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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 April 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Tees (Newport) Bridge Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Gulf Operations

1. Miss Lestor : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Royal Navy vessels are currently deployed in the Gulf ; and what impact this has on their availability for other duties.

5. Mr. Ted Garrett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Royal Navy vessels are currently deployed in the Gulf ; and what impact this has on their availability for other duties.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : There are currently three Royal Navy ships and one Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel deployed in the area of the Gulf. The Royal Navy's commitment in the Gulf inevitably limits the availability of ships for other tasks. All the vessels could, however, be recalled in support of NATO in the event of an emergency.

Miss Lestor : Does the Minister agree that the time is approaching when we should consider reducing our military presence in the Gulf? As the Iran-Iraq war is over and the risks to commercial shipping have been considerably lessened, the reduction would not simply be a goodwill gesture --which I believe is needed--but would release Royal Navy vessels for other areas where they might be required.

Mr. Hamilton : I remind the hon. Lady that no treaty has been signed to end that war. We believe that it would be inappropriate to begin to withdraw our commitment before that happens. However, these matters are constantly kept under review.

Mr. Garrett : Will the Minister convey my thanks to all the personnel who served in the Gulf during that extremely difficult period? Will he assure the House that the vessels will be fully repaired and maintained when they are pulled back to the United Kingdom? Some of the Fleet Auxiliaries will be ready for major refits. When will the contract for HMS Southampton be announced?

Mr. Hamilton : I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when the contract for HMS Southampton will be announced.

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However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement is looking at that matter very closely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the role of the Royal Navy in the Gulf. The Royal Navy did sterling work, which was much appreciated by everyone. We must bear in mind that the Royal Navy escorted more ships than all the other navies in the area put together.

Mr. Mates : Contrary to what the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) suggested, will my hon. Friend the Minister please ensure that our presence in the Gulf--it has been in the area now for nine years, it has been unobtrusive and highly professional and it has acted well in the cause of preserving the peace--is not allowed to fall below the level which my hon. Friend considers necessary?

Mr. Hamilton : I can give my hon. Friend that commitment. It is very important that we maintain a presence in the Gulf for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that we should maintain a presence there because we owe it to all those who gave their lives in north Africa and in the middle east in the defence of the oil supplies so that the United Kingdom could continue the war against Hitler? Our presence in the Gulf and in north Africa was necessary then and it would be quite wrong now, just because there happens to be a temporary cessation of hostilities in the area, to reduce that essential presence which safeguards the traffic routes.

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to see significantly greater reductions in the tension in the area. It would be good if a peace treaty could be arrived at between Iran and Iraq and the area made more secure than it is today. I understand my hon. Friend's point about the sacrifices that people made in the past to ensure that the oil flowed.

Mr. Tony Banks : What information has the Minister about the number of ships which have re-flagged to take advantage of the protection provided by the Armilla patrol? Is it not now time to ask the owners or nations from which those ships originally re-flagged to pay a contribution? Why should the British taxpayer have to pay for other ships to be escorted through the Gulf?

Mr. Hamilton : In general terms, we believe that the patrol has made a valuable contribution to the security of the area. Although there was a degree of re-flagging, we cannot ask for contributions from nations. We have made an important contribution to the security of the area.

Chemical Weapons

2. Mr. Moss : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what contribution his Department is making to the Geneva negotiations on a chemical weapons convention.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) : The negotiation of a comprehensive, global and effectively verifiable ban on chemical weapons is a major Government and NATO arms control priority. As the House knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary takes the lead on this and other arms control negotiations. However, my Department contributes in a number of ways to the Geneva negotiations,

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particularly through the provision of military, technical and scientific advice both in Geneva and, by close liaison with the Foreign Office in London.

Mr. Moss : Is not my right hon. Friend as puzzled as I am that in all the time that the Russians recently spent in Britain they never once sought to refute the allegations, widely carried in the British press, that their stockpile of chemical weapons is some 10 times the size that they claim? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that there was a little more glasnost from the Soviet Union with regard to its chemical weapon capability?

Mr. Younger : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As I think my hon. Friend will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised that issue last week with Mr. Gorbachev and took the opportunity to emphasise our commitment to a global and verifiable ban. However, Mr. Gorbachev produced no further information on that matter.

Mr. Robertson : Does the Secretary of State think that the Government's position is helped by the fact that increasing evidence--some of which has been verified by his Department--of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq against its own Kurdish civilian population is being greeted in the United Kingdom not by proper condemnation but by a doubling of trade credit to Iraq?

