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House of Commons

Monday 10 April 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


London Electricity Board

1. Mr. Cox : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the London electricity board ; and what issues were discussed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer) : My right hon. Friend and I meet the chairman of the Londonelectricity board regularly and discuss a range of issues of mutual concern.

Mr. Cox : I note that reply, but the Minister must be aware that over many years hon. Members have conducted a campaign with the electricity board, aimed at achieving a more humane and consultative policy to be followed before disconnection of electricity supply. Will the Minister assure the House that, once the industry is privatised, and other organisations are running domestic supplies to consumers, a policy of proper consultation before disconnection of supply will be followed?

Mr. Spicer : Yes, Sir. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he is looking. When the industry is privatised under the terms of the Bill that we shall be discussing later, special provisions of the kind that he requests will be put in place, and conditions will be attached to licences given to public electricity suppliers.

Mr. Harry Greenway : When my hon. Friend meets the chairman of London electricity board, in addition to the important point made by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), will he discuss the need to ensure that all lights in London streets, particularly main roads, are on whenever it is necessary? Is my hon. Friend aware that the lighting in the area of the Target roundabout has gone off or failed many times in the past three or four years, despite my repeated requests that it be kept on?

Mr. Spicer : I was not aware of the Target roundabout problem, but I take my hon. Friend's assurance that there is a problem there. There has been some concern about street lighting connections in the LEB area, but that problem has greatly improved in recent months. Under privatisation, local authorities will be able to contract elsewhere when they wish to do so.

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Severn Barrage

2. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what assumptions he made as regards availability of pumped storage and capacity in his evidence to the Energy Select Committee in arriving at the conclusion that a Severn barrage could amount to 14 TWH/year of electricity.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy (Mr. Peter Morrison) : The assumptions derived from the previous published study by the Severn tidal power group. These are being updated in the current study, which will be published in a few months' time.

Mr. Stern : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. How confident is he of the accuracy of the predictions on which the study is based? Will he ensure that not only the conclusions of the study, but the scientific data on which they are based, will be published?

Mr. Morrison : As I said, the assumptions derive from the previous study. Another study is taking place and the figures produced in the interim report--it is only an interim report--on the Hinckly inquiry were a little more than the figures that I gave, which were 14 TWH per annum. That is interim, and I shall certainly publish what my hon. Friend has asked for.

Electricity Privatisation

3. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what studies have been undertaken by his Department as to the effect of privatisation of the electricity industry on the production of electricity from all other energy sources.

Mr. Michael Spicer : We have framed our privatisation proposals to encourage competitive generation from all sources.

Mr. Cran : Does not recent experience show that the use of fossil fuels in the production of electricity is susceptible not only to interruptions of supply but to variations of price? That being so, should not the non-fossil fuel obligations be used to the maximum after the Electricity Bill is enacted, and reviewed constantly thereafter?

Mr. Spicer : I agree that there have been disruptions in the supply of coal as a result of strikes and variations in the price of oil. That is why we have ensured, through the non-fossil fuel obligation, that a variety of sources of energy will be available, with resulting security for the consumer. We have particularly ensured that renewable sources of energy will be given a special place within the non-fossil fuel obligation.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is privatisation a consideration in the mind of the Central Electricity Generating Board in pursuing its planning application for dry storage at Heysham? Does it think that that is cheaper than reprocessing? Will the Minister personally intervene? We want the material in west Cumberland, where it can be reprocessed by British Nuclear Fuels plc. Is the Minister aware that the people of the Heysham area object and that we in west Cumberland want the material?

Mr. Spicer : I am not inside the CEGB's mind. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is applying for dry storage at Heysham. He is right to say-- perhaps we shall be discussing this in greater detail later in the week-- that

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there are advantages attached to the processing which is proposed at the thermal oxide reprocessing plant in terms of the recovery of uranium and the development of plutonium. However, there must be an application and an inquiry before we can go ahead on that basis.

Mr. Jack : Does my hon. Friend agree that British Nuclear Fuels plc is working hard to take full advantage of the opportunities for nuclear power generation under the terms of the Electricity Bill? Will he join me in congratulating both the management and the unions on the agreement recently struck, which will further the exploitation of BNF's new investment programme at the Springfield works in my constituency?

Mr. Spicer : I am happy to join my hon. Friend in those congratulations. I hope that British Nuclear Fuels plc will continue to be successful.

