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Devolved Government

5. Mr Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. [174925]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): We hope to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. That requires a complete end to paramilitary activity and a commitment on all sides to the future stability of the institutions, and we are working towards that goal. Formal activity in the review of the operation of the agreement is now on hold for the European election period, but it will resume after 10 June, and we hope then to engage in a period of more intensive political dialogue.

Mr. Mackay: Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, wrote in the Sunday Independent last week that

Does the Secretary of State agree?

Mr. Murphy: We have always said that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked and are part of the same republican movement. That is most certainly the case. We also believe that we will not resolve these difficulties until the question of paramilitary activity, in this case by the IRA, is dealt with, too. Until that is dealt with, I cannot see the restoration of the institutions.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): Is not it a bitter irony that those who conceived, wrote, negotiated and set up the Good Friday agreement are no longer central to the negotiations and therefore cannot ensure that the institutions are set up? In those circumstances, the two Governments have to be the custodians of the Good Friday agreement. Can the Secretary of State tell me what plans the two Governments have to ensure that Sinn Fein does not milk the Good Friday agreement for its own party political and paramilitary reasons, and that the Democratic Unionist party does not strangle the Good Friday agreement after sucking every ounce of power and influence from it?

Mr. Murphy: I hope that all parties in Northern Ireland will address the issue of restoring the institutions after the European elections, and I believe that all parties are serious in wanting to see the restoration of devolution, but I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): It is now six months since the election to the non-existent Northern Ireland Assembly. Does the Secretary of State agree that it has been six months of failure—failure by republicans to end paramilitarism, and failure by the DUP to develop a coherent policy or to achieve progress? Is not
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it now time for the Government to bring matters to a head, get the parties to put up, or else shut down on the pretence that devolution is now possible?

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it has been a disappointing six months—of course it has. We have not restored the institutions and we want that to happen but, as I said in my previous answer, I believe that every party in Northern Ireland wants to see that restoration. I repeat, too, that after the European elections we will resume intensive negotiations with the aim of setting up those institutions.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I think that the Secretary of State and I agree that the current arrangements for considering Northern Ireland legislation through Orders in Council are profoundly unsatisfactory. Does he accept that the logic of the Government's position and the logic of the Dublin Government's position is that we should now proceed on the basis that constitutional politicians from both Unionist and nationalist traditions should be able to form an Administration in Belfast and that they should not all be punished by the continuing refusal of Sinn Fein-IRA to withdraw from paramilitarism?

Mr. Murphy: But we have two aims—one is obviously to ensure that we restore the institutions and get devolved government back in Northern Ireland, and the second is to see an end to paramilitary activity. We shall expend all our attention in both those directions.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [175599] Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 26 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I held meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Lembit Öpik : The Prime Minister will know that the parents of the four recruits who died at Deepcut army barracks are angry about the resistance to holding an independent public inquiry, even though the deputy chief constable of Surrey police, Bob Quick, has said that the issues require further independent scrutiny. Although only a public inquiry can properly address the systemic issues, I ask the Prime Minister to assure me that if the parents ask the Attorney-General to reopen the inquests the Ministry of Defence will not object and that the Ministry and Surrey police will be instructed to co-operate fully.

The Prime Minister: May I, first, again offer my condolences to the families of the soldiers who died? The families can, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, apply to the Attorney-General for authority to ask the High Court to order fresh inquests into the deaths. I assure
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him that we will co-operate fully should such an order be made. There has been a very detailed police investigation of the deaths, with about 900 witnesses being interviewed and 1,500 statements taken over 15 months, and we are grateful to the chief constable of Surrey police for his report. Whatever happens, it is important that we learn the lessons from this and take action now in areas where improvements are needed.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I am very pleased to see that there are policy differences on Iraq between my right hon. Friend and President Bush. Will he tell President Bush that it is important that the interim Government in Iraq have as high a status as possible, but that that will be much less likely if the multinational force remains under US command?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry to have to disappoint my hon. Friend so early in Prime Minister's questions, but I have to say that we are absolutely agreed that full sovereignty should be transferred to the Iraqi people and that the multinational force should remain under American command, which is natural as they have the vast bulk of the soldiers.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The Prime Minister said yesterday that while operational control of our troops in Iraq after 30 June must remain with British commanders, final political control over their deployment will be a matter for the Iraqi Government. I make it clear that I support that view, which is entirely consistent with the need for the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June to be real and not cosmetic.

