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House of Commons

Tuesday 31 January 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Birmingham Assay Office Bill

Read a Second time and committed.

Queen Mary and Westfield College Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday next.

Saint Paul's Churchyard Bill.

Read a Second time, and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.

Oral Answers to Questions


Fox Hunting

1. Mr. Hutton: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his Department's policy on fox hunting for the armed forces.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): The demanding standards of horsemanship required in the hunting field help service men of all ranks with mounted ceremonial roles to maintain their high standard of equitation. Provided no additional public expense is incurred and there is no detriment to military or ceremonial commitments, hunting may be undertaken at their commanding officers' discretion.

Mr. Hutton: Given the widespread public opposition to the hunting of wild animals, what possible justification can there be for allowing members of the armed forces to participate in fox hunts during duty hours? When will the taxpayer stop subsidising that appalling and barbaric sport? Why does not the Minister act now to end the waste of public money?

Mr. Soames: I hope that my hon. Friends will acknowledge that, when more than 50,000 service men and women are deployed on overseas detachments --7,500 of whom are supporting United Nations operations overseas--the only defence question that the Opposition can ask concerns fox hunting. That shows a fantastic order of priority. No public funds are used to subsidise hunting. Salaries and the cost of the upkeep of the horses would have

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to be met regardless of participation in hunting and all other costs are met privately. The activity is undertaken at the discretion of the commanding officer.

Mr. Duncan: Does the Minister accept that mob rule and class war should not be allowed to stop the Army doing something that is perfectly legal throughout the country? Does he further accept that the Army is popular in my constituency, that hunting is good exercise for horses and that there is something inherently noble and nothing cruel in the great and glorious death of a fox in the field?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who represents the Elysian fields of fox hunting. I wholly endorse his point. Hunting is a legal and perfectly honourable recreation and there is no reason why members of all ranks of the armed forces, if they have the time and inclination, should not take part in it.

United Nations Peacekeeping

2. Mr. Alan W. Williams: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many British personnel are currently involved in United Nations peacekeeping activities; and what percentage this represents of the United Kingdom's total armed forces.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): Some 3, 840 personnel are deployed on peacekeeping operations under United Nations command, and some 3,550 more on operations in support of United Nations Security Council resolutions. That represents 3.4 per cent. of the trained strength of the United Kingdom's armed forces.

Mr. Williams: As we look forward to the next 50 years of the United Nations, does the Secretary of State agree that its peacekeeping role should become ever more important, and that each country, particularly Britain, should assign a growing proportion of its armed forces to the United Nations?

Mr. Rifkind: Peacekeeping is certainly important, but the capacity to take part in high-intensity combat must remain the prime role of our armed forces. Consistent with that, it is desirable that they should provide a useful contribution to the United Nations and other such international operations, but we should never forget their primary role.

Mr. Viggers: Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that today is the last day on which the 23 members of Partnership for Peace can, if they wish, give information about their peacekeeping activities and availability? Will he further confirm that our armed forces are maintaining a good dialogue with the Partnership for Peace forces that have chosen to register, and that that is a very good way of registering our military co- operation?

Mr. Rifkind: It is indeed very important. An excellent example of the United Kingdom's contribution is the training that we are giving the Baltic battalion that is being set up by the three Baltic states as their own contribution to United Nations peacekeeping: that will help to increase the status and reputation of the new independent Baltic states.

Mr. Gapes: Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the attitude taken by the President of Croatia to the continued presence of UN peacekeeping forces on Croatian territory? Is it clear to the right hon. and learned

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Gentleman, as it is to me, that that poses a great threat? The withdrawal of UN forces in March could lead to an increase in the conflict, and put at risk the lives of other British personnel in the area.

Mr. Rifkind: We are concerned. One of the significant achievements of the United Nations over the past three years has been the containment of fighting in Bosnia. The withdrawal of UN forces from the protected areas in Croatia could lead to a resurgence of the fighting there, with very dangerous implications for the former Yugoslavia as a whole.

Reserve and Cadet Force Expenditure

3. Mr. Patrick Thompson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what was the expenditure during the current year on (a) the reserve forces and (b) the cadet forces.

Mr. Soames: In the current year, we expect to spend about £140 million and £16 million on personnel costs for the reserve forces and the cadet forces respectively.

Mr. Thompson: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Is not that money very well spent, particularly as we get seven Territorial Army soldiers for the cost of one regular?