Mr. Morgan : Does the Minister agree that the supplementary question by the hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Jack), and his answer to it, constitute the most astonishing question and response that one can imagine from a supposedly market-oriented Government? Is the Minister able to confirm that the advice that he is receiving from the merchant banks that are advising him on privatisation is that the private investment community does not want to know about nuclear power and will not pay genuine money for it? Whereas it might be possible to sell the family silver, the Government cannot even give away the family plutonium.

Mr. Spicer : No, Sir. I do not accept that for one moment. When it comes to the establishment of the contracts for the future of the nuclear industry, we shall ensure that they allow for investment incentives and ensure that the consumer has a good deal. There is no question of it being an unattractive proposition financially to sell the industry, especially in the context of the non-fossil fuel obligation.

Wave Energy

4. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what further funding he proposes to provide for the next stage of research into Dr. Stephen Salter's wave energy project.

Mr. Peter Morrison : There are no current plans for additional funding for this project.

Mr. Macdonald : Nevertheless, will the Minister undertake to ask the technology support group at Harwell to reconsider the feasibility of Dr. Salter's project? With the benefit of hindsight, does the Minister agree that it was a mistake for the Government to cut off funding for wave energy projects in 1982? Surely Britain should be taking the lead in wave energy development and not allowing countries such as Norway to gain export orders on the back of British know-how.

Mr. Morrison : The hon. Gentleman will know that Dr. Salter has been in correspondence and has had meetings with my noble Friend the Under- Secretary of State, who is specifically responsible for such matters within the Department. He will realise that since 1983, about £446,000 has been spent on Dr. Salter's project. I do not

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believe that there is currently a specific application. Were there to be one, that would be considered in the light of all the other competing priorities.

British Nuclear Fuels

6. Mr. Campbell-Savours : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the board of directors of British Nuclear Fuels ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Michael Spicer : My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet the chairman and other board members to discuss a wide range of matters.

Mr. Cambell-Savours : When the Minister next meets the chairman and the board, will he put to them that they should take a particular interest in the development of nuclear fission as outlined in the articles by Fleischmann, Pons and others, including Jones in America, and ensure that every effort is made to make resources available for further development of the process? If necessary, moneys should be diverted from the Culham, Oxford laboratories, which are currently undertaking work and which have a substantial sum at their disposal, into a new area of work that may herald a new energy source for the future.

Mr. Spicer : I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of the chairman and the board. I am sure that they will take a close interest in the experiments and will monitor the results, but British Nuclear Fuels is responsible for reprocessing rather than for initial generation.

Mr. Salmond : Does the Minister accept that the additional charges by BNFL to the Scottish electricity boards over the past few years amount to £250 million for the extra costs of reprocessing fuel and the breaking of the Chapelcross contract? What is the Minister's estimate of the impact of these huge additional charges on Scottish electricity bills this year and in future years?

Mr. Spicer : It is certainly the case, and the Government's policy, that British Nuclear Fuels should charge an appropriate cost-related price for its service and that the consumer will ultimately have to pay for those proper costs. Under our proposals, particularly our privatisation proposals in the Electricity Bill, those costs will be much more transparent than in the past, when they have often been disguised.

British Coal

7. Mr. Janner : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal ; and what matters were discussed.

16. Mr. Hardy : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Michael Spicer : My right hon. Friend and I meet the chairman of British Coal regularly to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

Mr. Janner : Has the Minister discussed with the chairman of British Coal the deep anxiety of Leicestershire's stalwart, skilled coal miners at the steady loss of jobs for miners in the county and the east midlands? Has the hon. Gentleman considered, either with the chairman of British Coal or alone, the Government's

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promise even before the last general election to build a coal-fired power station at West Burton, thereby creating 3,000 jobs for coal miners in the area? Is it right to say that nothing has happened? If so, why?

Mr. Spicer : It is not right to say that nothing has happened. The CEGB has filed an application. It must get the approval or disapproval of the planning authorities. As I understand it, discussions are going on between the two appropriate planning authorities--the district council and the county council. I understand also that the one outstanding issue looks as though it will be resolved. If it is, it will be for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to determine whether he wants to hold a public inquiry. The process of applying for that power station is well advanced. Until my right hon. Friend can proceed with his consideration of the application, I must hold his position in reserve.

Mr. Hardy : Will the Minister discuss with the chairman of British Coal the need to extend the perception of the conquences of developing coal import dependency, not least through increased coal prices? Would the hon. Gentleman care to express his support for the retention of British Coal's science laboratories at Wath upon Dearne, an area which has suffered severe contraction, where economic need is dire and where this establishment is needed as a signpost for technological development?

