Industry must pay for 2000 timebomb

The Government insisted yesterday that it is taking the "Millennium Bomb" - which could paralyse computers after December 31 1999 - seriously. But Barbara Roche, the minister in charge, also emphasised that industry, not government, must pay. Yet the CBI seems to be playing the issue quietly too, reports Charles Arthur, Science Editor.
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"It is a huge problem. And there is so little time left to check and fix and test our systems," the industry minister Barbara Roche told The Independent yesterday. She also insisted that "Industry - not the taxpayer - must bear the cost of putting it right."

But it also appears that industry is only slowly beginning to think about a problem whose deadline cannot be moved, and now lies just a few hundred working days away. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has resisted calls for the topic of the "Millennium Bomb" to be included in the talks at its annual conference starting on 9 November in Birmingham - even though Philip Wright, on the CBI's "year 2000" group, thinks business understanding of the importance of the topic is "patchy".

The Government was stung by the Independent's exclusive report in which Robin Guenier, head of Taskforce 2000 warned that the effects of not correcting the problem would be "devastating". He insisted that he needs more funding to get the message across to industry.

But Ms Roche said that the Department of Trade and Industry had already taken action by encouraging the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and computing companies to set up Taskforce 2000 in the first place.

She met Mr Guenier last Monday and "had a very positive meeting discussing what action needs to be taken now." She added: "I am extremely concerned about this issue, and the report of the meeting is wholly inaccurate." Mr Guenier said that after he warned Ms Roche he "got no response. It's all woolly; I get no feel that anybody believes me."

Ms Roche hit back by saying that "funding for Taskforce 2000 is a complete red herring" because it is industry rather than the Government which has to bear the cost. However, she did not mention how much money the Government has committed to checking and updating its very old and enormously complex computer systems for tax collection, hospitals and social security.

The Millennium Bomb arises because some computer programs use only two digits to represent the year - meaning that after 1999 they might think the next year is 1900, not 2000. Eradicating this fault cannot be automated, raising huge problems for any organisation which relies on computers.