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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Y2K Bug May Hurt Europe's Pensioners




LONDON -- The Old World faces a serious computer threat as it enters the new millennium.


Pensioners, the long-term unemployed and those dependent on Europe's huge welfare system, rely on regular government payments to make ends meet. To them, computers are mostly a vaguely threatening but far-off complication for those in the world of work.


But welfare state recipients depend on a massive computerized infrastructure for the delivery of their benefits. These huge systems are often run by old computers and administered by underfunded organizations.


They look like prime candidates for attack from the millennium bug. It doesn't matter much if a computer crashes and your new car is not delivered on time. But real hardship soon ensues if pensions or dole checks stop.


"We would expect to see embarrassing disruptive failures in government computer systems which will impact on spending programs and social security," said Andy Kyte, analyst with a U.S. information technology research company, the Gartner Group.


In Europe, the wide-ranging German and French welfare systems are causing concern. Spain, Italy and Belgium also have huge social security systems.


Ian Taylor, an opposition Conservative member of the British parliament and former minister for technology, is impressed with progress in Britain and the Netherlands.


"I'm not so sure about the public sector in France and Germany. I have seen no objective evidence that software systems have been thoroughly analyzed and inspected in the big continental welfare systems," Taylor said.


Taylor said compared with the business world, government officials had less motivation to fix the problem. But firms dedicated to fixing the problem are still having difficulties.


"Even with harsh commercial reality to drive them on some companies are struggling. I cannot believe that public services within the European Union have quite the same external drive to get this right," Taylor said.


Kyte said he was less worried about France than Germany. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin issued tough instructions late last year to central and local governments to ensure continuity in public services. Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn also intervened to insist on action.


"These were significant interventions. Until then Y2K lacked a degree of credibility. This was a marked change in gear. It's not to say they are out of the woods, but it's very clear serious work is being done now," Kyte said.


"This really is in marked contrast to Germany where we still don't see any evidence of leadership recognizing the reality of the Y2K threat and putting in place necessary actions," Kyte said.


Kyte said the French action had been undertaken with no additional spending. He said it would be unfair to single out France and Germany.


"Government IT [information technology] is vast, complex and amongst the least prepared for Y2K in almost any geography where we perform research.


"The implication is we are going to see more snafus; the reality is IT in the public sector is not the greatest bug-free software in the world," Kyte said.


The worry for political leaders is the possible reaction from social security claimants to a failure to deliver funds. One week's loss of income would create a degree of resentment. Two weeks might generate something worse.


Last January in the French city of Marseilles, frustrated benefit claimants smashed up three post offices when a computer problem lasting a week blocked payments. The protests were ended by riot police.