New Millennium body for the capital

Yet another Year 2000 committee was born this week -- this time to deal specifically with London-based issues. London Readiness 2000 will liaise with borough leaders and work to ensure the infrastructure, utilities and emergency services in the capital run smoothly over the millennium period.

Yet another Year 2000 committee was born this week -- this time to deal specifically with London-based issues. London Readiness 2000 will liaise with borough leaders and work to ensure the infrastructure, utilities and emergency services in the capital run smoothly over the millennium period.

One of its key responsibilities will be to ensure the smooth running and execution of emergency planning in the capital, according to Don Cruickshank, chairman of Action 2000. Although he accepts that London is "raising the risks" of millennium problems because of the sheer number of people who will descend on the capital over the millennium, he rejects the idea of urban chaos. "There may be localised problems, with traffic lights not working properly but nothing that the normal process can't cope with," Cruickshank said.

He remains upbeat and thinks the recent "name and shame" campaign for utilities may no longer be necessary. "The infrastructure is not a problem," he said. But his optimism contrasts starkly with the grim note sounded by Action 2000's managing director Gywnneth Flower. Only two months ago, she called the utility regulators "a scheming bunch" who needed their heads banged together. Any clash of opinion between the two is strongly denied by the Millennium body. The Infrastructure committee set up by Action 2000 will issue a report on preparedness in five key areas -- transport, banking, telecoms, energy and water -- next month. Not suprisingly, Cruickshank is confident the reports will paint a positive picture.

Robin Guenier, executive director of Taskforce 2000 -- the Y2K committee set up by the Conservatives that now acts as a pressure group -- believes much of the work done by the Infrastructure committee is unnecessary bureaucracy that slows down more important tasks such as publishing details of where they are with bug fixes. "The question I am most frequently asked is 'when are we going to hear from the utilities?'" he said.

With so little time left to clean up systems, the government's state of play is pretty worrying. Margaret Beckett, leader of the House of Commons, delivered her quarterly review on government preparedness to Parliament last week. Only two-fifths of government departments are near completion of work on critical systems and Beckett admitted the Medical Control Agency, Inland Revenue, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Northern Ireland Office were all behind in millennium planning. Details of government departments preparedness are available on the Internet.

Whitehall Mandarins must wake up to the fact that computer technology affects national stability, according to Steve Shirley, founder of UK-based software company FI Group. "If the Inland Revenue can't collect taxes, benefits won't be paid and within 4 weeks we could have civil unrest" she said. If the Medical Control Agency fails to get its act together, equipment will not reach hospitals in time, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office admitted. But despite the threat of public services collapsing, the government remains confident that systems will be sorted out in time -- its agencies have a September 1999 deadline for compliance. Beckett described the laggards as "a cause for concern rather than deep anxiety".

To the outsider, governmental organisation of Y2K issues may seem overly complicated. Guenier described the Action 2000 committees as "talking shops" which are not getting things done -- a criticism denied by Don Cruickshank. "I'm not sure there are more groups than are needed. The bug is not something that can be micro-managed. It demands collaboration on an unprecedented scale," he said. While he acknowledges that many observers see these committees as "a waste of time and pure bureaucracy", he believes collaboration between the public services such as utilities and emergency services, is pivotal in conquering the bug.

With all the Y2K discussions, analysis and reports, has anyone actually beaten it? London Underground delivered one of the most positive messages yet. It said last week that it was confident its transport system will run smoothly -- Yet even here there was a but. "We are constantly asking ourselves -- how shall we know what we don't know?" said David Bailey, commercial director of London Transport. "It is important we have contingency plans in the case of the Underground not working" he added.

Contingency planning was a major theme at the London Readiness 2000 City conference last week. Representatives from BT, London Electricity and the London Fire Services echoed Bailey's concerns about the need for robust emergency plans. According to Lizzie Beesley, Y2K programme director for BT, there is an additional factor she refers to as "dysfunctional behaviour" that could derail the most flawless of plans: "People will stockpile food, petrol and money even if its not necessary," she said. "If you ask 'will my phone work' the answer is yes, unless everyone calls BT to ask if their phone will work."

And, as Guenier points out, if anything is going to fuel dysfunctional behaviour it is denying the public of accurate information about Y2K readiness. "Not putting detailed information into the public domain is playing into the hands of the doom-mongers. People tend to think the worse if they are not told otherwise," he said.

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