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House of Commons

Tuesday 3 May 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Madam Speaker : I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts :

Finance Act 1994.

Race Relations (Remedies) Act 1994.

Road Traffic Regulation (Special Events) Act 1994.

Oral Answers to Questions


Special Educational Needs --

1. Dr. Lynne Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to improve the resources available for children with special educational needs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : It is for local education authorities and schools to determine how much money is allocated to special educational needs, within totals which are adequate for the provision of the education service as a whole. Part III of the Education Act 1993 and the draft code of practice, which the House is due to debate shortly, will help schools and local education authorities to manage their responsibilities for children with special educational needs more effectively.

Dr. Jones : I welcome the draft code of practice on special educational needs, but not the dismissive attitude of the Minister, who belongs to a Government who fetter local authorities' discretion. Will the Minister give the commitment that adequate resources will be made available to allow children with special educational needs to receive their entitlement to obtain the education that they need in the time scale laid down by the code ? In that regard, will he congratulate Birmingham city council, which has substantially increased its education budget under the new leadership so that it is now well in excess of the Government's standard spending assessment, and in particular the additional

Madam Speaker : Order. We are getting off to a bad start today. I have cautioned both sides of the House that I want brisk questions. I am entitled to ask the Minister to answer only the first question if hon. Members continue in the same way as the hon. Lady.

Dr. Jones : I was just getting to the point of the additional money- -the £2,000 per school

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Madam Speaker : Order. This will not do. I call the Minister.

Mr. Forth : I am aware of no fettering of local education authorities' discretion. The hon. Lady seems to have ignored the 1992 report from the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's inspectorate, which said nothing about more money but concentrated on the lack of clarity and responsibility shown by many local education authorities and schools, not least Birmingham, to which the hon. Lady referred. In answer to her question, if Birmingham is belatedly catching up after years of neglect of education, I welcome that.

Mr. Waterson : Does my hon. Friend agree that many parents welcome the new rights contained in the Education Act 1993, in particular their new rights of appeal and the imposition of a time limit within which a child's needs have to be assessed by the local education authority ?

Mr. Forth : Yes, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that matter. It is an issue which concerned my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and me when we arrived at the Department two glorious years ago. The code of practice that the House will consider shortly states that the disgraceful time delay in providing statements on children will no longer be acceptable. I am convinced that, in raising the quality of response of everyone to that which already exists among the best, we shall be doing a service to children with special educational needs and their parents. That provision, backed by the tribunal, will make a dramatic change in the quality of special needs provision.

Mature Students --

2. Mr. Robert Ainsworth : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received regarding the treatment of the over-50s by the student maintenance funding system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : My right hon. Friend has received a very small number of representations on this subject.

Mr. Ainsworth : Is the Minister aware that there are 5,400 students in further education over the age of 50 who are not entitled to loans, so cannot make up the 10 per cent. cuts in grant imposed since they started their courses ? The cost involved would be a mere £2 million. Will the Minister allow grants for those 5,400 people so that they can carry on under the financial regime that they expected when they undertook their courses ?

Mr. Boswell : I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who has written to me on the subject. No such measure was proposed or carried into effect when we made the shift from grants to include a provision of loans in 1990. If we had £2 million to spare, that might not be the best use of public funds. I refer those students in difficulties to the access funds for their universities and institutions that are designed precisely to meet such hardship.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I am sure that my hon. Friend will be most interested to know of one of my constituents who was made unemployed and who decided, with his wife, that he could manage to see himself through university

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Madam Speaker : Order. Please ask a question.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I am asking my hon. Friend whether he is be pleased to know.

Madam Speaker : I am sure that the Minister is delighted to know, but he should now hear a direct question that needs to be answered.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that my constituent managed to get £800 from the access fund and has been able to continue with his studies ? He is delighted with the treatment that he has received.

Mr. Boswell : I am delighted to hear that from my hon. Friend. It is an example of what can and has been done. We now have more mature students in higher education than ever before. The rate has been increasing faster than for more traditional students. We welcome that--we want it to continue.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Is the Minister aware that one of the biggest disincentives to mature students is the collapse of discretionary grants ? Can he now tell the House clearly what action he intends to take against authorities, such as Conservative-controlled Trafford, that have abolished discretionary grants ?

