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House of Commons

Monday 18 April 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Opera --

1. Mr. Jenkin : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what research he has conducted into the popularity of opera ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat) : Opera in this country continues to attract an unprecedented degree of public interest and support. Recent research published by the Arts Council claims that 2.8 million--or more than 6 per cent.--of the adult population attend opera performances.

Mr. Jenkin : Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the orchestra of English National Opera, which at the Olivier awards ceremony received the award for outstanding achievement in opera ? Does not that demonstrate that although British opera receives a limited subsidy, there is extremely good value for the taxpayer ?

Mr. Sproat : I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the ENO on its award last night ; it does marvellous work.

Mr. Sheldon : Yes, but given that there is far more interest in opera as a result of a number of activities over the past couple of years, is not it fitting that there should be greater recognition of that interest, both by the Department and by the Arts Council, in terms of funding ?

Mr. Sproat : Opera gets a great deal of support already--£40 million from the various Arts Councils around the country. That is well merited, but it is a substantial sum.

Mr. Dicks : Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why opera is so popular is that it is funded by the rest of us mugs called taxpayers ? If people who went to the opera had to pay the full cost, half of them would not go.

Mr. Sproat : In fact, we are lucky in this country in that a lot of the funding for opera comes from partnership deals--from sponsorship from business, in which we lead the world. The prices of a growing number of opera companies, such as English Touring Opera, are extremely reasonable.

Mr. Fisher : What are the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State doing to back up their congratulations with some action ? Why is not the Minister

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helping local authorities to support the excellent education and opera schemes in which most companies are engaged ? Why is not he helping local authorities to back excellent touring opera companies, such as the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, Music Theatre Wales or Opera Factory ? What is he actually doing ? Why is not he even talking to the opera world to discuss the benefit of the schemes--as the Labour party is, with an opera seminar next Monday ? Will he stop just talking about opera and use the power that he and his right hon. Friend have to do something to back opera ?

Mr. Sproat : I have already said that we are doing a great deal to back opera. Through the various Arts Councils, we are giving £40 million. If any member of the opera community wishes to discuss matters further with me, I shall be delighted.

BBC Charter --

3. Mr. David Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage when he last met the Director General of the BBC to discuss the renewal of the charter.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Peter Brooke) : I met the Director General of the BBC on 28 February, when we discussed the BBC's plans for its future commercial activities.

Mr. Martin : At his next meeting with the director general, will my right hon. Friend ask him what is the sense of spending fee payers' money on expensive advertising--on hoardings in tube stations and in newspapers, for example--for particular television channels or radio stations ? Will my right hon. Friend comment to the director general that such advertising seems an activity more appropriate for the commercial sector, which the BBC may one day join, and that while the BBC is a public sector broadcasting organisation, it does not seem an appropriate way in which to spend money that fee payers sometimes find it difficult to pay ?

Mr. Brooke : I think that I shall see the chairman of the BBC earlier than I shall next see the director general. Whichever of them I meet, I will certainly ensure that I include the subject on the agenda.

Ms Eagle : In considering the future of the BBC charter, will the Secretary of State bear in mind how irritating it was for those of us who were attempting to watch the historic victory of the English test team last week to have our viewing constantly interrupted by advertisements between each over ? In considering the renewal of the charter, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that large numbers of people who like to watch sport want to do so uninterrupted by such advertisements ? What will he do to ensure that great national events are not confined to minor satellite channels, so that we can all enjoy the drama--be it the English test team or Wimbledon or any other national sporting event ?

Mr. Brooke : The hon. Lady will know that the Select Committee on National Heritage is exploring that very issue. There is no question but that the amount of sport being broadcast has greatly increased over recent years. The items that should be subject to the rules were discussed with everybody and agreed at the time of the Broadcasting

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Act 1990. I take the hon. Lady's point and, as I say, I shall be reflecting on the report that the Select Committee will make shortly.

Mr. Maclennan : With respect to the commercial activities to which the Secretary of State referred, which the BBC has described in its document on fair trading as supportive of, and complementary to, its public service commitment, does the right hon. Gentleman view the revenues generated from commercial activities as additional to those generated by licence fees ?

Mr. Brooke : Of course I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Indeed, such revenues have always been in addition to the licence fee. The BBC has also made it clear, however, that it will be using the profit from its commercial activities to advance the commercial programme in which it is engaged abroad.

