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House of Commons

Monday 11 December 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Nature Conservancy Council

1. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what organisation will take over the responsibilities of the Nature Conservancy Council in Wales when the council is abolished.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : Subject to parliamentary approval, it is intended that, with effect from 1 April 1991, the responsibilities in Wales of the Nature Conservancy Council and Countryside Commission will be undertaken by a new statutory body, the Countryside Council for Wales.

Mr. Stern : Will not this announcement be widely welcomed throughout the Principality, as it shows the extent of the Government's commitment to the environment and conservation in Wales?

Mr. Roberts : I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the announcement was warmly and widely welcomed in Wales. It is an improvement. The two advisory committees of the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission will be replaced by a single executive committee.

Dr. Thomas : The Minister will remember that I welcomed his decision in the House on behalf of my colleagues. Will he assure the House that the Welsh and Scottish Offices will not surrender to the sort of campaigns that are being mounted in England? The future of the NCC in England is a matter for the English, but the decision is to be welcomed in Wales.

Mr. Roberts : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. We have consulted a number of bodies. The chairman of the NCC committee for Wales and the chairman of the Countryside Commission committee for Wales both welcomed the proposal. We have had discussions with the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales and the chairmen and chief officers of the national parks and there has been a general welcome for the scheme. Matters affecting Scotland and England are the concern of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

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British Rail

2. Dr. Marek : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss transport infrastructure in the Principality.

19. Mr. Nicholas Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss British Railways' operations in Wales.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : My right hon. Friend last met the chairman on 12 December. He hopes to meet the present chairman and the future chairman in the early months of 1990.

Dr. Marek : Is the Minister aware that the European Commission is prepared to pay, through grants, 75 per cent. of the cost of electrifying the north Wales main line from Crewe to Chester and to Holyhead? Does he agree that such a sum of money--perhaps £30 million--should not be turned away lightly, as the electrification of the line would be a valuable addition to the infrastructure of north Wales? If he agrees, will he do what he can to persuade the Secretary of State for Transport that, if British Rail applies for permission to electrify the line, it does not dock money equivalent to the grant for infrastructure developments elsewhere?

Mr. Roberts : The electrification of the north Wales line, and any other line, is a matter for British Rail. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman's assumption about the European regional development fund grant is correct. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced that spending on railways will be about £3.7 billion during the next three years, which is 75 per cent. more in real terms than has been spent over the past three years. There does not seem to be a shortage of finance.

Mr. Bennett : When my hon. Friend sees the chairman of British Rail, will he draw his attention to the continuing anxiety of people in Pembroke about the decline of rail services west of Swansea, the type of trains used and the number of trains operating on Sundays? There are now no trains west of Swansea before 3 pm on a Sunday, and that is not good enough.

Mr. Roberts : We shall take up various issues with the present chairman and the new chairman of British Rail. We shall discuss services in west Wales, especially Pembrokeshire, and other areas.

Mr. Alex Carlile : When the Minister next meets the chairman of British Rail, will he take him on an unannounced journey on the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line so that he can witness the decimation of stations, the lack of staff and lavatory facilities, the overcrowded and miserable trains and the general air of neglect that are causing many people to complain to me about the state of that line?

Mr. Roberts : The hon. and learned Gentleman paints a somewhat dismal picture of railway services in mid-Wales and, by implication, elsewhere. There has been substantial investment in the mid-Wales and Cambrian lines. We no longer hear talk of the closure of the Cambrian railway, as we did a few years ago, so things have improved. Nevertheless, I dare say that there is scope for further improvement.

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Mr. Raffan : When does my hon. Friend expect British Rail to be able to increase from 70 to 90 mph the maximum speed of trains on the north Wales line? Will he ensure that overcrowding in trains is reduced and safety is assured before that happens?

Mr. Roberts : I am sure that British Rail will not permit a maximum of 90 mph on the north Wales line until it is absolutely safe.

Mr. Denzil Davies : Is the Minister aware that the Channel tunnel could have serious consequences for the economy of south-west Wales, especially as firms in the congested south-east might be tempted to go to the French end of the tunnel and supply the island from the continent rather than come to south Wales? Will the Secretary of State, with local authorities and British Rail, start planning a fast rail link from south- west Wales to the Channel tunnel, bypassing London?

Mr. Roberts : The right hon. Gentleman is well aware that British Rail has been charged with producing a plan before the end of this year. I understand that its publication is imminent. To judge from what I know of what may be in it, I do not think that the people of Wales will be disappointed.