Mr. Younger : I cannot confirm what the hon. Gentleman says, but some evidence has been put about of the use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish minority by Iraq. We would regard that as a serious matter because chemical weapons are undesirable in all circumstances.

Mr. Brazier : Did Mr. Gorbachev, in his welcome discussions here, offer to open up to international inspection those parts of the Soviet Union's chemical weapons supply which were not opened up to us as promised during our last visit to the Soviet Union?

Mr. Younger : I appreciate my hon. Friend's point but I am afraid that no such offer has been made. As it is a long time since Britain possessed any chemical weapons, it is disappointing that in the new climate of openness which is supposed to exist there does not yet seem to be openness on the subject of chemical weapons, which we believe should be banned on a world-wide basis.

Fylingdales Early Warning Station

3. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what agreement there is with the United States of America about sharing early warning information from Fylingdales early warning station and ensuring it can be used independently by the United Kingdom Government.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : The ballistic missile early warning system at Fylingdales is under RAF command and control. Early warning information from the system is disseminated in parallel to the United Kingdom and United States authorities for their own use without restriction.

Mr. Bennett : Does the Minister accept that the United States has done all the modernisation? Is he confident that the United States would pass on information to the British Government if the British Government were contemplating using Trident in some way of which the United States

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did not approve? Surely if we are to have a credible deterrent of our own we should have our own early warning system and not be dependent on the Americans who might not pass on the information. Or is all that now irrelevant? Have we a guarantee from the Soviet Union that if it intends to launch any missiles at us it will ring up and tell us?

Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman is working on the wrong assumption. We share the information that comes from Fylingdales. We receive it in parallel, so there is no question of one nation having it and giving it to the other, or vice versa. The costs of modernisation are also being shared. The United States will be paying for the radar and we shall be paying for the infrastructure that goes with it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the RAF operates Fylingdales early warning station, so we can ensure that we obtain information from it--and we do.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell : Does my hon. Friend accept that the question is flawed because the international early warning system, in which Fylingdales plays so important a part, is based on the principle of mutual corroboration? Will he take this opportunity to send to the men and women who have worked throughout the past 25 years at RAF Fylingdales, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently, his congratulations on the expertise and professionalism with which they conduct their task?

Mr. Hamilton : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and I will pass on his message of congratulation on a job extremely well done.

Belgian Defence Minister

4. Mrs. Fyfe : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to meet the Belgian Defence Minister ; and what matters will be discussed.

9. Ms. Short : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to meet the Belgian Defence Minister ; and what matters will be discussed.

Mr. Younger : I met Mr. Coeme yesterday. We discussed a range of subjects of mutual defence interest.

Mrs. Fyfe : As the Belgian Government do not share the British Government's obsession with modernising nuclear weapons, can the Secretary of State tell us whether they are starry-eyed idealists or dupes of Moscow?

Mr. Younger : The hon. Lady is not correct in her assumption. It was made perfectly clear to me that the Belgian Government entirely subscribe to NATO's deterrent strategy. They also fully agree that weapons systems must be kept up to date. They are also strongly against any idea of a third zero in shorter-range weapons.

Mr. Wilkinson : Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that when he next meets his Belgian counterpart he will be able to say that the United Kingdom--in concert, one hopes, with the other NORTHAG partner, the Dutch--has either agreed a defined specification for a new light attack helicopter or has procured the Apache AH64, as NORTHAG badly needs improved anti-armour capability and as the Belgians have recently procured about 50 Agusta 109 utility helicopters?

Mr. Younger : I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, but that subject was not raised either by me or by Mr. Coeme

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in our discussions yesterday. The Belgian air force has a number of collaborative projects with NATO, particularly in respect of training.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : In view of the Belgian Government's well- publicised attitude, is not a consequence of enforced modernisation of short-range nuclear weapons at this time likely to be a weakening of the North Atlantic Alliance which may possibly result in Federal Germany being driven towards neutralism? What account of those risks do the Government take in their policy on that issue?

Mr. Younger : Those matters must all be carefully discussed and taken into account before any decisions are reached on keeping up to date the weapons that NATO has. It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union has itself modernised at least 95 per cent. of its shorter-range weapons in recent years. We must be careful not to leave it with an incovenanted advantage.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : As the Belgians are taking over the presidency of the Council of Ministers of the Western European Union from us, when my right hon. Friend next meets the Belgian Defence Minister will he try to build on the excellent out-of-area co-operation that we saw in the Gulf so that we have some sort of set plan if anything similar occurs in the future?