The Prime Minister also said yesterday that no decision had been taken about increasing the number of British troops in Iraq and that the matter is kept under constant review. What factors will inform that decision, and what would need to change for additional troops to be deployed?

The Prime Minister: The factors that influence the decision are the need to ensure that our objectives in Iraq are properly secured, so it is a question of whether any additional troops, or different deployments of troops, would help to secure the objective of a stable and secure Iraq, where there is sufficient security that the political process can work. In the light of some of the comments overnight, I say that there is no doubt at all that the new Iraqi Government must have full sovereignty, that the multinational force remains by consent and that ultimate strategic and political decision making pass to the Iraqi Government after 30 June. Of course, once strategic decisions have been made, the running of any operation will be under the multinational force and its commanders, and there is no question, not merely of US troops, but of UK troops not being able to protect themselves, of their lives being put at risk or of their being under anything other than US and UK command.

Mr. Howard: I entirely agree with the force of those comments. For almost a month, British troops have been preparing to leave for Iraq within weeks. It was reported this week that various options were drawn up at a meeting of the armed forces chiefs last week, which
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are expected to be presented to the Cabinet tomorrow. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would not be acceptable to announce the sending of more troops to Iraq during the parliamentary recess, which begins on Friday?

The Prime Minister: I am absolutely sure that Parliament should be kept fully informed of any announcement of additional troops. The reason no decisions have yet been taken is that we are looking at all the strategic options available to us and at the requirements on the ground, but as soon as that is clear we will, of course, inform Parliament.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Would the Prime Minister like to give a formal welcome to the visit of the Dalai Lama this week? Given that he has known for some six months that the Dalai Lama is visiting, is he really telling us that he could not find half an hour in his timetable next week to meet the Dalai Lama? Is that because he has been told not to do so by the Chinese?

The Prime Minister: No, it is not. I have met the Dalai Lama on previous occasions, and I will be very happy to meet him again on subsequent occasions. Tibet is a matter of concern not just to Labour Members but to Members on both sides of the House. We raise the issue constantly with the Chinese, most recently on the visit of Premier Wen, when we had a significant and long discussion on Tibet.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): Following the exchanges of a few moments ago, when I asked the Prime Minister last week whether the transfer of full sovereignty in Iraq would mean that the new Government there would have control over their prisons, the Prime Minister replied:

However, just over an hour ago, I received a faxed letter from the Prime Minister's office, in which he goes on to say:

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether, in the light of that recently received clarification, he is now stepping back from the categorical assurance that he gave last week?

The Prime Minister: No, I am not stepping back from it at all. After the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June, the ultimate decision about whose control the prisons remain under has to be a matter for the Iraqi Government. All that I explain to the right hon. Gentleman in the letter is that until the Iraqis have the capability—for example, sufficient trained prison officers—there may well be a division of responsibilities between the multinational force and the Iraqis, but the ultimate political decision making and control will rest with the sovereign Iraqi Government. I hope that that is clear.

Mr. Kennedy: But does not the shift in clarification on so many issues from one week to the next show what has
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bedevilled the entire situation? What, for example, would the Prime Minister say in response to General Zinni, who was President Bush's special envoy to the area in the build-up to the war, because he has said that the preparations were characterised by

Has not this entire sorry episode, before and after, been characterised by inadequacy at the political top?

The Prime Minister: The fact is that those people who are against the conflict remain against the conflict. In relation to the issue of sovereignty, let me make one thing clear to the right hon. Gentleman: there is a difference between sovereignty being transferred to the Iraqi Government—that should be full and undiminished sovereignty—and the practical necessity that multinational forces will have to remain to support the new Iraqi Government. That will mean—in relation to operations or, for example, the running of the prisons—that there will have to be a division of responsibility, but the point is that, after 30 June, the forces remain there with the consent of the Iraqi Government and not otherwise. I would have thought that that is clear.

As for the aftermath of the war in Iraq, there will, of course, be people who carry on making criticisms of the war. I simply say that the right hon. Gentleman must accept that his position is such that if we had done what he had wanted us to do, Saddam Hussein would still be running Iraq. I have to face up to the consequences of the decision that I took but, with respect, he has to face up to the consequences of the position that he took.