Mr. Boswell : It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman has managed to mix up discretionary awards and discretionary grants and to bring what is primarily but not exclusively a further education consideration into a question about higher education and mandatory awards. We have studied, and we are continuing to study, the recent report of the Gulbenkian Foundation. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman blames Trafford. Perhaps he would also consider those Labour-controlled authorities that have withdrawn the discretionary grants as well. We shall look at the overall position. When we have reached our conclusions, we shall tell the House about them.

Special Educational Needs --

3. Mr. Callaghan : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what estimate he has made of the number of educational psychologists required by local education authorities to ensure that all statements for children with special educational needs are completed within six months.

Mr. Forth : The draft code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs, which the House is due to debate shortly, recognises the key role of educational psychologists, whose number has increased by over 30 per cent. in the past 10 years. Extensive consultation and the work of the Audit Commission shows that local education authorities should be able to make statements within six months within existing provision.

Mr. Callaghan : I thank the Minister for his reply, but point out to him that of the 120 places available each year for educational psychologists, 52 retired from their job in 1992 and 70 places were unfilled last year. As it is children with special needs who suffer, could he tell the House exactly what he will do to remedy the situation ?

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman raises a relevant and difficult matter, which we are monitoring closely. We are satisfied that support for educational psychologists'

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training, which is running at about £3.5 million for the current year, is, and should be, sufficient to enable local education authorities to fulfil their statutory responsibilities in this sector. However, if anyone can come up with a satisfactory alternative approach to the matter, I will look at it closely. There is no overall agreement on the best way to tackle the problem. At present, I am satisfied that we have the best solution, but I am very much open to suggestions.

Mr. Butler : I congratulate the Minister on the efforts that have been put into speeding up and completing statementing. However, is not what is important not only the completion of statementing on time but the completion of a statement with a specific recommendation ? Will he join me in deploring the trend towards generic

statementing--simply saying at the end that a pupil requires additional help within the classroom--rather than specific statementing, recommending a school and setting targets ?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend has correctly identified a problem that existed until now--that is, an extreme variability in both the content and value of the statements provided. The code of practice will bring a new uniformity and standardisation to the statements, which will be of great benefit. That, backed by the extensive powers that we are giving to the special educational needs tribunal, will give parents new rights, real rights and powerful rights to pursue the needs of their children. That will be a great advance.

Mr. Win Griffiths : While the Minister has said some positive things in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) about being willing to seek advice elsewhere, may I remind him that the number of vacancies has increased from 42 at the end of 1991 to an estimated 70 last year, and that that is happening at a time when local education authorities are advertising for more educational psychologists to provide a better service to children with special educational needs ? If he is willing to accept advice from that sphere, will he turn to local education authorities, to the Association of Educational Psychologists and to the British Psychological Society because I can assure the Minister that they want something better than the present system ? Let us have it.

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman is always entitled to ask for something better, but I am not convinced that there is broad agreement, even among those whom he has mentioned, about what that something better may be. I do not think that the lack of money is a problem, since the take- up, or lack of it, shows that the money is simply not being spent. Therefore, we have to look elsewhere for the solution. I repeat that if anyone can come to me with an agreed, workable and practicable approach, I shall certainly look positively at it.

Parenthood And Good Housekeeping --

4. Mr. David Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is his policy on the teaching of parenthood and good housekeeping.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : Schools should reinforce parents in preparing pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. Those are important topics. Aspects of

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them are included in some national curriculum subjects and in sex education. Schools may also cover them in other programmes such as personal and social education.

Mr. Atkinson : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing concern among primary school teachers that they are increasingly experiencing difficulty in the classroom in coping with the products of bad parenthood and bad housekeeping ? In the context of my right hon. Friend's reply, can he assure me that the new revised national curriculum for secondary schools addresses that situation ?

Mr. Patten : The national curriculum--for example, in science education--already looks at exactly that. One of the main aims of the revised national curriculum, details of which will be announced in a week or 10 days, is more time for teachers--up to about 20 per cent. a week more --to devote to personal and social education. It is wrong to try to load too much on the shoulders of teachers when the burden should rightly lie on the shoulders of parents.

Ms Eagle : Does the Secretary of State agree that part of the teaching of good parenthood is good sex education ? Can he explain the extraordinary implications of his view that children should be streamed for sex education ? How does he propose that teachers should put individual pupils into different streams ? Has he never heard of what goes on behind the bicycle shed ?

