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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Social Security (Contributions) (Re-rating) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Christopher Chope
Blizzard, Mr. Bob (Waveney) (Lab)
Breed, Mr. Colin (South-East Cornwall) (LD)
Browne, Mr. Jeremy (Taunton) (LD)
Challen, Colin (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)
Evans, Mr. Nigel (Ribble Valley) (Con)
Field, Mr. Mark (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia (Leicester, West) (Lab)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Kennedy, Jane (Financial Secretary to the Treasury)
Moffat, Anne (East Lothian) (Lab)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Spellar, Mr. John (Warley) (Lab)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Keith Neary, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 20 February 2008

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Draft Social Security (Contributions) (Re-rating) Order 2008

2.30 pm
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Contributions) (Re-rating) Order 2008.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I hope that hon. Members will accept that I am assisting them if I say that I shall speak very briefly on the draft order. I regard it as a technical measure—not minor, but technical. It raises the small earnings exception to £4,825, as Members will see from the papers that they have received. The rate of class 2 contributions will be raised to £2.30 and the class 4 lower profits limit to £5,435. The order also raises the weekly class 3 contribution rate to £8.10. All those increases are broadly in line with prices. The order also raises the class 4 upper profits limit to £40,040, in line with the changes to the National Insurance Contributions Bill that we agreed in the House and which were debated extensively last month. I commend the order to the Committee and am happy to answer any questions that arise.
2.31 pm
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Chope. I cannot help but notice that here were are once again—you, the Financial Secretary and me—in a Committee Room discussing national insurance, as we did only a few short weeks ago on the National Insurance Contributions Bill, to which the Financial Secretary referred.
As the Financial Secretary mentioned, the order changes a number of the thresholds and payments in the national insurance contributions scheme, particularly in relation to self-employed persons. It is worth highlighting what those increases are in percentage terms. Class 2 contributions are paid by self-employed people once their profits reach a certain level, and the order proposes to raise the relevant amount from £2.20 to £2.30—an increase of 4.5 per cent. Class 3 contributions are paid voluntarily by people who want to fill in gaps in their contributions, usually towards a retirement pension. The order increases the prescribed amount from £7.80 to £8.10—a 3.8 per cent. increase.
For class 4 contributions paid by self-employed earners in addition to their class 2 contributions levied at 8 per cent. between the lower and upper profit limits and 1 per cent. above the upper profits limit, the lower level is to increase from £5,225 to £5,435, which I calculate to be a 4 per cent. increase, and the upper limit from £34,840 to £40,040—an increase of 14.9 per cent. The main political issue arising from the order is the changes to class 4 contributions which, as the Financial Secretary said, are a consequence of the changes to the upper earnings limit or upper profits limit of national insurance contributions, which were part of the proposals introduced by the then Chancellor, and now Prime Minister, in the 2007 Budget.
Before examining that in detail, it is worth pointing out that the increases in the class 2 contribution of 4.5 per cent., and in the class 3 contribution of 3.8 per cent., appear from what the Financial Secretary said to be based on the retail prices index. There is quite a discrepancy—I know that this point has been made in previous debates—and it is not entirely clear why the contributions are being raised by different amounts, so I would be grateful for an explanation. The RPI has been used for this purpose—to be fair, that also applies to benefits from the national insurance scheme—but in a slightly different context, the Government like to use the consumer prices index, for example, when looking at public sector pay. The arrangements for the self-employed, which is what we are debating today, and public sector pay do not necessarily click together, but the point is worth exploring. How can the Government justify what is essentially a tax increase on the basis of RPI—which tends to be about two percentage points higher than CPI—but when determining public sector pay, they argue that it would be inflationary to use that measure? The Financial Secretary might want to explore that point.
Recent figures for the average earnings index show that earnings are increasing at 3.7 per cent., excluding bonuses, or at 3.8 per cent. with bonuses. That is generally, if not substantially, lower than the rate for both class 2 and class 3 national insurance contributions. With class 4, of course, we have a much more substantial increase—the rate is more or less 15 per cent., which is the threshold for the upper profits limit. When the then Chancellor made his statement to the House on 21 March 2007 during his Budget speech, he did not flag up the significance of the changes. He said that
“the point at which people start paying top rate income tax will from April 2009 be an annual income not of £38,000, but of £43,000; and I will align the income tax system with the national insurance system, with its ceiling set at the same threshold of £43,000, thereby creating a tax system for income that has just two rates and two thresholds.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 826.]