Is my hon. Friend aware of the disappointment in my area about the reductions affecting the Royal Anglian Territorial battalions? Can he give some good and positive news about proposed legislation to update the role of the reserve forces and to strengthen links with local communities?

Mr. Soames: I acknowledge the concern felt in East Anglia about the new arrangements for the Royal Anglian regiment and the re-roling of one of its battalions. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments on the volunteer forces, which have a strong presence in East Anglia, with units based at more than 40 locations and 292 cadet units or detachments in the area.

I further thank my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to endorse the new Reserve Forces Bill, which we hope to publish shortly. It is essential for the new role of the Territorial Army, which is extremely relevant and important to our modern armed forces. We plan to consult widely, and I should be glad to hear from my hon. Friend if he has any views on the matter.

Mr. Trimble: Will the Minister assure me that the cadet forces will be sustained? May I remind him that, as well as providing a source of recruitment to the armed forces, the cadet forces have played a valuable role in educating people in the broadest sense? I speak as one who spent 10 years in the Air Training Corps. I can tell the Minister that, in Northern Ireland, the cadet forces were one of the few youth organisations that were genuinely integrated and, in my time, provided a useful basis for people to meet across the community.

Mr. Soames: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, whom I have always understood to be an Air Training Corps man. I believe that the cadet forces give excellent value for money; as the hon. Gentleman has said, they offer young people outstanding opportunities for character development, adventure and play, and fulfil an important role in the community. All our activities are under financial

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review, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we acknowledge that the cadet forces give value for money and play a vital role.

Mr. Couchman: Further to the last question, may I ask my hon. Friend to think again about proposed cuts in the Air Training Corps budget for the coming year? The unit in my constituency is particularly worried about proposed cuts in air experience.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The costs of the Air Training Corps are clearly not immune from scrutiny, and we shall want to achieve some savings. We intend to achieve them by increasing efficiency, which we believe we shall be able to do, and to minimise the effect on cadet activities. I am a tremendous supporter of the Air Training Corps, and propose to visit two detachments next week. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

Mr. Martlew: Will the Minister clarify whether the Reserve Forces Bill, when it is published, will be the Bill or a draft of the Bill? Will further consultation take place? We have already had four years of talking. One of the serious problems is that employers have grave reservations about giving people time off to carry out their duties in our armed forces. That applies particularly to multinational companies based in the far east.

Mr. Soames: I was not aware that we were intending to recruit a great number of reserves from multinational companies based in the far east, but, plainly, we shall be looking to recruit reserves and looking for co-operation from industry and from the corporate sector, because that is important to us and we value it very much. The Bill will be a draft Bill. We will publish it as soon as possible and it will be subject to the fullest consultation. We can but hope, although possibly in vain, that we shall have the support of the Labour party.

Mr. Lord: Is the Minister aware of the considerable concern among the Territorial Army and cadet units in East Anglia about the moving of their command headquarters from Colchester to Nottingham? Is he satisfied that those new arrangements will work as well as the old ones?

Mr. Soames: We certainly would not propose such a move unless we were so satisfied, but I shall be happy to reconsider that matter. If my hon. Friend would care to talk to me about it, I would be happy to explain the arguments to him.


4. Mrs. Mahon: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he will next be meeting the Russian Defence Minister to discuss Chechnya.

Mr. Rifkind: I currently have no firm plans to meet the Russian Defence Minister.

Mrs. Mahon: Does the Defence Secretary feel ashamed that the west and the Government have continued to look the other way as the much- discredited Russian President has bombed a small nation into the dark ages? What, if any, humanitarian aid will the right hon. and learned Gentleman offer the tens of thousands of Chechens who are without food, water and the basic essentials?

Mr. Rifkind: We consider Chechnya to be an internal matter for Russia. We are, however, concerned about the

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way in which the crisis has been handled, and, in particular, about the appalling number of civilian casualties. We have pressed the Russian Government to end the fighting, to allow humanitarian relief and to work towards an agreement that allows the Chechen people to express their identity in the Russian Federation.

Mr. Elletson: Will my right hon. and learned Friend make clear to the Russian Defence Minister and to the Russian Government the utter abhorrence of the British people at the involvement of Russian armed forces in attacks on civilians, both Chechen and Russian, in Chechnya?

Mr. Rifkind: I think that we have all been appalled, as my hon. Friend rightly says, at what appeared to be the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and at the way in which, despite various assurances to the contrary, those attacks have continued over a considerable period, leading to many casualties in Grozny.

