Bug paralyses public sector

Less than a third of local authorities and health trusts have drawn up budgets to underwrite their year-2000 IT repair programmes, and more than a third have yet to identify likely problems, according to an Audit Commission report.

The lack of concrete information has made it impossible to accurately estimate public-sector year-2000 costs, according to the commission’s director of corporate resources, Peter Wilkinson.

‘The picture is patchy, which is why we have such a wide range of figures – from #170m to #850m for the NHS, for example,’ he said. ‘The discrepancies suggest no-one knows the true cost. We need to get closer to the problem and then try to get to the real cost.’

The commission’s report, ‘A Stitch in Time – Facing the Challenge of the Year 2000 Date Change’, published on Monday, details district auditors’ findings from 350 separate trusts and authorities. Emergency services were the most advanced in tackling the millennium bug, followed by NHS trusts, with local councils bringing up the rear.

Yet, on average, every part of the public sector was significantly behind the commission’s benchmark for progress, said report author Keith Dixon.

‘Although projects are behind schedule,’ he said, ‘we believe it isn’t too late.’

Many public-sector bodies were tackling the year 2000 by shifting funds from replacement equipment and annual maintenance budgets, Dixon added. But the later the problem is tackled the more it will cost: a project beginning late this year would cost almost three times one which had started in early 1996, according to the National Computing Centre.

Maurice Fitzpatrick, Chantrey Vellacott’s head of economics, said NHS trusts were told to prioritise the reduction of waiting lists and clearance of outstanding debts before next April, effectively preventing them from spending anything on the year-2000 problem until 31 March 1999.

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