What was not clear in the Chamber, although it became clear as soon as the Red Book was available, was that we were talking about a substantial increase in tax. The changes to national insurance contributions and higher rate income tax will net the Treasury something in the region of £1.5 billion per year, which is a substantial increase in tax.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Given the importance of the change and the increase that my hon. Friend is discussing, does he not think it odd that the Financial Secretary’s opening remarks were so brief, as if the order were totally mundane and something that should go through without further discussion? Surely she should have made rather more of it and explained precisely the sort of thing that my hon. Friend is now explaining.
Mr. Gauke: I am sure that the Financial Secretary will deal with the points that have been raised in sufficient detail and that the full complexity of the measure will be analysed in a way that no one could possibly describe as mundane. We look forward to her doing so.
The measure implements only part of the changes announced in the Budget, as it deals with national insurance changes for the self-employed, but none the less it is worth exploring a point made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. In its analysis of the Budget, it estimated that 5.3 million households would lose out as a consequence of the changes. Most of those households were in the low-earning bracket, but there was also a group within the earnings range of £38,000 to £40,000 per annum who would be directly affected by the measure. On more than one occasion during the course of debate on the National Insurance Contributions Bill, I asked whether the Government had conducted their own analysis of the number of losers. I do not think that the Government dispute the figure of 5.3 million households. The then Chancellor did so in evidence to the Treasury Committee immediately after the Budget, but I do not think that the Government now dispute the 5.3 million figure. It would be helpful to know if the Government have done any analysis to break that figure down. Broadly, how many people fall into the £38,000 to £40,000 per year group, and how many fall within the lower earnings group, from £10,000 to £20,000 per year? Specifically, I should like to know how much will be raised from the self-employed as a consequence of the measure, and how many self-employed people who pay class 4 contributions will find themselves paying additional contributions.
A recent report by the Centre for Policy Studies stated that average families have seen their annual income after tax and housing costs, including utility bills, drop by some £1,300 over the past four years. A major cause is the fact that taxes are rising faster than earnings. Given the IFS analysis that there is a black hole in the Government’s public finances of some £8 billion, it is quite possible that that problem will get worse.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that that increase over the past four years would have been headline news in many national newspapers were it not for the fact that property prices have increased in recent years? The fact that we are now going to experience at best a plateau and probably a reduction in residential property prices, will crystallise in many people’s minds the problem of an increased tax burden on everyday household income.
Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend make a very good point. Disposable incomes are falling while, at the same time, there is general uncertainty as to the state of the economy, so we find ourselves in a worse position than we would otherwise be. I am sure he is aware of the report by the Centre for Policy Studies and indeed of the distinguished tax lawyer, Charles Elphicke, who produced it and is my hon. Friend’s brother-in-law.
2.43 pm
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak this afternoon. One knows that one is getting old when someone who was in the year below at university is described as a distinguished economist. I never remember that person being that, but we are going back 15 years.
There are two aspects to our discussion. The first is the classes 2 and 3 section, and the second is the class 4 section. I will speak to them briefly in turn.
On the classes 2 and 3 section, this is a routine upgrading of the type that often happens in such Committees, although I note that the Minister said that the upgrading was “broadly in line with prices”. I only say in passing that such a claim is increasingly controversial—this was touched on by the Conservative spokesman. There are many people who feel that the various Government measures of inflation are increasingly out of step with their own experiences in day-to-day life, whether that be with regard to fuel, food, or many other regular items of household expenditure. It seems that when it suits the Government, “broadly in line” is sometimes below, and sometimes above, that measurement. In this case, by most measurements, it is above any official measurement. Therefore, there must be a revenue implication, so I share the Conservative spokesman’s desire to hear from the Minister an estimate in cash terms of what the consequences of the order will be on the self-employed.
The bigger political consideration, given that this is not routine, although it has been discussed many times before, is the class 4 changes. It is worth putting this in context for the Committee. Since 1997, when Labour came to power, taxes in the United Kingdom have increased in real terms by some 40 per cent., even allowing for inflation. So, the Government now take £14 in revenue for every £10 that they took a decade or so ago.
My party believed that there was structural underfunding of large sections of our public services. Indeed, we were the only party at the time of the 1997 election that recognised that extra money needed to be raised through taxation to spend on education. The Labour party told us that that was unnecessary and that it was irresponsible to say that that was needed at all. However, it has now happened, and we welcome that spending.