Dr. David Clark: Does the Secretary of State agree that the extent of Russian use of military force, especially in Grozny, is beyond all that is reasonable? Has he considered any plans to suspend bilateral military activities that we undertake with the Russian Army to show the displeasure of the British people??

Mr. Rifkind: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, clearly one must wonder whether the current military action will bring an end to the conflict in Chechnya. Many of the Chechen fighters have already retreated to the hills and will continue some form of attacks on Russian forces. Breaking links with Russia would be an unwise decision to take. No western interest would benefit from isolating Russia at the moment. In Russia, a vigorous, public debate has taken place, which has included condemnation of the Russian Government in their Parliament and by their people. That shows that Russia has become a much more open society than would have been conceivable in the days of the old Soviet Union.

Mr. Anthony Coombs: I deplore the loss of civilian life in Grozny, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that as Russia, even after the strategic arms reduction talks process has been completed, will have no fewer than 3,500 nuclear warheads, it is not in the interests of either this country or of the west to witness the disintegration of the Russian republic, which might happen if Chechnya is allowed its independence?

Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend has put his finger on a crucial consideration. As long as Russia remains a nuclear power with many thousands of nuclear warheads, it is very much in the interests of the west and of the world as a whole that the Russian Government should have sufficient authority to ensure that those nuclear weapons are kept under proper and effective control.

Representative Entertaining

5. Mr. Byers: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to publish the findings of the review into representative entertaining.

Mr. Soames: Sir Peter Cazelet is due to submit his report in February; we expect to publish it as soon as possible thereafter.

Mr. Byers: Will the Minister confirm that 114 serving officers have their own personal cooks, at a cost of £2.5

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million a year, and that the 77 official service residences cost £5 million a year to operate? Is the Minister content that, at a time of defence cuts, there is a regiment of batmen whose duties are to iron and lay out uniforms, make beds, clean shoes and serve drinks? Is that really putting the front line first?

Mr. Soames: Plainly there is no such thing. A cook is provided for a number of senior officers to enable them to carry out their extensive and important representational duties, which add to the dignity of the United Kingdom and its armed forces. Sir Peter Cazelet is examining the provision of domestic assistants, including cooks, for senior officers. The Army had already begun to consider the matter in the wider context of Army catering. What the hon. Gentleman said is correct but, if there is any practice that we should examine more closely, Sir Peter Cazelet will make proposals. We anxiously await his report and look forward to acting on its recommendations.

Mr. Bill Walker: Does my hon. Friend agree that senior military officers, like senior civil servants, senior members of the Government and senior members of industry, are required by the nature of their job to entertain individuals of importance? Senior military officers cannot respond to personal attacks on them, so will the Minister tell The Mail of Sunday and other newspapers that senior military officers cannot and will not respond publicly?

Mr. Soames: As my hon. Friend says, a number of senior officers, who have important public duties to fulfil, are required to provide representational entertainment. The rank dishonesty of some newspapers' fanciful reporting speaks for itself.

Mr. Fatchett: Does the Minister understand that his weak defence of such extravagance will go down badly with British troops around the world? How can he justify expenditure of £9 million on drinks parties, £500,000 on carpets and £2.5 million on chefs? We are now told that the investigation into this waste will cost a further £100, 000. Is not it about time that Ministers took a grip of the waste and extravagance in their own Department? What will it look like to ordinary British troops when they learn of such waste and extravagance and hear that the Minister is happy to justify it?

Mr. Soames: That is a travesty of a response to what I said. The Government have instigated a report by Sir Peter Cazelet into how the services should entertain and on what basis they should do so. As part of the study, he is looking into the provision of official service residences, entertainment allowances and domestic assistants. The line that the hon. Gentleman takes is not a good one. We acknowledge that there is a problem but we intend to resolve it.

Rapid Deployment Forces

6. Lady Olga Maitland: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the implications for rapid deployment forces arising from the United Kingdom's peacekeeping role within the UN in Bosnia.

Mr. Rifkind: We are developing a joint rapid deployment force to strengthen our existing capability to

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intervene speedily and effectively. Our planning will take account of a wide range of contingency operations, including peacekeeping.

Lady Olga Maitland: Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the purchase of planned new equipment for the rapid deployment forces has been made possible only by the efficiency savings programme in "Front Line First"? Does he agree that the savings would be seriously jeopardised if the Government were ever to be reduced to falling in with the Labour party's planned programme of £6 billion of cuts in defence spending?

Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend is certainly correct. The Labour party conference proposed a £6 billion cut in defence expenditure and the official Labour policy of promising a review would, if it were to take office, create an aura of instability. Either proposal would be bad for the stability craved by the armed forces at the present time.