Q2. [175600] Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Conservatives have threatened to reintroduce the poll tax. Those of us who were in local government when the poll tax was introduced will not only recall the cuts that accompanied it, but its intrinsic unfairness, particularly to low-income households and the elderly. Will he confirm that this Government will relish the battle against the Conservatives in the current elections, with the Conservatives having resurrected the spectre of the poll tax?

The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not introduce anything as damaging as the poll tax, which was once described by the Leader of the Opposition as right and fair. Neither will we reintroduce 3 million unemployed and underinvestment in our national health service.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The CBI says that the temporary workers directive would cost Britain 160,000 jobs, and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry says that it is a litmus test of Europe's commitment to economic reform. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in condemning Labour Members of the European Parliament, who rejected his advice and voted in favour of it in the European Parliament?

The Prime Minister: We have made it clear that we believe that changes to the directive are necessary. That
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is precisely what we are trying to secure, and I point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that since this Government joined the social chapter—which he said would cause the loss of 1 million jobs in the UK—employment has actually increased by 2 million.

Mr. Howard: I am not surprised that the Prime Minister does not want to talk about his Members of the European Parliament. His Government have estimated that extending the working time directive would cost British business at least £9 billion, but his Members of the European Parliament have rejected his advice on that as well. They voted in favour of extending it. Will he join me in condemning the voting of his Labour Members of the European Parliament on that issue?

The Prime Minister: We have made it clear, as I said a moment ago, why we believe that changes are necessary to the working time directive. However, let me just point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is this Government who have managed to increase employment in British industry, and it is not this Government who put 17 per cent. interest rates on British industry. That is why this Government continue to operate in the interests of the economy and jobs.

Mr. Howard: All the questions were about Labour Members of the European Parliament, and we have not had any answers to them. Is it not true that the Government have given up completely on their Members of the European Parliament, so much so that when the Leader of the House was Minister for Europe he had to go pleading to Conservative Members of the European Parliament to vote Labour Members of the European Parliament down? After all this trouble from Labour Members of the European Parliament, will not the Prime Minister be as relieved as the rest of us when there are fewer of them after 10 June?

The Prime Minister: When we are talking about hon. Members of the European Parliament, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should pay a little attention to what his noble Friend Lord Tebbit said the other day. He said that Tory European election candidates

and that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was anaesthetising them

He should take up issues of the European Parliament with his own side, not mine.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr) (Lab): May I thank the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for introducing assistance for those people who will lose their pensions when their company goes into receivership? That has come as welcome news to more than 200 of my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that those affected are made aware of how they stand as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister: As we said last week, we will engage in detailed discussions with unions, employers and others to try to make sure that the money that we have set aside is used most valuably. This is a good
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example of how people, when they are genuinely in trouble, are helped by the Government. It is important that we recognise that this is a distinct group of people who had to contribute to their occupational pension. In future, people will be protected by the new legislation that the Government are introducing.

Q3. [175601] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Commission for Africa brings a welcome focus on the need to renew the war on poverty, but do we not need a new commission that can advise us how to restore and repair the fractured relations between ourselves and the world of Islam?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure that a commission is the right means of doing that, although I do not exclude the possibility, but I entirely agree with the basic premise of the hon. Gentleman's question, which is that there is a real issue about the relationship between the Arab and Muslim world and the west. I happen to believe, as he probably does, that much of that is based on misunderstanding and on propaganda aimed at dividing the two of us, but it is important that we try to look for ways to heal that rift, because it is immensely dangerous. It is certainly something that we are considering, and it will form a major part of our G8 discussions in a few days.

Q4. [175602] Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): The Secretary of State for Wales recently described the announcement by Coleg Gwent to close certain college departments in the county, in particular those teaching engineering, catering and other courses in my constituency, as "astonishing". Does the Prime Minister accept that removing a skill base adds to the difficulty in trying to attract highly skilled engineering jobs to an area still suffering from high unemployment and steel closures? Does he also accept the difficulty of developing tourism in what is one of the most beautiful parts of Wales when the catering department is being closed? Will he instruct the Secretary of State to meet the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly to discuss the issue and to put pressure on those who made the decisions to withdraw the closure programme, because the management and corporation of Coleg Gwent and, indeed, Education and Learning Wales—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The supplementary question is too long.