I am somewhat concerned that the discipline of having a multiplier of not more than 7.5 per cent. between the top and bottom thresholds, which forces the Government to work within those parameters, has been jettisoned to accommodate the extra revenue-raising measure. I make the concession that it always struck me as strange that the marginal rate of tax paid by someone earning a salary in the high £30,000s dipped off quite dramatically, and that a person earning £38,000 or £39,000 was paying a lower marginal rate of tax than a person earning half that amount.
I do not accept that the differential between national insurance contributions and income tax is so stark that my observation does not hold true. Most people simply regard those as two forms of taxation on their income. What was happening before was regarded by many people as unfair, so I can see the logic in removing that dip in marginal tax rates, but it has had a severe impact, especially on middle income earners. That could have been corrected if the Government were keen to make these measures revenue-neutral. However, as a result of using them as a way to raise income for the Treasury, that impact is felt more keenly than it otherwise would have been.
For all the reasons that we have rehearsed in previous Public Bill Committees, I am minded to vote against the order. However, I await with interest the Minister’s estimate of how much additional revenue will be raised as a consequence of the order.
2.49 pm
Mr. Gray : May I say how nice it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope? I assure you that I will not delay the Committee for long—I see a look of disappointment on the Minister’s face.
Two or three points that have been raised by both my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Taunton need crystallising. I hope that the Minister will respond to them clearly when she replies to the debate. Too often in this place, such statutory instruments are nodded through and no one really realises the implications of the measures. It is only later, when they have an impact on our constituents, that people say, “Why was it that when you were sitting on that Committee you did not raise some of these points?” I thus hope that the Committee will bear with me if I raise some points.
Let me summarise the points. First, there are anomalies in the figures. The levels of increases for all the figures are interesting. The Minister passed this off quite briskly, as the hon. Member for Taunton said, by saying that the figures were broadly in line with the increase in prices. That is not what I remember one of her colleagues saying recently when the police had a mass lobby of Parliament and we were told that the 1.9 per cent. that they were going to get from the Government was right, and that 2.6 per cent. would be far too much—greatly above price inflation—so the police had to take 1.9 per cent. The same was said to us MPs—we had to take 1.9 per cent. We were told that we could not possibly have a vast inflationary increase of more than 2 per cent. However, we now hear, on a quiet, sunny afternoon in Committee Room 12, the Government saying, “Oh well. We will increase these things by 4.6 per cent. That is broadly in line with price inflation, so it is more or less all right. Why not?” The Minister should explain why, rather than going for the 1.9 per cent. figure for public sector pay to which my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire referred, she has chosen to go for these rather larger figures.
Since there is no impact assessment, the Minister should tell us how much extra the Government will raise. We need to know in pounds, shillings and pence—in billions of pounds—how much extra money the Government will get into their greedy mitts. Perhaps she could kindly let us know precisely how much extra national insurance will be raised. We need to know how many people will be affected because we do not know at the moment. It would be rather useful to know how many self-employed people will suddenly discover that there will be a significant increase in their national insurance contributions. All these seem to be difficult, yet important questions.
Why are the figures varying, as my hon. Friend pointed out? Why do the percentages vary from 4.5 per cent under article 2(a)—an increase from £2.20 to £2.30—up to 14.9 per cent with regard to the upper earnings limit? I understand that it has something to do with the way the then Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to change the national insurance and tax system, but it is far beyond my limited understanding. If that is the reason, surely the Minister should be ready to explain precisely what the situation is.
The Financial Secretary knows that I have had the highest admiration for her for many years. She is a great Minister who does a fantastic job. I am sure that she will have the right answer to give us this afternoon, although given the slight look of awe and worry on her face, she might not. If this place is to have any purpose, it is right that we should ask questions—and make them as difficult as possible. If Ministers cannot answer them, those questions will have achieved something. With the best possible will, I look forward to hearing how the Minister avoids answering my difficult questions.
2.53 pm
Jane Kennedy: I was looking out of the window trying to spot the sun. Through the mist and fog, I will try to spread some light.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire, whom I regard as a friend, accused me of playing down the impact of the order. I appreciate that my opening speech was very brief. Sometimes one can assist by being brief, but sometimes one just rubs everybody up the wrong way and things last a little longer. While I did say quite clearly that the order was a technical measure, I did not say that it was not significant. I hope that he accepts that. I will try to answer the questions raised with clarity, but he might not like all my replies.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, as ever, has been very thorough in scrutinising these matters and rightly putting questions to me and my colleagues. He and other Members asked why there are discrepancies between the amounts. He had calculated the percentages and seen that there were differences. It is right to say the changes are broadly in line with the RPI, except those regarding the upper earnings limit and the upper profits limit, because they have been increased deliberately in the way we discussed in the National Insurance Contributions Bill. Increasing the others by RPI exactly would add complexity to the computations, so standard formulae are used each year and the figures are then subject to rounding. For example, with regard to class 2 national insurance contributions, the weekly contribution, which the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire rightly described as increasing from £2.20 to £2.30, is indexed by RPI and then rounded to the nearest 5p.
