Fears about 2000 bug `hyped and exaggerated'

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PREDICTIONS of doom were much exaggerated, a Commons investigation into the millennium computer bug problem concluded yesterday.

The all-party Science and Technology Committee said: "We are reasonably content that widespread failures in key parts of the national infrastructure will be averted if current year 2000 programmes for compliance are continued through to completion on time."

Problems will occur with computers and equipment containing programmed chips if their two-digit date programmes are unable to distinguish between 2000 and 1900 at the end of next year.

In some cases, where computers are inter-linked, chain reaction computer crashes could lead to breakdowns in critical services like transport, telecommunications, power and fuel delivery.

But the MPs concluded that while there was "potential" for problems, "we believe that the UK can achieve an acceptable level of millennium readiness and celebrate the millennium without concerns about widespread disruption".

The low-key report followed a four-month investigation, and evidence taken from a large number of witnesses.

The Consumers' Association told the committee of the possibility of people "suffering financial loss, major inconvenience or breach of data protection safeguards" as a result of failures in such things as credit card billing, insurance company records, or social security payment systems.

The report said: "Malfunctions or failures in systems which perform safety- critical or essential operations such as air traffic control systems; road or rail signalling; medical equipment; safety control equipment in factories or equipment controlling the labelling, storage and distribution of perishable foods, would present more fundamental risks to the public...

"However, as the Institution of Electrical Engineers told us, there has been `much hype and scaremongering' in some reporting of year 2000 issues and that, at times, the consequences of failure to deal with the problems have been exaggerated." The report then hedged the issue with an each- way bet, adding: "Though predictions of doom generally have failed to account for the fact that some remedial action has already been taken, we, like the majority of our witnesses, conclude that the century date- change problem could, if not solved, cause severe difficulties in many critical public services."

The Year 2000 - Computer Compliance; Science and Technology Committee; Second Report; Stationery Office, pounds 8.80