The Prime Minister: I recognise my hon. Friend's concern because I know that the area that he represents has suffered unemployment difficulties with the losses at Corus. I understand that the Secretary of State has already met the First Minister to discuss the issue, and I know that my right hon. Friend is happy to meet my hon. Friend to take the issue forward. I am sure that my hon. Friend's views will be closely considered.

Q5. [175603] Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does the Prime Minister know where Saddam Hussein is and whether he is still alive? Is he aware what measures the Americans are taking to encourage Saddam Hussein to reveal the whereabouts of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction?

The Prime Minister: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I know where Saddam Hussein is not: he is not in a
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presidential palace running Iraq; he is not brutalising his people; he is not threatening the security of his region, and this world is a safer, better place without him in government.

Q6. [175604] Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): Dorset receives the lowest local government settlement of any of the shire counties in England. Will the Prime Minister reflect on that, given that many of my constituents are dependent on council services? Can he reassure them that he rejects the proposals of other Dorset politicians, who advocate swingeing cuts in local government funding as part of plans for massive public spending cuts?

The Prime Minister: I am pleased that we have increased the grant to Dorset by 6.3 per cent. this year, well above the national average, and that we have increased the grant to councils by 30 per cent. in real terms since 1997, compared with a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in the last four years of the Conservative Government. I can assure him that we will not follow the path set out by the shadow Chancellor of freezing, in real terms, council expenditure, which would be a £2.5 billion cut in services.

Q7. [175605] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware that people in the Congleton and Tatton constituencies have opposed Scottish Power's bid for an underground gas storage plant at Byley. Our constituents won their case, only for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to overrule the decision of one its own inspectors. What is the point of holding an expensive, five-week public inquiry if its findings are set aside in such a cavalier fashion by someone who has presumably not even set eyes on the site?

The Prime Minister: There is a process in place, and it must be followed through. The hon. Lady will know that, under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, anyone who wants to challenge a decision can ask for it to be referred to the High Court and that that has to be done within six weeks of the date of the decision. Of course, there has been a thorough-going consultation with everyone involved, but in the end it is a planning process and has to be handled in the normal way.

Q8. [175606] Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the boundary committee published proposals for unitary authority boundaries in areas that are holding elections for regional assemblies. Does he not agree that we need to get rid of two-tier local government up and down the country, whether we get a yes vote in the regional assemblies or not, as it is inefficient, expensive and bureaucratic?

The Prime Minister: We welcome the completion of a significant step towards the holding of referendums for elected regional assemblies in the autumn. We will consider carefully the final recommendations, and decide what options for unitary local government we will put to the electorate in any forthcoming referendums. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right that while there is a powerful argument for regional
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government so that decisions are taken closer to the people, it is none the less correct to make tiers of local government underneath regional government unitary because that would be more effective.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Does the Prime Minister agree that an administration that took over a severely debt-ridden council, saved 2,000 jobs when people were threatened with redundancy, leads the way in waste recycling and became the first Welsh council to be shortlisted by the Local Government Chronicle as the most improved council in the UK, deserves the support of electors?

The Prime Minister: I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman may be missing out a few facts. I am afraid that, before I give him a considered answer, I will look into them.

Q10. [175608] Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend continue his commitment to invest in our health services? My own hospital trust has improved dramatically from zero stars to two stars under this Government, and St. Cross hospital in Rugby, which was doomed to closure under the Conservatives, now has a new orthopaedic ward, a new stroke ward, 24 additional consultants and a magnetic resonance imaging scanner—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Prime Minister is doing a good job.

The Prime Minister: It does indeed take a long time to list the achievements of the national health service as a result of that investment. Every waiting time and waiting list is better than it was in 1997, we have record investment going into the national health service—that applies to in-patients and out-patients—and we know that all of that would be put at risk by the patient's passport.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Ten years ago, a Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre. The pilots, who were killed in the crash, were later held to be guilty of negligence. Now that the Prime Minister of the time, John Major, and the Defence Secretary of the time, Malcolm Rifkind, have said that that unjust verdict should be overturned, will the Prime Minister agree to have a meeting with an all-party group to bring fairness and a conclusion to this matter?