Mr. Browne: I understand the point about rounding, because after a while, one has all the numbers that are not divisible by five and 10, so it makes sense to round them. However, if the rounding puts the limit above inflation this year, will it be rounded down next year so that there is an under-inflation rounding and, over the two or three-year period, so that it reflects RPI more accurately than a one-off figure would?
Jane Kennedy: The figures would be considered each year at the point of the pre-Budget report, because that is when we announce them, as we discussed earlier, in order to give businesses the opportunity to get their systems in place ready to make changes when we formally make the changes by order, which we are doing today. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I think that I am right in saying that each year will be considered on its own, although as he now knows, we are constantly working in the context of three-year Budget programmes, so all those considerations will be taken in that broader context.
Mr. Browne: rose—
Mr. Gauke: rose—
Jane Kennedy: I have clearly not satisfied the hon. Member for Taunton, and I have prompted the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, too. The hon. Member for Taunton can go first.
Mr. Browne: I can see that going up from £2.20 in section 2.8 to £2.30 is a sensible rounding, rather than going up to whatever the inflation figure would have been—£2.27, for example. I can see the merit in that, but if inflation stayed the same, it would be sensible to go up to, for example, £2.35—to under-club it and come in under inflation. However, my suspicion is that next year, it will go up by a bit more than inflation again, so that the rounding will always err on the side of going over inflation, which is why there may be some merit in judging the issue over a number of years, rather than just inching over inflation every single year.
Jane Kennedy: Before I answer that point, I think that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire wants to intervene on the same point.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I want to discuss that point. Last year, the increase on the same measure—class 2 contributions—was from £2.10 to £2.20, which was an increase of 4.7 per cent., so there has been an increase of 4.7 per cent. followed by one of 4.5 per cent. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that RPI was broadly the same last year as it is now. For the past two years, therefore, such contributions have risen above RPI. Of course, if that happens every year, the cumulative effect will be even greater. The hon. Member for Taunton made an interesting point about whether the issue should be considered over three or four years, in case we run into difficulties. It could, of course, work the other way, but certainly for class 2 contributions it appears to work in just one particular way.
Mr. Field rose—
The Chairman: The intervention by the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire was very long, but the Minister can deal with it.
Jane Kennedy: I have two points to respond to, but the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster wants to intervene on the same point, so I shall hear that first.
Jane Kennedy: I do not want to encourage Committee members to get carried away by thinking that they are on to something. They should bear in mind that, as I have said and as Members have accepted, those figures are rounded to the nearest 5p, which means that they are sometimes rounded down. It depends which formula is applied for the different upratings or changes in ratings. I will consider the points that have been raised today—I always look at Hansard after Committee debates—and if there are points to which I can add or on which I can usefully shed some light, I will write to the Committee.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire asked why we choose one measure for pay and another for tax rises. You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Chope, that I shall not be drawn down the route of discussing police pay or other public sector pay. The RPI is generally used to calculate wage increases, so it makes sense to raise NICs thresholds by the RPI rather than the consumer prices index. The benefits that contributions help to fund are also, generally, raised by the RPI. The NICs primary threshold is linked to the income tax personal allowance, which is increased each year in line with RPI unless, of course, Parliament decides otherwise. However, I assure the Committee—the hon. Gentleman will be disappointed to hear this—that we have no plans to change NICs rates and thresholds using the CPI. He may have hoped otherwise, but we are not going to do that.
The hon. Member for Taunton asked how the changes affect the self-employed. I encourage him not to look at the changes in isolation, but I shall give him some examples of what the NICs changes mean. A self-employed worker with profits of about £5,500 will pay £9.30 less in NICs next year than they would have in the year 2007-08. A self-employed worker with profits of £25,000 will also pay £9.30 less, but a self-employed worker with profits of £50,000 will pay £354.70 more. I hope that Labour Members will thoroughly approve of that approach.
Several hon. Members enticed me to get into a general discussion about taxes, with particular reference to The Daily Telegraph article of a few weeks ago. I have given this figure many times before—I wrote to the Committee with it after the National Insurance Contributions Bill—and I am happy to give it again. I have tried to be open about the overall impact of the personal tax package last year. I have been asked about the increase from £38,000 to £40,000. As I said in my letter, it is anticipated that about 300,000 households will lose out because of the changes to the upper earnings limit.