Mr. Adley : My constituents in Dorset might think Wales quite well served by railways. Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that there is no direct relationship between the Government's quite proper pride in increasing capital investment on the railways and reducing the public service obligation grant which, in the case of the lines from Cardiff to Crewe and from Cardiff to Portsmouth, means that Sprinters are overworked, clapped out and, as one railwayman recently told me, being worked into the ground? Will he ensure that, in discussions about railway investment, PSO grant is recognised as separate from capital investment and essential?

Mr. Roberts : I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend said, but I assure him that my information is that new Sprinters are being introduced, or are due to be introduced, in several parts of Wales.

EC Funding

3. Mr. Anderson : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what discussions he has had with Community officials about the funding of infrastructure projects.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : I am in constant touch with the negotiations with the European Commission on Community support frameworks. Officials of my Department are playing an active part in discussions with Commission officials on this issue.

Mr. Anderson : The Secretary of State will be aware of my interest in the cross-valley link from Hafod, in the lower Swansea valley, to the Pentrechwyth bypass. Is he aware that, at last, tenders for it are to be invited this week? The assessment of infrastructure grants affects the whole of Wales. Will there be a transitional period before the new regime comes into effect? Has the right hon. Gentleman been successful in his lobbying in Brussels?

Mr Walker : Negotiations with the Commission continue. There is considerable pressure from all member

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states as there is widespread European interest in the decisions taken. We have not been sastisfied with the Commission's proposals, and negotiations continue.

Mr. Morgan : Will the Secretary of State come clean with the House about what has been happening in the negotiations between his Department and the European Community, following the recent statement by Bruce Millan, the responsible Commissioner, at the conference in Cardiff that there will be no further grants for highway infrastructure projects in areas such as Wales? If that is so, was that loss of grant, which will probably amount to £40 million, and was caused by his Department debarring county councils such as South Glamorgan and West Glamorgan from applying for grants, the reason why he has had to cut the capital allocation to areas such as Cardiff by £40 million in the next financial year?

Mr. Walker : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who kindly always prefaces his questions to me by releasing them to the newspapers the morning before. One can read the nonsense in advance in the papers. What he has just said is equal nonsense. There is no link between capital expenditure in Cardiff and that in South Glamorgan. His previous allegations about Welsh Office blunders with respect to grants are also wrong. I suggest that, in future, he checks the facts before he makes press releases.

Mr. Barry Jones : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of our problems in Europe is that the Prime Minister is in a disturbing minority of one? Will he take her aside and tell her to stop damaging the interests of our country? Is it not the case that rather than leading Britain in Europe she is humiliating us and that the interests of Wales are also being seriously hurt?

Mr. Walker : I welcome the conversion of part of the Labour party to Europe. As the Commissioner involved in the negotiations is a former Socialist Cabinet Minister responsible for regional policy, I hope that his proposals will suit Britain in Europe.

Pupil Assessment

4. Dr. Thomas : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what progress his Department has made in implementing its policy for assessment of school pupils.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : The School Examinations and Assessment Council is making good progress in the development of assessment measures and advice to support the national curriculum in England and Wales.

Dr. Thomas : Is the Minister satisfied with the relationship between SEAC in Wales and the Welsh joint education committee? The entire operation of assessment in Wales is organised on a part-time basis with one official who commutes. Is that satisfactory in view of discussions in the Standing Committee when I proposed a SEAC for Wales, just as we have a curriculum council for Wales?

Mr. Roberts : I am satisfied that the relationship between SEAC, Welsh Office officials and the Welsh joint education committee is satisfactory. That is shown by the progress that we are making on standard assessment tasks.

Dr. Kim Howells : Is the Minister aware that the assessment of school pupils depends in the first place on teachers having the appropriate time, facilities and funds

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to carry it out in classrooms? Is he further aware that morale among teachers, at least in south Wales, is low and that many teachers are looking for jobs outside the education system? What will he do about making more resources available to teachers in Wales?

Mr. Roberts : Teachers have an important part to play in the assessment of pupils. Their assessment continues throughout the period when the child is at school, whereas standard assessment tasks are carried out when the child is seven, 11, 14 and 16. The teachers whom I have met in Wales are doing a marvellous job, and I believe that that is true of the majority.