Mr. Younger : Yes, that matter was covered in the Western European Union ministerial meeting last week, when it was decided that the operations jointly undertaken in the Gulf were extremely successful and a good example of the way in which European nations can co-operate. We shall bear in mind that a similar form of organisation might be available in future needs for out-of-area activities.

Mr. O'Neill : Will the Secretary of State confirm that at the forthcoming NATO summit, the Belgian Government will not support the early modernisation of short-range weapons and will not contribute to any process by which a signal could be given to the American Congress that a replacement for Lance would be the unanimous wish of NATO?

Mr. Younger : That matter was certainly not covered in my discussions yesterday. It is for the Belgian Government to explain their own attitude. I understand that the Belgian Prime Minister is doing that in the Belgian Parliament today. I think that he had better do that himself, in his own language. As to Belgium's position in the Alliance, the hon. Gentleman will know that Belgium has been a very sound ally in NATO and totally subscribes to NATO's policy of nuclear deterrence based on nuclear weapons.

Anti-armour Weapon Systems

6. Mr. Greg Knight : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what anti-armour weapon systems are available to the British Army of the Rhine.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The British Army of the Rhine has a balance ofanti- armour systems which includes Challenger and Chieftain main battle tanks ; Lynx helicopters armed with TOW missiles ; Swingfire and Milan missiles ; infantry anti-tank weapons ; and mines.

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Mr. Knight : Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the proposed cuts in Warsaw pact conventional forces, its capability for sudden, large- scale offensive operations remains strong? That being so, are not the British Government absolutely right in maintaining a mix of anti-armour weapons systems, including tanks and helicopters, to meet this ever-present threat?

Mr. Sainsbury : My hon. Friend is right. It has long been a feature of the Warsaw pact forces that they have a large predominance of assault and rapid attack forces, particularly main battle tanks. My hon. Friend is right to say that our assessments conclude that the right way to counter tanks is with a balance of anti-armour weapons.

Mr. Duffy : Will the Minister confirm that there is concern in the British Army of the Rhine about its ability to defend itself against Warsaw pact tanks? Will he also confirm that there are even greater symmetries on both sides in anti-tank weapons than in tanks, and that there is an impressive improvement in Soviet tank technology? Does he agree that the answer may lie not so much in more weapons in any of the categories that he mentioned but in smarter ones? What is the present position on Trigat development?

Mr. Sainsbury : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that not only are the latest Soviet battle tanks highly capable, and have explosive-reactive armour, but there has been a pattern over the years of new and improved Soviet main battle tanks arriving at regular intervals. At the moment we assess that our current equipment can match the present threat, and we have invested in a number of improvements which are under way, including--as the hon. Gentleman rightly identifies--medium-range and long-range Trigat, which will play an important part in future anti-tank battle.

Sir Jim Spicer : Will my hon. Friend explain why both the United States and the German armed forces give a much higher priority to the use of helicopters in an anti-tank role than we do within our Rhine army?

Mr. Sainsbury : My hon. Friend will be aware that we are currently assessing and keeping closely under review the role of the helicopter in anti-tank battle. Some of our NATO allies, for reasons of their own, decide to give more predominance to helicopters. This is an important subject and one that we are keeping closely under review.

Conventional Forces

7. Mr. Tredinnick : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much more in real terms his Department has spent on conventional forces since 1978-79.

Mr. Younger : Up to the end of the financial year 1987-88, some £20 billion more had been spent, in real terms, on conventional forces than if spending had continued at 1978-79 levels. This figure takes into account GDP inflation during the intervening period and excludes the costs of both the Falklands garrison and nuclear strategic forces.

Mr. Tredinnick : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that 95 per cent. of the increase in defence spending since 1978-79 has gone towards conventional forces? Will he give some examples of how this additional money for conventional forces has been spent?

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Mr. Younger : I agree with my hon. Friend that the figure represents an enormous increase in the resources provided by the Government for conventional weapons, and has enabled us to provide resources, including 64 new ships, seven regiments of Challenger tanks and more than 500 new aircraft for the RAF.