Mr. Spicer : British Coal is increasingly aware of the need to be competitive against imports and also of our view that it will be able to compete against imports if the present procedures for improving productivity are maintained.

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to give me notice that he wanted information about the laboratories to which he referred. This is a matter for British Coal, but my understanding, in the short time available to find out about this matter, is that there is no problem about the laboratories' future. If my understanding is incorrect, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Andy Stewart : When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last met the chairman of British Coal, did he reassure him that on his visit to Russia he would say that we no longer wanted Russian coal in Nottinghamshire and that, it was no more welcome than that from South Africa?

Mr. Spicer : I do not think that any imports are welcome. The question before the Government is whether to allow imports in the interest- -

Mr. Blair : What?

Mr. Spicer : I said that no imports would be welcomed by the Government. The question before the Government is whether to allow imports in the interest of bringing prices down, especially prices of electricity to the consumer. We have made it clear that we will allow coal imports. We have also said that with £2 million a day being given in investment to the coal industry, we have done a tremendous amount--more than any other Government--to improve the productivity of the coal industry. If productivity increases at the present rate, British Coal should be able to beat off imports.

Mr. Batiste : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced his intention that the coal industry

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should be privatised after the next general election. Can my hon. Friend give a timetable against which the discussions and deliberations will take place, which will lead to decisions about the shape of that privatisation and, in particular, the need for competition in it?

Mr. Spicer : No, Sir. We have said that it is a matter that we want to put to the British people at the next general election and we do not wish to prejudge their decision. We shall have to make decisions about details in precisely the same way as we did with electricity. We shall make a commitment to privatise coal at the next general election, but the shape and content of that privatisation will have to wait until after the election.

Mr. Jack Thompson : At the next discussions with the chairman of British Coal, will the Minister take the opportunity to raise with him the question of the British Coal engineering workshops? The rundown in manpower and the dilution of skills in the workshops is having an effect on the efficiency and, especially, the safety of the industry. Are there any plans to take out the engineering workshops before any proposals are made to privatise the industry?

Mr. Spicer : The future of the workshops is a matter for British Coal. However, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are drawn to the chairman's attention.

Mr. Gow : Did the chairman of British Coal confirm to my hon. Friend at their last meeting that there was growing interest and support among miners for the proposal to privatise the industry? Did the chairman report that miners, notably in the Bolsover constituency, were looking forward to becoming owners of the mines?

Mr. Spicer : That point was not discussed in those terms with the chairman of British Coal by my right hon. Friend or myself. However, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that it is most probable that the employees of British Coal will be as enthusiastic about becoming owners of that industry as the employees of all the other industries that have been privatised.

Mr. Skinner rose --

Mr. Speaker : Yes, all right.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that, when I was going through my reselection procedures in the past few weeks, not one miner or representative mentioned ownership or privatisation? They were more concerned that I, along with my colleagues, should make it plain that the Government should stop the chicanery of backing those private Bills which will allow the import of more coal through the Humber ports. If the Government do that, they will be able to stop some of the imports that the Minister wants to stop.

Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman did not tell us whether he won his reselection, but the implication is that he did. Presumably, he meets different people from those whom I meet, or perhaps people tell him different things. I can assure him that there is every sign that, when we privatise the industry, it will have a great deal of support among those who work in it.

Mr. Holt : Does my hon. Friend care to say whether he discussed with the chairman, British Coal's appalling

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record in polluting the beaches of north- east England and the rather benign statement that British Coal cannot do anything about it? Does he agree that British Coal must learn to clean up its act?

Mr. Spicer : I am very much aware of that problem and that British Coal is under increasing pressure to do something about pollution in that part of England. I shall write to my hon. Friend with details, but I understand that there are specific plans on that question which should be coming to fruition.

Mr. Barron : When the Minister and the Secretary of State met the chairman of British Coal, did they discuss the implications of the imports of coal that are likely to come through the Humber ports, the threat to the midlands coalfields posed by the Bills for the Humber ports and the report recently received from members of the Standing Committee that one Bill went through by the Chairman's casting vote? They said that the implications for the coal industry are horrendous and that the Government should take action to protect our indigenous coal industry. When shall we receive a statement from the Government that they are not going to let the wool be pulled over their eyes by cheap subsidised coal but are going to take some action to protect the coal miners in the midlands?