Mr. Gale : When my right hon. Friend next meets the Director General of the BBC to discuss the renewal of the charter, will he remind him that we look to the BBC to maintain the highest possible standards of journalism and broadcasting ? In that context, will he draw the attention of the director general in particular to the largely synthetic row that one section of the BBC has sought to generate over the D-day celebrations ? Will he remind him that there are many elderly soldiers, sailors and airmen in the country who are looking forward to the 50th anniversary of D-day to do two things : to commemorate those who lost their lives and to celebrate a great and glorious victory ?

Mr. Brooke : I did not see the programme to which my hon. Friend refers, but I am conscious that it is the subject of a debate at present. I sincerely hope that the BBC, as is generally the case, reflects opinion throughout the country.

BBC (Regional Autonomy) --

4. Mr. Dafis : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what representations he has received concerning the autonomy of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom within the BBC.

Mr. Brooke : Since the beginning of 1993, I have received 45 letters about the autonomy of the BBC regions. The BBC's regional policies were also mentioned in a small number of the 6,000 responses to the Government's consultation document on the future of the BBC.

Mr. Dafis : Does the Secretary of State share my great concern and the concern of others about the strong centralising tendency currently prevalent in the BBC ? That is evidenced, first, in the centralisation of certain functions, which makes it difficult for the BBC in Wales and in other national regions to make discretionary choices on the nature of programmes and, secondly, in the imbalance of funding of network programmes. I believe that 3 per cent. of network programme funding is spent in the national regions, which serve 17 per cent. of the population. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that when the White Paper appears, there will be measures in it and in legislation, including the charter, to reverse that centralising trend ?

Mr. Brooke : I am conscious of the views that have been advanced by the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, which, to some extent, the hon. Member's comments reflect. The director general made it clear in a speech on 24

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March that he was concerned to increase the amount of regional production throughout the country. At the same time, however, he said that he did not believe in quotas, which he thought would be potentially too inflexible.

Mr. Fabricant : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the BBC in Cardiff has a high degree of autonomy ? Is he further aware that more money is spent on programmes specifically for the Welsh than on comparable programmes for Scotland and in the three BBC regions ? Is he also aware that more money is spent on television in Wales by the BBC than is collected in licence fees paid by the people of Wales ?

Mr. Brooke : Being familiar with the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, I am also familiar with some of the counterpoints. However, as someone who is half Welsh I would not in any way want Wales to be denied its proper share. The director general has said that he is considering the issue on a national basis.

Mr. Maxton : When giving evidence to the Select Committee on National Heritage, both the director general and the chairman of the BBC promised that they would devolve management and programme making to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. Will the right hon. Gentleman repeat that pledge and ensure that it is written into the charter when he renews it ?

Mr. Brooke : Given that the director general and, according to the hon. Gentleman, the chairman of the BBC have made that promise, and as these are management matters under their control, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be satisfied with what has already been said. However, as I said in answer to earlier questions, the White Paper will touch on the subject.

Outdoor Education Centres --

5. Mr. Jamieson : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage if he will make a statement on the progress being made in establishing an accreditation system for outdoor education centres.

Mr. Sproat : The activity centres accreditation committee, established by the English tourist board, has drawn up a draft code of practice for outdoor activity providers, is now devising guidelines for individual activities and is considering appropriate inspection arrangements.

Mr. Jamieson : How does the Minister intend to ensure that outdoor education centres that are accredited by the English tourist board operate the highest levels of safety, with staff competent to undertake potentially hazardous activities ? In particular, how will the centres be inspected to ensure that they are not putting children's lives at risk ?

Mr. Sproat : The central answer to the hon. Gentleman's important question is that the Health and Safety Executive will be monitoring centres over the next two years at the rate of 100 a year. The precise monitoring arrangements are currently being considered by the ACAC.

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Television Licences --

6. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what representations he has had from holiday parks and the tourist industry generally about the cost of television licences.

Mr. Sproat : My right hon. Friend has received representations from 27 right hon. and hon. Members and seven letters from others.

Mr. Field : May I declare an interest in this matter ? It has come to my attention that Lewis Bullard, the secretary of the National Association of Holiday Centres, has written to my hon. Friend making three points--first, that the industry is seasonal ; secondly, that most families go on holiday together and therefore do not watch their televisions at home ; and thirdly, that, as hosts provide entertainment for their guests, they do not necessarily watch television in the holiday centres.

Taken together, the Select Committee proposals and the EC distance selling directive have caused great consternation within the industry and we look to the Minister to reassure those involved in it.

Madam Speaker : Did the Minister find a question in all that ?

Mr. Sproat : I did, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : I am delighted, because I did not.