Mr. Raffan : Is my hon. Friend aware of the widespread anxiety among teachers, not only about the amount of time that assessment will take in classes of 30-plus, but that too much emphasis on assessment has an adverse effect on pupils and that assessment at seven is too early? Will he assure teachers on those two points?

Mr. Roberts : Testing at the age of seven will be different from testing at later stages. I know that there is some anxiety about the time being devoted to assessment, but I am sure that after it is introduced the task will be eased.


5. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what percentages of Welsh (a) full-time and (b) part-time workers are currently earning wages below 68 per cent. of the average British wage.

Mr. Peter Walker : Information is not available in the form requested. Between 1988 and 1989 average earnings of full-time workers on adult rates in Wales increased by 9.9 per cent., a figure higher than in six of the other nine regions of the country.

Mr. Flynn : Had the information been available, the Secretary of State would have discovered that Wales has fallen further down the low wages ladder and that tens of thousands of Welsh workers have been conscripted into junk jobs that pay dirt wages. Is he aware that thousands of Welsh workers once earned above-average wages whereas now they are at the bottom of the nation's average wages? Is he aware that there is a higher percentage of low-paid, male workers in Wales than anywhere else in Britain and that Dyfed has the lowest average male wages of any county in Britain? Will he answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones)? Does he agree with the Prime Minister that clause 5 of the European social charter, which seeks fairer remuneration for workers, is of no value? Is he content for Wales to remain the low-paid capital of Britain?

Mr. Walker : The figures used in the hon. Gentleman's question were taken from a remarkable Council of Europe report which has not been endorsed by any member state.

Mr. Flynn : That is not true.

Mr. Walker : The hon. Gentleman complains about the level of wages in Wales. In 1979, the average adult wage was £87 a week, whereas now it is £216 a week. That is a massive increase in real terms.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest tragedy of unnecessarily high wages

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would be a halt in the creation of new employment? He is to be congratulated because since the general election unemployment in Wales has fallen by 70 per cent. Can he tell the House by how much unemployment in Newport has fallen in the same period?

Mr. Walker : At the time of the general election unemployment in Newport was 100 per cent. higher than it is now.

Mr. Barry Jones : What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to persuade the Prime Minister that the European social charter will help the poorest in Wales best of all? Does he agree that the Prime Minister's stubborn style in Europe hurts the prospects of the lowest paid in Wales? Does he further agree that if we are frozen out of Europe, Britain cannot play a leading role to help the lowest paid in Wales?

Mr. Walker : I am glad to say that what is substantially improving earnings in Wales is the Government's enormous success in getting inward investment into Wales. It is probably a more successful region than any other in the European Community. I am delighted that this massive creation of good jobs in Wales is taking place. It is a great pity that, by their noise this afternoon, Labour Members show that they do not appreciate what is going on.

Local Government

6. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met local government associations in Wales ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Peter Walker : I met representatives of the Welsh counties committee and the Council of Welsh Districts at a meeting of the Welsh consultative council on local government finance on 2 November to discuss local government finance matters.

Mr. Murphy : Is it not time that the Secretary of State stopped blurring the picture about what will happen in Wales when the poll tax hits us next year? Will he admit that individual poll tax payers in Wales are likely to pay an average of £200, not the figure that he has predicted over the past few weeks? Why has he been so reticent about the fact that of the 100,000 business premises in Wales, at least 70,000 will be worse off as a direct result of his business tax? Cannot he see that the Welsh people regard him as the architect of this wretched tax as much as they do the Prime Minister?

Mr. Walker : The hon. Gentleman read that out beautifully. I only hope that he rehearsed it before delivering it.

Mr. Murphy : The right hon. Gentleman will read his answer.

Mr. Walker : No, I will not read the answer. The community charge in Wales will provide only 15 per cent. of all local government expenditure. As a result, community charges in Wales will be at least £100 lower per person than in either England or Scotland. It is time that the Welsh Labour party stopped being so churlish on this issue.

Mr. Rogers : Does the Secretary of State accept that local authorities in Wales are grossly underfunded? People

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are not getting the municipal housing, social services and care for the elderly that they enjoyed 10 years ago. Does he acknowledge that next year after the introduction of the poll tax the position will be even worse?

Mr. Walker : Government grants to Wales, in terms of the statutory requirements regarding house improvements, will be unlimited in the current year. Our pursuit of such a policy for 10 years is doubtless why so many houses in the Rhondda have been improved.