Mr. Benn : Is it not a plain fact that the present level of defence expenditure in this country, the United States and the Soviet Union is far beyond that which is either necessary or possible for those countries to bear? Is it not clear that when Mr. Gorbachev says he wants to disarm, the reason why people believe him is because he also says that he wants to raise the standard of living of the Soviet people, which is what they want? There is now a much greater awareness in Britain that the present level of defence expenditure is starving the Health Service, education, the housing programme and other public services of the funds that they so urgently need.

Mr. Younger : There cannot be anything more urgent than ensuring that the country is safe and the people protected. However, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will fully realise, if he thinks about it, thanks to the Government's policies and NATO, we are now able to negotiate reductions in weapons with the Soviet Union from a position of safety without imperilling our own security. The right hon. Gentleman should be pleased about that.

Sir Antony Buck : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he announced should put an end to suggestions that conventional armed forces have been starved of funds because of our deployment of Trident and other nuclear weapons?

Mr. Younger : My hon. and learned Friend is correct. As I have said all along, the Trident programme is not only necessary but extremely good value for money. We have managed not only to achieve that but to make an enormous increase in the provision of conventional weapons at the same time.

Mr. James Lamond : Surely the Secretary of State heard President Gorbachev spell out once again at the Guildhall last Friday the unilateral reductions that Russia is making in conventional forces and call on the rest of the world to do the same. As an excellent opportunity arose in the talks following the Vienna agreement, should not the Secretary of State, instead of boasting about excessive expenditure, be taking positive initiatives to ensure that we help the world to achieve lasting peace?

Mr. Younger : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is a little behind the times. Mr. Gorbachev spelt out some of his proposed reductions, which we warmly welcome, but he did not mention that while he has been talking about reductions we have been making them. We have reduced our nuclear warheads in Europe by over one third in the past 10 years, which is the other side of the equation that the hon. Gentleman should ponder.

Sir Dudley Smith : Despite what has been said recently, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a big difference between the conventional forces of the Warsaw pact and those of NATO and a total imbalance in chemical weapons?

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Mr. Younger : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a large difference. Even supposing that the Soviet Union had completed all the reductions that it has proposed but not yet effected, there would still be an enormous disparity against the West in tanks, guns and aircraft. None of the figures produced last week were able to counter that.

Mr. Rogers : The Secretary of State wants the penny and the bun. First, he boasted of how much more the Government were spending on defence, but then he said "Look how much we have reduced expenditure." He cannot have it both ways. Without boasting of the achievements of the Labour Government, is it not true that many of the decisions that resulted in the present level of conventional spending were taken in 1978 by Lord Mulley and that, contrary to what the Secretary of State would have the House believe, spending on conventional defence expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product is declining and is forecast to do so in the White Paper?

Mr. Younger : The hon. Gentleman will know better than I precisely what decisions the previous Labour Government took, but it is clear that they did not provide the resources to carry them through. This Government, because of a much increased gross domestic product, have been able to provide extra money, which has enabled our forces not only to be properly paid but to have modern, new equipment, which they were denied by the cuts made by the Labour Administration.

Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve

10. Dr. Goodson-Wickes : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last had discussions with the chief of general staff regarding recruiting levels in the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve, and the co- operation of employers in releasing employees for training.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : Consultation on recruitment and employer support, as with other matters relating to the Territorial Army, is a continuous process through the formal Ministry of Defence committee structure and normal official channels. As regards employer support, we launched a major campaign last year, recommended by the national employer liaison committee, and I am pleased to say that the response thus far has been very encouraging, with more than 500 companies pledging their firm support to the reserve forces.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes : Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the Territorial associations are being allocated adequate resources to support and sustain the successful campaign that he mentioned? Does he agree that the so-called demographic trough makes it especially important to maintain effective follow-up with employers for volunteers?

Mr. Neubert : Yes, I can confirm that there is full Government commitment to the financing of our present Territorial strength and, in particular, the number of man training days planned. As I said, we are very encouraged at the response from employers, because the 500 companies already signed up represent 30 per cent. of the national private sector work force, and when this is

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combined with the home Civil Service and the Scottish Office, it represents a substantial sector of employment. We intend to pursue this policy and to tackle smaller firms and professional partnerships as well.

Mr. Ron Brown : Will the Minister agree that, if money is to be spent effectively, members of the Territorial Army have a right to form trade unions, or is that extending democracy too far?

Mr. Neubert : I have to respond that that is not part of our tradition, and long may it remain so.

