Bug war presses on regardless

Gwynneth Flower, managing director of the Department of Trade and Industry-sponsored Action 2000, says the organisation expects ‘no disruption’ to its IT preparation campaign as a result of last week’s ministerial changes.

As part of his new brief as secretary of state for trade and industry, Peter Mandelson takes on overall responsibility for telecommunications and IT, which includes the ‘millennium bug’ campaign, being co-ordinated by Action 2000.

‘I can’t believe Peter Mandelson wants to be associated with anything that’s not successful,’ says Flower.

Former trade and industry secretary Margaret Beckett, who was effectively demoted to leader of the House of Commons, nevertheless remains a cabinet minister and will continue to chair the cabinet committee investigating the millennium bug in the private sector. She also takes over former public service minister David Clark’s role as chair of the subcommittee examining the public sector’s response to the year-2000 date change.

Small business minister Barbara Roche remains in place and will continue to play a role in encouraging smaller companies to tackle the issue.

Flower was speaking last week at the launch of a new initiative, ‘Pledge 2000’, designed to encourage companies to be open about their year-2000 IT preparations and to stave off a glut of post-millennium law suits.

Company directors are being asked to ‘take the pledge’ by signing a six-point certificate. The pledge is not legally binding, but testifies to the organisation’s commitment to work actively to minimise the impact of the year-2000 problem and to share information about its preparations with those who have a genuine interest.

The document does, however, set out a clause requiring signatories to keep year-2000 information supplied by other organisations confidential.

The final two clauses say companies will work co-operatively with their supply-chain partners and use consensual dispute resolution methods rather than resorting to the law. The main thrust of the document was to avoid US-style litigation, says Flower. ‘Taking legal action now will not help companies tackle their problems,’ she says.

Flower accepts the pledge was largely a symbolic exercise, but says it had gained the support of major companies such as ICL, Unilever and Sainsbury’s, which were present to help launch the pledge campaign.

The document was written by John Mahood, of law firm Tarlo Lyons. ‘It’s more than a moral pledge,’ he says. ‘Other guidance on corporate governance requires considerable effort to get benchmarks that must be adhered to. If you can’t sign this pledge, the question has to be, why not?’

Flower adds that, under UITF 20, auditors now have a responsibility to check on their clients’ preparations for the year 2000. ‘My concern is that it only happens at the time of the annual audit. I would hope that it would be more frequent than that,’ she says.

With less than 17 months to go, Flower admits to some anxiety about the country’s progress in tackling millennium-related IT problems. ‘I don’t sleep much. There is a programme in place, but I worry that it is not fast enough.’

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