Mr. Patten : Those stories are without foundation. I am sure that from time to time all hon. Members read stories that deserve to be taken outside to the yard and shot. That story needs to be taken outside and put in front of a firing squad.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Does my right hon. Friend agree that what goes on behind the bicycle shed is nothing new and that personal relationships and good housekeeping are best taught at the age of about 13 and 14 ? Does he further agree that sex education is not assisted when pupils are taught how to have sex as a means of discouraging them from having it ? That false argument has been advanced by the Brooke Advisory Centres and others for too long and they have got away with it.

Mr. Patten : Bicycle sheds may be matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, but the second part of my hon. Friend's question is certainly for me. We wish to see good, sensible sex education that is taught with sensitivity by hard-working teachers. I am grateful to teachers for the way in which they carry out that task. The House will shortly have a chance to see the guidelines when they are published in the circular and will see that much of the speculation which seems to have run riot in the short, silly season that we have just had in the national media is completely without foundation.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Has the Secretary of State studied the evidence from other European countries which clearly shows that if our children are given good-quality sex education that is appropriate to their age and understanding, it is likely to help them in the long term, and will help them to avoid teenage pregnancies and early sexual activity ? Why is the Secretary of State fanning silly season stories by ridiculous comments which ignore all the evidence ?

Mr. Patten : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I have been working closely together on

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those issues for some months and the results will be seen when the circular is published. After all, the draft circular has been out for some months. It is important for me to tell the House, in answer to the hon. Lady's question, that we had about 400 responses to the draft sex education circular and, almost without exception, every respondent welcomed the fact that it set sex education in a firm framework of family values.

Dr. Spink : Will my right hon. Friend confirm the value of schools teaching today's youngsters that the prime responsibility for the education of children lies with their parents and not with the state, because today's parents have forgotten that fact ?

Mr. Patten : I agree entirely. The prime responsibility for bringing up children lies with the parents of those children throughout their childhood.

Educational Exports --

6. Mr. Nigel Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the latest figure he has of the value to the British economy of educational exports.

Mr. Boswell : Educational exports include both visible exports, including books, equipment and construction, and invisible exports, such as consultancy fees and the fees and other expenditure of overseas students in the United Kingdom. It has been estimated that educational exports already contribute around 4 per cent. to British invisible earnings alone. We wish to develop further all kinds of educational exports.

Mr. Evans : I am extremely grateful for that reply. Next time my hon. Friend visits my constituency, will he accompany me to visit two schools in my constituency ? Stoneyhurst college and Moorlands school are both fine institutions offering educational support to youngsters from all over the world. Does he agree that such support is important not just for its educational value to the youngsters and the financial gain to Britain but because many of those youngsters, when they return to their own countries, become involved in the higher echelons of business and the top echelons of Government ?

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is entirely on the right point and I will do my best to accept his kind invitation to visit those schools. I agree that the investment that we make in importing students from overseas into our schools and higher and further educational institutions is of considerable value to us in terms of our future relations with the countries to which they return.

Mr. Bryan Davies : On his recent visit to Malaysia and Singapore, did not the Secretary of State assist the Government of Singapore in reaching 80 per cent. of young people in higher education, while being complacent about the fact that only 30 per cent. of youngsters in Britain get the same opportunities ?

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for one thing : that he recognised my right hon. Friend's admirable and successful visit to Malaysia and Singapore, which was of great value in promoting British educational exports. However, he does us a characteristic disservice in suggesting that there is something wrong with the attainments of British higher education. If he were to look

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at the details and compare like with like, he would find that the proportion of young people going into higher education as we know it in Singapore is very much smaller--in the order of a magnitude smaller. Malaysia and Singapore very much want to collaborate with us in improving their higher education delivery and spreading good British educational practice throughout the region.

Mrs. Gillan : Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to congratulate an excellent university in my county--Buckingham university-- which won the Queen's award for export in the last round of awards ? Not only is it our only independent university but it is doing sterling work in pioneering the two-year degree.

Mr. Boswell : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. I have been aware of, and associated with, the university of Buckingham for many years, and while I must and do maintain a proper distinction between universities, I am aware of its achievement and the example that it has set in all the sectors of which she has reminded the House.

Chemistry --

7. Mrs. Anne Campbell : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the standard of chemistry teaching in state schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : Her Majesty's inspectors report that the quality of sciencteaching generally for pupils up to age 16 is satisfactory or better in 80 per cent. of lessons. Standards of chemistry teaching post-16 are satisfactory or better in 90 per cent. of lessons. Those are good standards, and science teachers are to be congratulated.