Mr. Sproat : On my hon. Friend's first point, I agree that the Select Committee recommended that hotels with more than 50 rooms should pay for each television set thereafter. The same applies to holiday homes and caravan parks. I emphasise that that is the Select Committee recommendation, not the Government's. We are extremely conscious of the need not to place any additional burdens on the businesses described by my hon. Friend. On the question of the EC distance selling directive, the Government are wholly opposed to that directive and will do everything that they can to stop it.

Team Sports --

7. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what representations he has received about the importance of team sports.

Mr. Sproat : On 16 February, I hosted a seminar on team sports which was attended by about 25 people from the worlds of sport and education. Since the beginning of this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have received about 70 letters on this issue.

Mr. Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that team sports should be encouraged because they improve the health of participants, can be character-building and, in school holidays, may discourage young people from a life of crime ? Does he further agree with the old adage :

"Mens sana in corpore sano" ?

Mr. Sproat : My response to my hon. Friend's Latin quotation is, "Rem acu tetigisti." I agree strongly with what he said in English.

Ms Hoey : Will the Minister confirm that, in talking about team sports he is not--as has commonly been represented in the newspapers-- talking about male-only sports ? Is not he also referring to the value of other sports

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that are played by many women in this country--especially women's cricket ? Does he agree that it is not a matter of team sports versus individual sports ? We should be talking about and encouraging sport for all and ensuring that schools can give young people those opportunities.

Mr. Sproat : I agree entirely with what the hon. Lady has said about sport for girls and women. I shall do everything that I can to see that that approach is put into practice. I hope that, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, the we can devise a means whereby more team games are played, although not to the exclusion of individual games.

Mr. Robert Banks : Does my hon. Friend agree that British sport is highly regarded in all parts of the world ? It is--[ Interruption. ] I accept that there are one or two exceptions. Sport provides an opportunity for us to encourage visitors from other countries to come here to watch football matches, tennis tournaments or whatever. When my hon. Friend next talks to the relevant authorities, will he see what can be done to encourage a greater marketing effort on behalf of sport in Britain ? Will he also encourage international events to be held in this country ?

Mr. Sproat : I shall draw my hon. Friend's important remarks to the attention of the British Tourist Authority and the governing bodies, but I have no power to make those bodies spend any money on their own marketing.

Mr. Pendry : Is the Minister aware that in most sporting circles his recent emphasis on core team sport is considered to be too narrow and restrictive ? Instead, he should be fighting his corner to ensure that sport receives at least two hours a week as an integral part of the national curriculum, so that a variety of sports, both team and individual, can be played. The hon. Gentleman's pious hope that the 5,000 playing fields sold off by the Government should be bought back is an impossible dream as most of them are buried in concrete. Instead, the hon. Gentleman should be pursuing a policy with the Department for Education to scrap circular 909, which allowed the playing fields to be sold off in the first place. There should be a moratorium on the selling-off of playing fields so that schools and the community can benefit from playing fields in future.

Mr. Sproat : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the availability of playing fields. My views, in so far as they were correctly reported, do not include buying back the same land ; obviously, as the hon. Gentleman said, much of it has been built upon. Instead, we should seek to increase the number of playing fields in urban areas. That should be encouraged. I hope that we shall encourage both team and individual sport in our schools.

Mr. Simon Coombs : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the English cricket team is to win in Barbados more often than once every 59 years, and if the English women's cricket team is to win the world cup again, it will be necessary to preserve existing playing fields and provide more, and also to provide the necessary funding to ensure that playing fields are in good enough condition for school pupils to play cricket on them ?

Mr. Sproat : Yes, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I agree with him.

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BSkyB Programming --

8. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what plans he has to require that BSkyB is subject to the same requirements to broadcast British-made productions as the rest of commercial television ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Brooke : BSkyB is already subject to the requirement in the EC broadcasting directive to reserve a majority proportion of transmission time for European works where practical, and to achieve this proportion progressively.

Mr. Mullin : But why are the Government making no attempt to enforce the regulations ? Is not that extremely damaging to Britain's domestic television ? Is it part of the pay-off for the Murdoch empire's support for the Conservative party over a long period ? That is the only explanation that I can think of.

Mr. Brooke : The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in his observation that the Government are making no attempt to enforce the provisions of the broadcasting directive. Under that directive we require broadcasters to provide us with the material that is necessary for us to report to Brussels what the proportions are. We are engaged in specific dialogue with the broadcasters who have not met the provisions of the directive in order to verify their progress in connection with it. We are also conscious that the Commission will be asking us the same questions.