Mr. Conway : Does my hon. Friend agree that important aspects of retention in the Territorial Army include not just the very generous level of bounty and payment, but the opportunities to train with Regular units and to partake in exercises which, more often than not, are with the British Army of the Rhine rather than Salisbury plain or Otterburn training area?

Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend experiences that opportunity and takes full advantage of it. It is a fact that the Territorials are equipped, as are the Regulars, for their role, and this means that they have the most modern equipment and are constantly kept in the forefront of our battle plans.

RAF Bruggen

11. Mr. Illsley : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to visit Royal Air Force Bruggen.

Mr. Younger : I last visited RAF Bruggen in 1986 and I have no plans to visit the station again in the near future.

Mr. Illsley : Is the Minister seeking to replace the free-fall nuclear WE177 bomb, which is used on Tornado aircraft from RAF Bruggen, and will the replacement be capable of use in areas of central Europe, where the use of nuclear weapons is now restricted by the INF agreement?

Mr. Younger : The hon. Gentleman is slightly misconceiving the INF agreement, which outlaws a certain type of missile--a land-based missile with a range of over 500 km--anywhere in the world. It does not, unfortunately, control where such missiles, should they exist, would land. The replacement of the free-fall bombs will be necessary by the mid-1990s, because the present weapons systems will have become out of date and unsuitable for use.

Mr. Mans : Will my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is necessary to replace these free-fall weapons not only because the present generation will have become out of date, but because the Russians have a similar weapon and we need one to maintain our deterrent effect into the next century with the Tornado aircraft?

Mr. Younger : My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The Soviet Union is equipping itself with air-launched air-to-ground missiles. It is also worth reminding the House that over the past five years the Russians have modernised 95 per cent. of their shorter-range missiles, including SS21s, Scud launchers and Frog 7 launchers. They have all been modernised in the Warsaw pact, and that is something we must therefore take account of.

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Deep Battle Concept

12. Mr. Hague : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made as to whether the Soviet Union is abandoning its concept of the deep battle.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : In the last two years Soviet statements have claimed that its military doctrine is now of an exclusively defensive nature. Although we welcome such statements, it should not be forgotten that the Soviets still retain the capability to conduct operations deep into NATO territory and to launch a surprise attack.

Mr. Hague : Will my hon. Friend agree that the conclusion to be drawn from his answer is that, however welcome the latest proposed reductions in Soviet armed forces may be, the forces of NATO must continue to be fully prepared and fully modernised? Can he tell us anything of how radical the changes in Warsaw pact organisation, doctrine and equipment would have to be for it to be said that the pact had changed from an offensive to a defensive military posture?

Mr. Hamilton : There would of course have to be major structural changes in the deployment of Soviet forces and their training would have to change as well. So it would mean a complete change throughout the whole of the Soviet military structure.

Mr. Cryer : Is this word "modernisation" not jargon for cheating on the INF agreement? Will not the 133 non-nuclear nations who were signatories to the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty change their minds about not deploying or manufacturing nuclear weapons if the United Kingdom starts to cheat in an atmosphere of mutual peace and force reductions generated by the Soviet Union? Would that not be a very dangerous step, and will the Government stop cheating and think again?

Mr. Hamilton : There is no question of the United Kingdom cheating on the INF treaty. The problems of the non-proliferation treaty have been with us for some time. We suspect that there are countries that are deploying the nuclear capability. That is regrettable.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Russian forces, particularly the naval forces, are changing their tactics and that the British armed forces need to respond? Has there been a major review of Royal Navy equipment and tactics, particularly as the Soviet Union has decided to keep its naval forces deployed in a defensive rather than in a blue sea role?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend must be careful. The fact that the Soviets may be exercising their naval forces rather less than they did in the past may be for reasons of economy. It does not mean that they are reducing their capability, which is what we must judge them by.

Mr. Sean Hughes : In view of the Minister's answers, will he do the House the courtesy of answering the question that the Secretary of State refused to answer at the last defence Question Time? Do the Government take seriously the threat of a Warsaw pact short-range nuclear attack on NATO's fixed assets in Germany?

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Mr. Hamilton : The Government take seriously and place importance on a flexible response. We believe that we should have modern and up-to- date weapons to respond over a whole range of different capabilities.

US Defence Secretary

13. Mr. Douglas : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he intends to meet the Secretary of Defence of the United States of America to discuss matters of mutual interest.

16. Mr. Patnick : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to meet his new United States of America counterpart ; and what matters will be discussed.

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