made an adequate start on ensuring that its computer systems were ready for the change of century, by the end of the current financial year, risked business failure.

"The indications are that only about 20 per cent of large businesses and 10 per cent of medium-sized business have made such a start," he told the minister. "That means that about 40,000 businesses with about 6 million employees have not. The possible failure of so many businesses represents an unprecedented threat to the economy."

Mr Guenier said: "I can find no one who understands the problem who doubts this. This is extraordinarily worrying - almost beyond belief. But no one seems to want to listen."

Asked how Ms Roche had responded, Mr Guenier said. "I just left a very unhappy lady. I got no response. It's all woolly; I get no feel that anybody believes me."

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry last night denied that nothing was being done. "A strategy for overcoming the millennium timebomb problems was discussed and it was a constructive meeting at which Mr Guenier was assured that he would be receiving further funds from the Government and it was agreed that there would be another meeting shortly."