Mr. Hendry : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents have to watch satellite television because the very hilly nature of my constituency means that they cannot pick up proper signals from the BBC and other commercial channels ? Does he agree that it is wholly unacceptable that they should have to pay the full licence fee even though the BBC accepts that they have a substandard signal ? Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look into that matter on my behalf ?

Mr. Brooke : That question has been raised with me by another hon. Member who was in the Chamber a while ago, but who has now left. I have been willing to explore that subject with the relevant bodies in the past.

Ms Mowlam : Will the Secretary of State consider waiting until the Commission has made a decision, but will he assure the House that, in his cross-media review, he will include regulation across satellite, terrestrial and cable, so that--whether in terms of production, watersheds or current affairs programmes in peak time such as "World in Action"--a level playing field exists as between the different media where regulation is needed ? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if he does not do that, we will end up with another short-term, bungled, botched job like the Broadcasting Act 1990 ?

Mr. Brooke : Seductive though the hon. Lady is, I will not be tempted to explore what the conclusions of the cross-media review will be when we are scarcely halfway through it. As for the hon. Lady's other stricture, I agree with Sam Rayburn that the three wisest words in the English language are, "Wait a minute." The hon. Lady wanted me to wait a year and I am not sure whether the technology will afford us that degree of luxury.

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Tourist Industry (Deregulation) --

9. Mrs. Lait : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what progress has been made on deregulating the tourist industry.

Mr. Sproat : My inquiry into regulatory burdens on the tourist industry identified some 90 regulations which the industry claimed were burdensome. We are pursuing each of those regulations with the relevant Departments.

Mrs. Lait : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of the Somerset hotelier who had the extraordinary experience of witnessing three fire officers in one room arguing about the best fire precautions for it ? Can my hon. Friend assure me that the deregulation initiative will change not only regulations but attitudes in public service ?

Mr. Sproat : As usual, my hon. Friend is extremely well informed about such matters. On that occasion, I believe that the argument centred on whether doors into bars or bedrooms should open inwards or outwards. We are concerned to ensure that such overlapping is brought to an end, thus ending some of the burdens on parts of our tourism industry.

Mr. Mandelson : Whatever benefits may be gained by the British tourist industry from the programme of events planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-day, does the Minister accept that frivolous trivialising events can play no part in a dignified tribute to those who lost their lives in the D-day landings ? Will he therefore revise his plans in keeping with the views recently expressed to the Prime Minister by the Royal British Legion ?

Mr. Sproat : It is very right and proper that we should commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-day. In doing that, we are commemorating the brave actions and deaths of those who fought on D-day. We are also commemorating the great good news that followed--the overthrow of the evil Nazi tyranny. It is not up to us to say how people around the country should commemorate those things. There should be serious and solemn events, and there will be. There will also be less serious and solemn events occurring around the country. We believe that a balance should be struck and that we are striking the right balance.

Mr. Elletson : Does my hon. Friend agree that, although deregulation is the answer to many of the problems of the tourist industry, there are also areas where stricter regulations are needed ? Will he therefore accept my constituents' thanks for the part that he played in ensuring that there are changes to the Use Classes Order to curb the widespread and unregulated growth in the number of Department of Social Security hostels in tourist areas ?

Will he also tell the House when he expects to be able to announce details of a licensing scheme for such hostels ?

Mr. Sproat : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the use classes order. He is absolutely right ; there are regulations that must stay. All that we are seeking to do is discover those regulations that place an unnecessary burden on the industry. We shall continue to retain the regulations that are valuable and to abolish the regulations that are not. The licensing that my hon. Friend mentioned is a matter for the Department of the Environment.

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Mr. John Evans : Is the Minister aware that we have two important tourist attractions in St. Helens, horse racing at Haydock park and rugby league at Knowsley road ? Is he aware that one of the burdensome regulations placed on St. Helens rugby league club is the requirement in the Taylor report that the club spend substantial sums of money on improving its ground ? Unlike football clubs, the rugby league club receives no assistance from organisations such as the Football Trust. Will the Minister accept my invitation to meet the board of directors of St. Helens rugby league club to find some way of assisting it to obey the instructions in the Taylor report ?

Mr. Sproat : I saw St. Helens play Leeds the other day. I thought that they put up a terrific performance and were very unlucky not to win. I will be glad to speak to the directors of the club.

Film Industry --

10. Mr. Clappison : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what consultations he has had with representatives of the film industry about promoting the film industry in Britain.