The Prime Minister: I am, of course, always prepared to meet an all-party group on the issue. I will look at it in the light of what has been said by the previous Prime Minister, but I give no guarantees that we will change the decision. A decision was taken at the time, which was endorsed by this Government as well, but I understand the very strong feelings that there are, not least among the families of the pilots. I am very happy to meet an all-party group, but that has to be done without any prior commitment or guarantee as to what the outcome would be.

Q11. [175609] Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): The boundary committee referred to by my hon. Friend
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the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) yesterday recommended that the West Lancashire district council area should be split between Wigan in Greater Manchester and Sefton in Merseyside. That would be disastrous for my constituents living in west Lancashire and would risk undermining the referendum campaign in the autumn. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) to discuss ways of improving that recommendation?

The Prime Minister: Of course, I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. We must consider any recommendations or representations that are made, but no decisions have been taken. If an area is to move towards regional government so that decision making, as it is now in Scotland and Wales, for example, is taken closer to the people, it is important that underneath that the local authority system is made more effective.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The green belt is supposed to be a parcel of land around urban areas to prevent them from encroaching into the countryside, so why are the Government building on the inner green belt and adding to it only in areas of the north of England, far from where development pressure is greatest? The Library says that answers on the subject so far from Ministers are imprecise and evasive. Why are the Government being evasive about their greenbelt policy? What do they have to hide?

The Prime Minister: We have increased the amount of green belt, not reduced it, since we came to power—[Interruption.] Oh yes, and what is more, I tell Conservative Members that we have increased the proportion of development on brownfield sites from where it was under the Conservatives. But every responsible person knows that in the south of the country in particular, there is a requirement for additional housing, and if we do not face up to the decisions on that the people who will suffer are generations to come, particularly first-time buyers, who will not have a place to live. The present Government have protected the green belt a darn sight better than the last one.

Q12. [175610] David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I supported getting rid of Saddam Hussein and I offer no apologies for that, but has not the reputation of the coalition forces suffered great damage in the past few months owing to the sickening abuses and crimes carried out in the main by American personnel against Iraqi detainees? Would it not help the credibility of the United States and the coalition if the United States Defence Secretary and his deputy had enough self-respect to resign their positions?

The Prime Minister: I have already made clear my own views on what happened at Abu Ghraib prison, as
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indeed have the United States Administration. I am sure my hon. Friend recognises that at the same time as we condemn unreservedly and without qualification what took place at Abu Ghraib and indeed any abuse of Iraqi prisoners, it is worth pointing out that British and American soldiers risk their lives, and in some cases lose their lives, in order to help Iraqi people. That balance should be maintained.

Q13. [175611] Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): The Prime Minister knows that the east midlands is one of the all-postal pilot regions for electoral purposes, and also that the ballot papers are due to be distributed about today. Is he aware, however, as I have just become, that printing delays mean that local authority ballot papers are not yet even in the hands of the returning officers, and that they are unlikely to be available before the weekend? Will he intervene immediately to forestall an electoral shambles?

The Prime Minister: Like the hon. Gentleman, I became aware shortly before Prime Minister's questions that there was an issue in relation to the ballot papers. I am told that returning officers are on target to post ballot packs by the deadline on 1 June. We have confidence that the regional returning officers will be able to rise to the challenge. However, as a result of the information that has come to us this morning, I will look into the matter and make sure that the measures that have been taken are sufficient to meet the challenge.

Q14. [175612] Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I welcome the news that there is to be a review of our outdated gun laws, but does the Prime Minister share my astonishment that Home Office officials have ruled out action on replica weapons before the consultation even takes place and in the very week that the report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, "Guns, Community and Police", cites replica and imitation weapons as a major part of the problem? Surely that makes a nonsense of the whole process. Can he do something about it?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, we have introduced tougher controls on imitation firearms. In particular, there is now a new arrestable offence under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 of carrying an imitation firearm in public without reasonable excuse. Any imitation firearm that is readily convertible to fire live rounds is now classed as a prohibited firearm, and there is a minimum sentence of five years for carrying such a firearm. The Home Office review is absolutely open. As he and other hon. Members will readily understand, the problem is exactly how to define an imitation firearm. We must ensure that we get this right, to target the evil to which he rightly draws attention without having an arrangement that is overly and unnecessarily bureaucratic and that would end up disrupting people in a way that we do not intend.

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Opposition Day

[12th Allotted Day]

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