Mr. Livsey : Will the Secretary of State admit that the Welsh Office has hopelessly underestimated the poll tax figures? The Welsh Office says that the figure for Brecon and Radnor should be £130 per head, but the local authority treasurers say that it will be nearer £200. Does that mean that the Welsh Office accountants are not wizards but dunces?

Mr. Walker : No, Sir. What the hon. Gentleman said is not true. The increase in the total standard spending grant is sufficient to allow the average charge of £174 to be set. The expenditure demands of the local authority associations are, in my view, overstated. There is also room for efficiency savings. All councils, especially high-spending authorities, should seek to contain their budgets within affordable levels.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Has my right hon. Friend discussed the actions of councils such as the two Cardiff councils, which have given up any pretence of fixing a community charge to match their spending and instead have already determined the level of their community charge, with the result that they are now scrabbling round to find spending to soak up the revenue? According to my right hon. Friend's calculations, the charge in Cardiff should be £163, but my constituents will have to pay £250. What will he do about it?

Mr. Walker : There have been some remarkable increases. For example, this year Cardiff is planning a capital spending programme of £60 million, an increase of 35 per cent. on the previous year and the year before. Cardiff is using all its receipts and reserves for the year, with the result that recently there were some remarkable newspaper articles on the topic.

Illegal Discharges

7. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many incidents of notified discharges into rivers in Wales took place in 1988 and to date in 1989 ; and how many prosecutions have taken place during the same period in respect of illegal discharges.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist) : The latest published figures, in Welsh Water's report and accounts 1988-89, show that there were 2,185 substantiated river pollution incidents in Welsh Water's area in 1988, 12 per cent. less than in 1987. During 1988, 74 prosecutions were brought by Welsh Water, resulting in 72 convictions. In the period to the end of October 1989 there have been 1,140 substantial incidents and 45 prosecutions have been brought.

Mr. Jones : When the Government are seeking to promote their green image, does the Minister consider it a scandal that the level of trade effluent discharges and

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untreated sewage into our rivers is increasing substantially? Will he examine the claims of the Farmers Union of Wales that discharges into rivers in my constituency are 200 per cent. greater than they were two years ago? If that is the case and consents have been given, will the Minister assure us that the consents were not given to prevent the National Rivers Authority from undertaking prosecutions in the run-up to water privatisation?

Mr. Grist : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is talking absolute rubbish--and populist, scaring rubbish at that. Nevertheless, I shall pass his query to the National Rivers Authority, because it has the responsibility.

Mr. John Marshall : I congratulate my hon. Friend on the successful privatisation of Welsh Water today. Does he agree that the privatisation of Welsh Water and the National Rivers Authority is the best guarantee of cleaner rivers in Wales?

Mr. Grist : Absolutely. My hon. Friend is quite right. At last we have separated the gamekeeper from the poacher, and we have a licensing authority that is free of the charge of polluting. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) does not seem to have understood that point.

Welsh Office (25th Anniversary)

8. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what events were organised by his Department to mark the 25th anniversary of the Welsh Office in November.

Mr. Peter Walker : The 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Welsh Office falls on 1 April 1990. I intend to mark the anniversary in an appropriate manner and will announce my plans early in 1990.

Mr. Wigley : Is the Secretary of State aware that on radio programmes in Wales commemorating the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Secretary of State's office, which was the embryonic Welsh Office, in November 1964, two former senior officials of the Welsh Office, Mr. Richard Hall Williams and Sir Goronwy Daniel said that the major challenge now facing the Welsh Office was to get a degree of democracy into its oversight? Will he confirm that any celebrations next April will bring about that democracy, or will we be lingering behind Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia?

Mr. Walker : I find such admirable institutions as the Welsh Grand Committee, the Welsh Select Committee and the constant activities of lively Welsh Members of Parliament such as the hon. Gentleman marvellous reflections of democracy in Wales that would be envied in Lithuania and elsewhere.

Mr. Denzil Davies : Is the Secretary of State aware that during the past 10 years while his party has been in charge of the Welsh Office, income per head in Wales has fallen faster than in any other area in Britain and is now almost as low as that in Northern Ireland? Is that evidence of an economic miracle or an economic disaster?

Mr. Walker : I repeat that average wages in Wales have massively increased as has the diversity of opportunity in Wales. Wales now has a strong diversified economy which is recognised and rejoiced in by anyone who has any regard for the future of Wales.