Mr. Spicer : When one is a member of a Government who are still spending £2 million a day of taxpayers' money on the coal industry, one has to be a little careful on the question of subsidy. That is precisely what we are being at the moment--to counteract the undoubted threat of imports, which we recognise and for which we have allowed, by continuing with the process of improving the productivity of British coal. We have good coal and a good industry which should be able to compete against imports, and that is the way we believe it will be in the future.

Pressurised Water Reactors

8. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what information he has about technical problems and cost over-runs experienced in the construction and operation of the pressurised water reactors managed by the Brazilian utility Electrobras and about related transmission problems ; and what assessment he has made of their implications for the robustness of the case for adopting a programme of generally similar reactors in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Peter Morrison : I am aware that Electrobras does have some problems with its PWR programme. The CEGB is confident that PWRs built in this country will operate satisfactorily.

Mr. Dalyell : If only because those who want to prevent significant flooding in the Amazonian rain forest have a duty to say where the electricity and power will come from if not from dams, may I ask the Minister if we are in a position to help Brazil and to co-operate with the nuclear power programme between Sao Paulo and Rio? On the question of transmission, has any assessment been made of the difficulties in superconductivity of transmitting energy over a distance of 2,000 miles?

Mr. Morrison : I know that the hon. Gentleman feels very strongly about this matter. When I went to Rio de Janeiro I met the president of Electrobras, and during that

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meeting we discussed many matters and I suggested that it might be helpful if, when he was next in London, he found the opportunity to talk to our electricity division and to the energy efficiency office. In his second point about transmission, the hon. Gentleman put his finger on the key element--that the vast distances involved in Brazil, as compared with those in this country, for example, mean that there are inevitably difficulties of a different order.

Mr. Moss : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the faulty equipment referred to in the question about the Brazilian utility is French? Does not that endorse the CEGB'S preference for Westinghouse American technology rather than French technology?

Mr. Morrison : My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Brazil and other countries should look very carefully indeed at the sort of technology and experience that we have been able to develop here, in conjunction with other countries.

Redundant Miners

9. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy, further to his answer of 27 February, Official Report, column 5, if he will now indicate what measures he will take to resolve the problems created by the restart scheme for redundant miners ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Michael Spicer : I am now able to confirm that it is our intention to introduce an amending order to modify the redundant mineworkers payments scheme such that receipt of benefits under the scheme will no longer be conditional upon the beneficiary making himself available for work.

Mr. Skinner : I think that the next question must be when will that amendment be brought before the House to ensure that officers at unemployment and social security departments throughout the British coalfields are instructed to stop the harassment that has been taking place? Will the Minister also guarantee that, in the amending legislation, provision will be made for those miners who have lost money--in some cases more than £1,000--to be paid back retrospectively?

Mr. Spicer : Yes, Sir. We intend to take powers to recompense those former mineworkers who have lost RMPS benefits due to changes in the availability for work procedures. The hon. Gentleman was ungenerous enough not to admit it, but employment offices have been careful in the way in which they have dealt with the redundant mineworkers payments scheme.

Mr. Beith : I welcome the Minister's decision and the efforts that Energy Ministers have put into securing the decision. Will he recognise, however, that the Department of Social Security and the Department of Employment between them have made an absolute mess of the scheme and have caused a great deal of anxiety to men who were told, when they left the industry, that they were doing it a favour by taking retirement when they did and that they were helping to restructure the coal industry? Does he agree that, this decision, though overdue, is welcome?

Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The miners were made aware at the time--in the pamphlet issued by British Coal--that availability for work would be one of

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the criteria by which they would continue to qualify for RMPS payments. That was always clear ; it was never in any doubt. We are amending the rules in the light of the stricter rules accompanying restart. That is all. There was never any question but that they would have to be available for work.

Mr. Eadie : We should be extremely churlish if we did not welcome the Minister's statement. Is he aware that we are glad that he has told us that any proposed legislation will be retrospective? However, will he accept that when the miners parliamentary group met the Secretary of State for Energy and the Minister of State, Department of Employment, we were given an understanding that there would be a sort of ca' canny and no harassment of miners who were involved in what was really a Government error? In view of the hon. Gentleman's statement today, will he assure the House that he will instruct the Departments involved that there should be no more harassment of redundant mineworkers? I heard of two cases this weekend that are an absolute disgrace.

Mr. Spicer : I should very much like to hear from the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) about the two cases. There is every intention that such cases should be treated as lightly as possible and that the miners to whom he is referring should not be harassed, to use the hon. Gentleman's word--I do not think that "harassment" is exactly the right word to use. However, if there are any cases with which he has problems, I shall be happy to hear from him.