Mrs. Campbell : Will the Minister join me in congratulating Parkside community college in Cambridge on winning the Royal Society of Chemistry's national award despite fierce competition from many public schools ? Is he further aware that Parkside community college is a local education authority-maintained school which has positively chosen to stay with the LEA ?

Mr. Squire : On the first part of the hon. Lady's question, I have no reluctance at all in joining her, and I extend full

congratulations to all schools that are doing so much to raise standards in this sphere. On the latter part, I hesitate to join her. I should be happier if at this stage the majority of schools had given parents the opportunity to vote.

Mr. Whittingdale : On behalf of the Philip Morant school in Colchester, I thank my hon. Friend for the grant that his Department has given to finance the construction of the brand new chemistry laboratories which I opened on Friday. Does he agree that his announcement last week that the Philip Morant school is to become a technology college will allow that school to improve still further its already excellent reputation for chemistry and science ?

Mr. Squire : I am delighted to echo my hon. Friend's

congratulations to that school. He is right also to highlight the fact that across, the country, the technology college initiative will transform the way in which science, maths

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and technology are taught. It will improve the quality of education for so many of our pupils and it would be nice to see support for it coming from Opposition Members.

School Discipline --

8. Mr. Anthony Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps his Department is taking to assist teachers in maintaining an orderly environment in their schools.

11. Mr. Paice : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps he is taking to help improve levels of discipline in schools.

Mr. Forth : Children will not be able to learn unless in a disciplined environment. Head teachers are responsible for maintaining discipline in their schools. To help them, my Department has prepared guidance on behaviour and discipline, issued for consultation in January. Revised guidance will be issued later this term. Children will not grow up to be good citizens unless they are taught self-discipline.

Mr. Coombs : I welcome the Government's recent initiatives on truancy and the circular that the Minister has just mentioned, both of which emphasise that an orderly environment in school is crucial for high standards of education. Will my hon. Friend recognise the important work done by St. Paul's school in the middle of Birmingham, which takes disruptive pupils and which has now produced results which are among the highest of any school in Birmingham ? Will he support its soon-to-be- announced application for grant-maintained status ?

Mr. Forth : Fortunately for me, it is not within my gift to consider such an application, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), has heard what my hon. Friend has had to say. However, my hon. Friend says something important that we must not forget or lose sight of, and that is that the best schools can demonstrate very well that, with the right management and policies and the right participation by governors, parents, heads and teachers, good discpline is perfectly achievable in today's schools even if they are in difficult areas and with potentially difficult pupils. It is precisely to assist in raising everybody to the standard of the best that we are issuing guidance and circulars, which we hope will be helpful to heads, governors and teachers.

Mr. Paice : Does my hon. Friend accept that, whatever proposals he or his Department may have, unless children are brought up to respect the rule of law and authority they will get nowhere, and that that respect will be gained partly by the example that they see set by their parents and teachers ? Will he join me in condemning the fact that the National Union of Teachers has decided to flout the rule of the House yet again, and express amazement that the continuation of the boycott by the NUT has not been condemned by the Opposition ?

Mr. Forth : It was interesting that, recently, when the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was asked a direct question about that, she said that she neither supported nor condemned the action of the NUT, from which we shall all have to draw our own conclusions. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said something

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quite different in the House last week. I shall leave it to them to sort out between themselves what the Labour party's policy is. My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. In the circular that I hope to issue shortly the section entitled "Partnership with Parents" states the self-evident--that parents have a powerful effect on children's behaviour. Without the active co-operation of parents, we cannot expect heads and teachers alone to do the vital job of bringing up young people properly to respect one another and to respect the law and society. Until we get that co-operation from parents, it will be an uphill struggle.

Mr. Pickthall : Does the Minister agree that increasing disorder is being created in many schools by people intruding into the premises during the day or in the evening ? I refer not just to headline cases of appalling tragedies but day-by-day intrusions by young or adult outsiders, which make the lives of schools a misery. What consultation has the Minister undertaken and what action will he take, perhaps in conjunction with the Home Secretary, to help schools in those circumstances ?

Mr. Forth : We are working closely with colleagues in the Home Office, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education hopes to issue guidance on liaison between police and schools, to cover exactly the points made by the hon. Gentleman. We are conscious of the difficulty to which he refers. We are giving schools as much support as possible, directly and through local education authorities, in providing enhanced security--particularly in out-of-school hours. We must all take our lead from the courageous and statesmanlike response by the chairman of governors and head teacher in the context of a recent tragedy, who emphasised that we cannot and must not make our schools fortresses or forbidding places. They must be places that welcome pupils, parents and those of good will. We are trying to encourage that.