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Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the important advantages of a Welsh Office is that Welsh matters are debated here in the United Kingdom Parliament and not in some Mickey Mouse assembly in Cardiff? Does he agree that the hallmarks of a Conservative Welsh Office are prudence and value for money for the taxpayer? Will he ensure that any celebrations bear that in mind?

Mr. Walker : The enormous resources that have been put into regional development in recent years and the fact that domestic ratepayers in Wales will be paying only 15 per cent. of all local government expenditure are reflections of the considerable advantages for Wales of being part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Geraint Howells : I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that the people of Wales demand their own Parliament within the United Kingdom. On reflection, which position would the Secretary of State like to hold in that Parliament?

Mr. Walker : Ambassador.

Nature Conservancy Council

9. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next intends to meet the Nature Conservancy Council to discuss nature conservation in Wales.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : My right hon. Friend has no present plans to meet the council.

Mr. Davies : I am surprised at the Minister's answer in view of the current controversy in Wales. Is it not the case that the Nature Conservancy Council in England is being retained to allow the English authorities to resist development pressure and that the effective abolition of the NCC in Wales means that we shall have a lower standard of protection for our national heritage than exists in England? Does the Minister agree that that is why the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales now opposes his plan for the dismemberment of the NCC? Does he acknowledge that that view is shared by every other conservation body in Wales and is endorsed by every serious politician in Wales and all but six of the NCC staff? In view of that, when the Minister gets around to meeting the NCC will he announce that he will reconsider the matter?

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman has totally misled the House, I am sure not deliberately. I repeat what I said earlier which is that our proposals for Wales have received a wide welcome. I do not agree that the purpose of our new Countryside Council for Wales is to lower standards of protection for the environment. It is nothing of the kind and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that his belief is not shared by any of the people in Wales to whom I spoke, including the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales.

Interest Rates

10. Mr. Rowlands : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what assessment he has made of the impact of current interest rates on the development of small businesses in Wales.

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Mr. Peter Walker : The high inflation of previous Governments proved that high inflation is more damaging to small businesses than a period of high interest rates. I hope that the fall in inflation during the coming year will lead to lower interest rates as well as lower inflation.

Mr. Rowlands : The Secretary of State's complacent statement completely underestimates the crippling effects of high interest rates on small businesses and on their cash flows and investment decisions. The right hon. Gentleman is supposed to be a man of independent thinking. What independent thoughts has he about helping small businesses through this period of high interest rates?

Mr. Walker : Much help is being given through various forms of regional aid, such as the Welsh Development Agency and local authorities, to small businesses. I am delighted to say that in 1988 there was a faster rate of increase in the number of production businesses in Wales than in any other region--it was more than double the average for the United Kingdom as a whole. I am glad to say that the latest returns and applications show that that trend is continuing.

Mr. Foot : When does the right hon. Gentleman propose to make his annual speech in which he tells us what he thinks of Government economic policy? This year, will he be making it in the constituency of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer)?

Mr. Walker : I should prefer to make it in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency so that I could point out all the successes that we have had.

Community Health Councils

11. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met the chairmen of community health councils in Wales ; and what topics were discussed.

Mr. Grist : We have received no request from community health council chairmen to meet them, although I would be happy to do so should the need arise.

Mr. Michael : Did the Minister seek a meeting, or was he afraid that they would ask him why he was entering into a period of so-called consultation on his proposal to undermine our system of community health councils in Wales, when that proposal had already been rejected? Surely the Minister must accept that it is manifest nonsense for a council with the word "community" in its name to represent views from areas as widespread as mid-Glamorgan, Dyfed, Powys and even South Glamorgan. Will he allow community health councils to continue to represent the health interests of communities, instead of forcing them to reconcile the needs of different communities, which should be a matter for health authorities and, ultimately, the Minister?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman has rather missed the point of our proposals, which, as he knows, are out to consultation. The community health councils should be strengthened by the change because they will be able to stand up and shadow their health authorities much more effectively and deploy their assets and finances to much greater effect on behalf of patients.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Is the Minister aware that Ogwr community health council is concerned about the fact that,

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because of a lack of staff to attend all the intensive care beds in the Princess of Wales hospital, one patient has been sent home three times when expecting an operation for cancer of the oesophagus, and another has been sent home once for the same reason? Will he arrange for extra funding to be made available to ensure that intensive care units throughout mid-Glamorgan are fully staffed?

Mr. Grist : I shall certainly consider the particular instance that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, although I believe that the intensive treatment unit at the Princess of Wales hospital has recently been affected by sickness among its staff.

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