Mr. Batiste : Is my hon. Friend aware that whatever the technicalities of the documentation, many miners, especially elderly miners, genuinely believed that they would not be required to re-offer themselves for work and therefore there will be the warmest welcome from hon. Members of all parties for what he has announced? We hope that legislation will be introduced as speedily as possible.

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend is right in that there was the perception among some miners that they would not have to be available for work and that they had received some kind of retirement payment. However, leaflets were produced which made it quite clear that they would have to be available for work--the majority knew that--and that has been part of the problem with restart. I take my hon. Friend's point and thank him for what he has said.


10. Mr. Radice : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet John Baker, the chief executive of the Central Electricity Generating Board ; and what matters will be discussed.

Mr. Michael Spicer : My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet senior members of the Central Electricity Generating Board, including Mr. John Baker.

Mr. Radice : Will the Minister tell the House about an important issue that has arisen from discussions that he might have had with Mr. Baker--that is, the latest estimate of the costs of the flotation of electricity supply industry shares?

Mr. Spicer : No, Sir. Never have any Government made that sort of information available, especially before the

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enabling legislation has passed through the House of Commons. It would be wrong of us to get estimates and to go into deep preparations for flotation campaigns before Parliament has finally passed judgment on the Bill that would enable us to do so.

Mr. Rost : Will my hon. Friend seek assurances from the chief executive of the CEGB that the privatised generation companies will not inhibit competition by continuing to hoard the 100 or more redundant power station sites that the CEGB has not been interested in redeveloping or refurbishing, but which the private sector is keen to develop with new technologies for the smaller power stations which have planning approvals because it will be difficult to find sites for competitive power stations unless we use those that we already have?

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We have made flexible provisions for compulsory purchase by private power companies should they wish to take over the land that has not been used by the existing operators. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's words are widely heard.

Mr. Blair : Does the Minister agree that if the costs of selling electricity are the same as those for gas and British Telecom, we are talking about £25 for every household in the country and when that is added to higher prices, to a special nuclear tax and to uncertainty even about security of supply, it is no wonder that the vast majority of people in this country oppose privatisation?

Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman is giving us an overture to what will no doubt be his speech at the beginning of our Report and Third Reading debates later today.

This is the biggest privatisation of all time--and quite rightly so. Many consumers will benefit, and there will be a much increased number of shareholders. One of the Opposition Front Bench Members said that he hoped that the privatisation would be properly undertaken. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be properly undertaken and that there will be a proper campaign to promote it.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : Does the Minister recall that during the Report stage of the Electricity Bill his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that a new code of practice on disconnections would be brought before the House, or at least would be notified to the House, before that stage of the Bill had been completed? Can he tell us what has happened to the code of practice, and when we are likely to hear the details of it?

Mr. Spicer : I hope very much that we shall be able to bring the code of practice forward before the House has finished its consideration of the Bill. I shall have to refresh my memory, but I think that that is what was said. Certainly it is what we shall try to do.

Severn Tidal Power Group

11. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects to receive the final report of the Severn tidal power group.

Mr. Peter Morrison : The study by the Severn tidal power group is nearing completion, and I expect to receive a final report within the next few months.

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Mr. Banks : While talk of the Severn barrage is not exactly the matter of the moment in pubs in Newham, a good renewable energy source certainly is. Tidal power presents precisely that prospect. Will the Minister say whether the Government are committed in principle to the idea of tidal power? When the report has been received, and before any of the recommendations are implemented, will he make sure that the interests of both Welsh miners and redshanks are well protected?

Mr. Morrison : I am sorry that tidal power is not the chat of the pubs in Newham ; I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is the chat of the pubs in my constituency, the City of Chester, not least because of the Mersey barrage. Indeed, there is great interest in it there. Of course, the final decision on whether the scheme should go ahead will be taken on commercial grounds, as well as environmental grounds, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and which, I agree, are very important indeed.

Mr. Stern : Will my right hon. Friend do his best to bring the report forward as soon as possible? While this matter may not be the talk of the pubs in Newham, I can assure him that it is the talk of the pubs around the docks in Bristol, not least because it is hoped that the new opportunities that will be created in Avonmouth by the abolition of the national dock labour scheme will not be stopped by a barrage just outside the port.

Mr. Morrison : As my hon. Friend knows, the speed of a convoy is the speed of its slowest ship. I can assure him that in this matter, I will not be the slowest ship. We shall make sure that as soon as the report reaches us it is put expeditiously in the right places so that everyody can see it.

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