Mr. Foulkes : Is it not also important to maintain an orderly environment and discipline among Conservative Members--particularly the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) ? I am happy for the Secretary of State to remain in the Cabinet until he is replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor).

Mr. Forth : My right hon. Friend is happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's endorsement.

Mr. Rowe : Will my hon. Friend congratulate All Saints primary school in Chatham, which today celebrates its 100th anniversary ? That Church of England school has made welcome children from many ethnic minorities based on a Christian ethic, and it maintains a remarkably high standard of discipline.

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend, typically, gives a positive example of that which can be achieved by a school adopting a positive attitude. Co- operation between the head teacher, governors, teaching staff, parents and society demonstrate how well things can be done in schools when everyone is pointed in the right direction. We are determined to support that.

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Nursery Education --

9. Mr. Tipping : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many nursery places for three and four-year-olds are available in Nottinghamshire, the east midlands and England.

Mr. Robin Squire : The Department does not collect information about the number of places available. The number of children in maintained nursery schools and nursery classes in maintained primary schools in England as at January 1993 was 339,914. The comparable figures for Nottinghamshire local education authority and for the east midlands were 13,498 and 32,721 respectively.

Mr. Tipping : Will the Minister congratulate Labour-controlled Nottinghamshire county council on providing more nursery places than any other county ? Will he extend his congratulations to Labour-controlled cities such as Leeds and Birmingham ? Will he also remind parents that children have three times more chance of a nursery place under a Labour council than under a Tory council ?

Mr. Squire : The hon. Gentleman talks nonsense in trying to make a party political point out of nursery provision. If he wants to enter that debate, I can quote Conservative-controlled councils that also

Mr. Jamieson : Name just one.

Mr. Squire : They have been quoted across the Chamber before. What is important is that all LEAs should take seriously their responsibilities for under-fives provision--not just nursery schools or classes but the whole range of likely provision. The Government are currently examining proposals to enhance that, as and when we have the resources.

Mr. Lidington : Is my hon. Friend aware that by prudent financial management, Buckinghamshire county council is this year financing significant expansion of nursery education in Aylesbury and elsewhere, without piling up huge debts that local people would have to repay in the future ? Does not that demonstrate again that local government in Buckinghamshire sets a standard of excellence that the rest of the country could do well to copy ?

Mr. Squire : I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend's comments about Buckinghamshire, which I endorse. There are other Conservative councils-- Ealing and Wandsworth come to mind, both of which offer significant nursery provision.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Does the Minister acknowledge that the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) quoted were based on answers to parliamentary questions that were given by Ministers in his Department, and that his Department's figures show that the children of parents who live in a Labour council area have three times the chance of a nursery place that they have if they live in a Conservative area ? How does the Minister answer the leaflet that is produced by the Conservatives in Bromley--who provide only 2 per cent. of children with nursery education-- and says that Bromley Conservative council will implement nursery education for all children when the Government release the necessary finance ?

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Mr. Squire : Who would have guessed that elections were in the offing ? Until the hon. Lady can clarify the Labour party's commitment, comparing what she says with what has been said by her hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), the Opposition Treasury spokesman --who said that there are no spending commitments at the present time--we do not have any lessons to learn from her on the provision of nursery places.

Mr. Brandreth : Can my hon. Friend confirm that, over the past 15 years, there has been a remarkable growth in pre-school provision, so that, today, some 90 per cent. of three and four-year-olds enjoy pre-school provision of some kind, ranging from nursery education to pre-school play groups ? Will he particularly salute the recent 35 per cent. increase in the grant to the Pre-School Play Groups Association, which does such valuable work throughout the country and particularly in the city of Chester ?

Mr. Squire : I confirm all of my hon. Friend's figures. He underlines the fact that the biggest providers at the present time are play groups ; and well-resourced play groups make a significant contribution to bringing up under-fives.

Parent-Teacher Opinions --

10. Mr. Mackinlay : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proportion of his time he has been able to devote this year to meeting parents and teachers in order to gauge their views on educational developments.

Mr. Forth : My right hon. Friend and his ministerial team have visited 50 schools, and have received at least as many delegations, including a number from teachers, parents, and their representative associations.

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