There's nothing like a looming election to focus the outlook of politicians, even if it is with a squint-eyed perspective.
A few weeks ago, in a near empty House of Commons, just a smattering of MPs were still hanging around on the eve of the Christmas recess. And like staff at a night club, all they had left to do was a bit of quiet broom pushing before everyone packed up and went home.
Yet amid obscure discussions about parliamentary points of order and embassy sieges in far-off Lima, there was another item raised which - while also of little interest to most MPs - could nevertheless have widespread ramifications for the IT industry at large and particularly for solution providers involved in the year 2000 problem. Several times previously in the year, Tory MP David Atkinson had tried to raise Commons awareness of the millennium date change fiasco, doubtless to stifled yawns among backbenchers, let alone ministers. As Atkinson admitted: 'When the matter was first raised by me in a question to the prime minister, it was greeted with expressions of ridicule and disbelief.'
Later, in May, the tenacious member for Bournemouth again tried to quiz the government about what it was doing, though his attempt to force a hearing was stalled by government whips, who - fearful at the time that they could lose an earlier debate on agricultural policy - sent Tory MPs home early rather than risk an adjournment.
Although in August the government pledged to set aside all of #170,000 for a 'task force' to take a peek at the problem, Atkinson's crusade to get more realistic measures - in the guise of a bill - was again thwarted in early December when the then paymaster general, David Willetts, rejected the idea of compelling firms to address the issue, insisting that it would 'not be the right way forward'.
Ironically, Willetts - as aficionados of the tabloids will know - resigned soon afterwards amid allegations of sleaze, all of which gave Atkinson the chance to slip in his bill in the dying gasps of the 1996 Commons session - a case of an ill wind blowing some good.
Whether the bill will come to fruition - Atkinson would like to see it receive Royal Assent this spring - remains to be seen. But if it does, those involved in providing solutions can expect to reap huge dividends, given that the cost for sorting out the problem in the UK alone is an estimated #22 billion.
Which sector of the IT industry will benefit most is another moot point.
Market analyst CMI - which has just published an in-depth report on the topic - notes there are already about 100 year 2000 specialists, excluding the likes of IBM and ICL, which are similarly in on the act but are more likely to work through associated vendors or subcontractors.
While Atkinson's measure might bring some relief to the coffers of solution providers and resellers, it's a fair chance this wasn't uppermost in the mind of the former trade secretary. Indeed, although lifts might well malfunction, pensions might not be paid and planes could fall out the skies when the millennium time bomb detonates, Atkinson's main concern appears to be more about the impact on the shareholders of most large corporations. After all, it is these organisations with their mighty mainframes which are most at risk from financial ruin, and and yet their accounts, in theory at least, are subject to strict professional audit.
The worry, as alluded to by Atkinson, was that appointed auditors might not appreciate the true costs involved in defusing the millennium time bomb, especially as it entails predicting more than just 18 months ahead.
And when the bills come flooding in, profits - and shares - could dive.
That's not the sort of thing any Tory government would want to be associated with, especially in the run-up to an election.
To this end, then, Atkinson's bill is, to use his own words, intended as 'a legal boot in the behinds of chief executives'. As he explained to colleagues: 'Shareholders, who are the company's owners, are entitled to be told whether the security of their investment will be safe.'
But while sorting out the private sector is dominant in the minds of Atkinson and his supporters, it is a sentiment that does not seem to apply the public sector. Questions raised separately in the House about how the government intended to get its own act together on the problem have so far met with glib responses.
The NHS itself, the UK's biggest public sector employer, is already on record as admitting that it has 'no idea' how many of its computer systems are affected.
Yet if Atkinson's bill goes through, executives of private industry could face stiff penalties under an amended Companies Act, while the mandarins of Whitehall would be left free to dither.
Meanwhile, for the army of year 2000 solution providers, there is a cautious welcome for Atkinson's bill - whatever the motives behind it - albeit with the rider that the government would do better demonstrating by example, rather than pledging a mere #170,000 to an awareness campaign.
Colin Reardon, vice president of international operations at year 2000 specialist Viasoft, said: 'With an election looming, sorting out the problem in the public sector is a political hot potato, if only because of the immense costs.
'Yet public sector IT departments are, if anything, more vulnerable than their private sector counterparts because of the responsibilities involved.
Sooner or later someone has to bite the bullet, no matter what political hue.'
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