Mr. Barry Jones: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that he could guarantee the rapid deployment of men, armour and artillery if he had available the future large aircraft? Is he prepared to say that the Government will purchase and join the project for the future large aircraft? Is he aware that when his Minister of State visited my constituency and the Airbus factory he made a very good impression? A written guarantee from the Government that they will enter the future large aircraft project is now required.

Madam Speaker: Order. That would have been a perfectly legitimate question if it had been asked at the right point--after Question 15 or 17. The hon. Gentleman is pushing his luck a little, but I am sure that the Minister will want to make some response.

Mr. Rifkind: The future large aircraft will not come into operation or even be available for at least 10 years. It may be the practice of the Labour party to give promises before knowing the price of what is being purchased or when it will be delivered, but that is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Sir David Steel: Does the Secretary of State agree that much of the recent criticism of the United Nations machinery is misplaced? As one who saw the excellent work done by British engineers in the peacekeeping force in Rwanda, will he accept that the development of rapid deployment forces would mean more timeous intervention by the UN and would prevent the build- up of tragedies such as in Rwanda?

Mr. Rifkind: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if the United Nations is to be involved in a crisis that either has erupted or could erupt it must be able to respond quickly and effectively. It can thus make a valuable contribution, preventing loss of life and benefiting crisis -torn areas of the world.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Will the Third Reconnaissance Regiment, which is being created at Bovington in my constituency, have a rapid-reaction capability? What progress has been made in that excellent development of our armed forces?

Mr. Rifkind: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. The initial focus of the joint rapid redeployment force will be light airborne and commando brigades, along with associated air and maritime support.

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Land Mines

7. Mr. Cohen: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the use of land mines.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): The United Kingdom is concerned at the suffering caused by the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel land mines and is working positively towards strengthening international means to control those problems. The United Kingdom signed the United Nations weaponry convention in 1981 and we want to see the convention improved and signed by more countries.

Mr. Cohen: Is not the Government's alleged support for the United Nations moratorium flawed by exemptions for self-destructing and self- neutralising mines and other established criteria, whatever that may mean? Do not self-neutralising mines still kill and maim innocent civilians and are not they costly and dangerous to remove? Should not the Government stop the export of all anti-personnel mines, irrespective of whether they are self-neutralising, and sign the 1981 inhumane weapons treaty? Would the Minister tread boldly on a field of self-neutralising mines? I think not.

Mr. Freeman: I think that the whole House shares the sentiment expressed in the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question: that where the indiscriminate use of mines, self-destruct or otherwise, causes danger to civilians it is to be deplored. That is why we shall work with our allies to control the export of all mines, including self-destruct mines. It is important that the British Army retains some capability. The hon. Gentleman is at least consistent. He is a unilateral nuclear disarmer, along with 39 other Opposition Members. He may wish to disarm the British Army of land mines, which are a perfectly justifiable weapon to use in defence of these shores, but he is wrong to sign the early-day motion calling for a ban on nuclear weapons, as did many of his colleagues.

Mr. Robathan: Yet again, we have the sad spectacle of Opposition Members sniping at the British armed forces and blaming the British Government for everything that goes wrong in the world. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has no evidence of any British anti-personnel mines that are harming civilians? Can he confirm that the Hazardous Areas Life- support Organisation, which is employed to clear mines by the Overseas Development Administration and the United Nations, among others, has never come across one British mine in Afganistan, Cambodia, Angola or Mozambique?

Mr. Freeman: I am glad to confirm what my hon. Friend says. The House will be interested to know that in the past three years the British Government have spent £7 million helping mine clearance in some of the countries to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Home Robertson: What information does the Minister have about the number of land mines which remain on the former confrontation lines between Bosnian Government forces and Bosnian Croatian forces in the area covered by the British battalion and UNPROFOR? Is the British Army giving assistance or advice on the clearance of minefields?

Mr. Freeman: Certainly, the British Army and the British Government will do all that they can to advise on clearance. The parties in the conflict in the former

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Yugoslavia have indiscriminately sown anti- personnel land mines. That may be in direct contravention of the United Nations weaponry convention, which we signed in 1981, and which we will ratify next month.

Mr. Cohen: In view of the Minister's unsatisfactory reply, I give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Academic Research

8. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what funding his Department proposes to provide for academic research in 1995; and what was the figure in each year since 1990.

