Worried about the Year 2000 problem, aka the Millennium Timebomb? Well you're in good company. So are David Atkinson, Paul Cannon, John Cope, the Reverend Martin Smyth, Richard Caborn, Dudley Smith, John Townend, Dafydd Wigley, Tam Dalyell, Stephen Timms, Anthony Durant and Russell Johnston.
These dirty dozen aren't the Arsenal team, plus sub, but 12 caring Members of Parliament who have put their names to a bill - the Companies (Millennium Computer Compliance) Bill - which will oblige UK businesses to audit their systems to deal with the anticipated chaos at midnight on 31 December 1999.
At this juncture it is worth recounting how our legislators define what they mean by a "computer" or "computer system". It won't win any awards from the Campaign for Plain English, but here it is (for what it's worth): "In this section, 'computer' or 'computer system' shall be construed to include any means of processing instructions capable, when incorporated into a machine-readable medium, of causing a machine having information-processing capabilities to indicate, perform or achieve a particular function, task and result and will further include (without limitation to the foregoing) a semiconductor chip embedded within a machine."
The remainder of the bill's wording is rather more comprehensible. "It shall be the duty of every company in each financial year ending before 31 December 1999 to assess the capacity of every computer system (see above if you're unclear) used by the company and programmed to recognise calendar dates to deal accurately with dates later than 31 December 1999."
The sponsor of the bill, Tory MP David Atkinson, claims the chairmen of top UK companies support him on the issue and says that while awareness of the Millennium problem has almost doubled over the past year, the number of companies that have actually audited their systems has barely changed, up from 8% to 9%.
But is it any wonder firms are so apathetic? The day after Atkinson announced his bill, the Financial Times, confidently and equivocally told readers in its leader column that "personal computers will not be affected. But systems running on mainframe computers from the 1970s may not be able to cope ..."
This would be fine ... if it were correct. PCs can be affected by the Millennium timebomb, and in a big way. Rather than revert to 1900 AD on the stroke of midnight 34 months hence, their clocks will conveniently switch to 1980 AD.
The FT redeems itself by suggesting that legislation is not the answer.
Businesses do things because they are commercially viable, not because there's a law telling them it's a good idea. The Year 2000 problem is no exception.
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