Mr. Brooke : Last year, I held a series of consultative meetings with all sectors of the United Kingdom film industry to review the state of the industry and hear their ideas about possible further action to raise the level of private investment in film production. I have also received numerous other representations. I shall announce the Government's conclusions as soon as practicable.

Mr. Clappison : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Impact initiative, which has received wide support from the film industry, to promote film-making in Britain. In considering the initiative, and in his wider discussions, will my right hon. Friend give full account to the calculation made by Impact that relatively modest fiscal changes could result in a big expansion of film-making in this country ? Will he give every encouragement to the seven big American studios, which control 90 per cent. of cinema revenue in Britain, to make more films in this country, rather than just market United States-made films, as the British components of such films almost invariably result in a big improvement in their quality ?

Mr. Brooke : I am aware of the proposals that underlie the Impact campaign ; indeed, I have been in conversation with PACT--the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television--as part of the review. Our preoccupation in the review is to ensure that we achieve what I will describe as the self-renewal of the industry, rather than simply giving it a quick fix. However, I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend about fiscal incentives. As for the American studios, I am delighted that this year some large budget films are being made here by the Americans. The film industry as a whole is profoundly encouraged by the signs of renaissance.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Does the Minister accept that while it must be nice to have large budget films being made here by American majors, it would be pleasant if we had one or two films made by the British ? The British have the ability in writing, acting and directing. Would not it surprise everyone if the Minister were to highlight that by giving some support to this very hard-working and necessary industry ?

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Mr. Brooke : The hon. Lady and I have regular exchanges on this subject across the Floor of the House. She does not always demonstrate total familiarity with the underlying support that the Government are giving. As for the British industry, I am delighted to say that 67 feature films were made last year compared with 47 the previous year, and the amount of money that was invested in those 67 films was £214 million, compared with £169 million a year earlier.

Arts (Suffolk) --

11. Mr. Spring : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what is his assessment of the state of the arts in the county of Suffolk.

Mr. Sproat : It is for the Arts Council and regional arts boards to take the lead in making assessments of this kind. I understand that the Eastern Arts Board regards Suffolk as having a healthy and lively arts scene.

Mr. Spring : Is my hon. Friend aware of the great local interest in the National Racing museum in Newmarket in my constituency, and in the Manor House museum in Bury St. Edmunds ? Is he also aware that the renowned Bury St. Edmunds festival starts next month ? Does he agree that, with the great flowering of interest in the arts in the past 10 years, it is now possible for people to see fine performances and to go to excellent museums, not only in the cities, but increasingly in rural areas ?

Mr. Sproat : Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I congratulate the Eastern Arts Board on what it has done towards achieving that splendid aim.

Brass Bands --

12. Mr. Enright : To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what strategy has been evolved for assistance to the brass bands which previously relied upon collieries, now closed, to support them.

Mr. Sproat : I have a keen interest in the brass band movement, including colliery bands, as an integral part of our artistic and cultural heritage. I recently had a valuable meeting with the British Federation of Brass Bands.

Mr. Enright : Will the Minister harness his considerable enthusiasm to attacking the bumbling of the Department of Trade and Industry and the insensitivity of the Department for Education, whose policies are helping to destroy junior brass bands, which should be fostered ? I do not need a public statement from him--just a hint that he will attack them in the background as he has done successfully with regard to team sports.

Mr. Sproat : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his closing remarks and I congratulate him on the persistence and dedication with which he has pursued the question of the band in his constituency. On 18 February, I suggested to him six or seven ways in which he might advance the band. He may also care to have a word with the Voluntary Arts Network which might have some extra ideas, if not cash. As for talking to the Department for Education and the Department of Trade and Industry, I will gladly pursue my usual friendly and genial conversations with them.

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Mr. Jessel : Is my hon. Friend aware that all our hearts are warmed by the splendid sound of brass bands, just as they are by the British Army bands whose high standards of excellence are the envy of the world and who are trained at Kneller Hall, Twickenham ? Will he draw the question of brass bands to the attention of the regional arts boards, and say that the whole House is behind them ?

Mr. Sproat : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind support which, given his marvellous musicianship, is particularly valuable. I will do as he says.

Mr. Skinner : Although the Minister may give his overall support to the idea of colliery brass bands, the truth is that, under the Coal Industry Bill, the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation--the umbrella organisation which deals with colliery brass bands--has had its money reduced by 40 per cent. CISWO must remain intact to look after the brass bands. If the Government can find the money to subsidise opera, they should find the money to ensure that brass bands can continue in every coalfield.

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