Mr. Freeman: Expenditure on military defence research in universities and further educational establishments has averaged approximately £30 million per annum over the past five years, out of a total military defence research budget currently at approximately £600 million per annum.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer. Does he agree that his recent announcement of a second five-year funding tranche for the London-based Centre for Defence Studies will provide stability and reassurance for the academics who work with that institution in providing some excellent worldwide strategic studies?

Mr. Freeman: Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I congratulate London university on its work on non-scientific research for the Ministry of Defence. I am grateful also to my hon. Friend for his support for our research effort. One of the Government's main aims this year is to share the benefits of military research with the private sector and with industry to improve the performance of our economy.

Mr. Wigley: Will the Minister ensure that part of the research budget, particularly that which is available to universities, is used to investigate the environmental effect of burying bombs and possibly chemical bombs at sea, as alleged by the Russians in the conference last week, and indeed in land locations such as in my constituency? Does he accept that there could be potential continuing dangers arising from such disposal methods? Does he understand the need to undertake further research into those dangers?

Mr. Freeman: I share the hon. Gentleman's view. That is an important aspect of research and effort. We have learnt from the mistakes made by many countries, including our own many decades ago, in the disposal of munitions. We observe the highest possible standards now, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that matter will be one of the aspects of the research.

Mrs. Gillan: I recognise the need for value for money in defence research, but will my right hon. Friend undertake to look more closely at possible co-operation between the civil and defence space programmes? With the increasing commercialisation of space and the opportunities available, there are more opportunities now for our defence forces to co-operate with civilian space programmes.

Mr. Freeman: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is not just a question of co-operation in our space programme,

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particularly the military communications satellites, between the public and the private sectors, but with France, Germany and the United States. Defence collaboration in procurement is very much the theme that must run through any Government's policies over the coming decades.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Does not the Minister understand that the real need is to transfer money from defence research into civilian research? Will he consider making a large contribution to research council funds, so that money can be used in genuine civilian research?

Mr. Freeman: No, I cannot give the hon. Lady that assurance. We spend £600 million on military research, and it is important that that is directed at the needs of the armed forces. Civilian research--and its funding--is the responsibility of other senior Ministers. I can assure the hon. Lady that the benefits of military research will be shared with the private sector.

Armed Services

9. Mr. David Evans: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the purpose and functions of the armed services.

Mr. Soames: The United Kingdom's armed forces operate in support of British defence policy, which is a key component of our wider security policy, the purpose of which remains to contribute to maintaining the freedom and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and its dependent territories, and its ability to pursue its legitimate interests at home and abroad.

Mr. Evans: If the lot opposite ever got away with devolution and broke up the United Kingdom, would the Scots and the Welsh be expected to defend themselves with leeks and haggis, or would the Scots ask the English to defend them out of English taxpayers' money?

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend, as usual, poses a difficult conundrum. The armed forces are, of course, the forces of the Crown, and the Crown is the golden chain which binds and secures the United Kingdom. The service of the Scots and Welsh regiments has been historic and heroic over the ages, and it would be difficult to contemplate any other arrangement.

Mr. Galloway: Is it a part of the proper purpose of the armed forces to send reserve Army officers, trainers and semi-detached military operatives to dictatorships such as the royal dictatorship of Bahrain so that they can observe people who are demonstrating for the democratic right to elect their own Government and to establish their own Parliament being gunned down or tortured?

Mr. Soames: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to know that Bahrain, about which he speaks in a such a loose and ignorant manner, is a force for moderation and good sense in the Gulf, and also that I was at Mons officer cadet school with the crown prince.

Mr. Gallie: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the recent review, "Front Line First", Scotland--perhaps with the exception of the Rosyth naval base--came out relatively well with respect to the retention of bases? If the Labour party were to attain its wish and establish a tax- raising Assembly which would create additional tax

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burdens, would it influence the Ministry of Defence with regard to the establishment and maintenance of bases in the future?

Mr. Soames: As my hon. Friend knows better than anyone, the Scots have for generations been the most marvellous providers of service men and women to the Crown. Plainly, Scotland remains an important and integral part of the defence establishment of this country, as it has important naval, air and Army bases. I can see no circumstances under which that could possibly alter. What matters to most of the people in this country is that the United Kingdom remains united.

Dr. David Clark: Has the Minister had the opportunity to see the recorded television interview with his right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement, in which the right hon. Gentleman says openly and honestly that in the future there will be

"fewer ships and fewer aircraft"?

How does that square with the solemn pledge by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence that there will be no further defence cuts?

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