I remind the Committee, however, that our changes to the personal tax structure also mean that, overall, households will be £100 a year better off, on average, and households with children will be £200 a year better off, on average. Four out of five households will be better off, or no worse off, and the average household will gain £100 a year. There are five or six other examples of groups of people who will keep more of their income as a result of the changes. A lone parent with one child will see their annual gain from work rise by up to £355. The Committee will know that our objective of reducing child poverty will be enhanced by the changes that we have made to the tax regime. About 200,000 will be lifted out of poverty, as households with children in the poorest fifth of the population will be £340 a year better off, on average.
Those figures need to be stated before we consider the accusations made by The Daily Telegraph and the general points made by Members in Committee. We have to see the changes to the tax system—the fiscal drag—in the context of an economy in which the number of people in work is at record level, and that is reflected in the tax system. More people are working; more people are earning more and therefore contributing to public services. In 1997 only 1.2 million people earned more than £40,000 per year and now 3.3 million earn more than £40,000 per year. In the lower pay scales, in 1997 800,000 people earned more than £50,000, now 1.9 million earn more than £50,000. I realise that in 10 years there is a degree of inflation but I still think those figures need to be stated.
Mr. Field: It is legitimate for the Minister to state those figures and I did not want to stop her in mid sentence, but surely the argument that there are more people at workplaces is an argument against fiscal drag. There is less need for fiscal drag if there are more people in the workplace. I appreciate that there has been a greater level of overall wealth but there is no doubt that fiscal drag has had a real impact and it has provided the opportunity to bring the Government far more tax revenue than should legitimately have been the case given the tax levels they inherited.
Jane Kennedy: I will not delay too long on that point as it can be debated another time. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about fiscal drag, when earnings increase at a rate greater than inflation more people start paying tax at a higher rate and as their earnings overtake the annual inflationary increase in tax rates and allowances that becomes the fiscal drag.
I want to look at the points Members have made in the general debate on taxes to examine them in more detail. I have read The Daily Telegraph article and formed my own view of what it said. Opposition Members are entitled to make those points, but we argue that the issues have to be seen in the context of a strong and generally growing economy. Even in the difficult times we face in the housing market, the economy remains fundamentally strong and people can be content. There will clearly be anxiety with regard to house costs and house-price deflation but people can generally be content that the employment market remains strong; the labour market in Britain is highly competitive and people can have confidence that we are not in danger of returning to a situation where people are worried about employment. It is far better to have people in work and paying national insurance contributions than out of work and being a drain upon the national insurance fund.
The hon. Members for Taunton and for North Wiltshire both asked about the overall cost. I have to confess that I do not have the actual figure to hand, but I will look into the matter and see if I can supply those figures as quickly as possible. I will also try to cast more light on the overall picture of national insurance contributions over the years.
Finally, as I have noted many times before, I think it was the Institute for Fiscal Studies that complimented the Government on implementing a major reform of the personal tax system in a way that caused a relatively small number of losers in comparison to the overall changes. More than 20 million people either see no change or see a benefit arising from the personal tax package that we debated last year, and which perhaps we should not be debating at such length now.
Mr. Browne: The Minister treats the Committee in an extremely decent manner and I appreciate that. However, it is extraordinary that the Government have come to a Committee of this sort—with all the civil servants who advise the Minister—and yet they are not able to provide a figure on how much additional revenue will be raised as a result of the measures we are being asked to vote for. There is a material difference in whether the measures raise tens or hundreds of millions of pounds. How can anybody on either side of the Committee Room make an informed decision about whether they want to support the Government without knowing, in rough terms, how much revenue will be raised?
Jane Kennedy: On the surface, that is something I should have had before coming to the Committee, and I take full responsibility. Perhaps I had underestimated the interest in the matter. The Committee might like to note, however, that rates increased by indexation are not calculated as costing or raising revenue for the Exchequer, so I offer that as an excuse. I do not see any point in flogging the issue; I undertake to provide the information to the Committee.
Mr. Gauke rose—
Jane Kennedy: Does the hon. Gentleman really need to make a point?
Mr. Gauke: Yes, if I may. I am grateful to the Minister and I take the point about indexation, but of course there is an element that is more than indexation, and it is on that particular area that the Committee would be grateful for information. I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s offer to write to the Committee.
Jane Kennedy: I dealt with some of those matters when we discussed the National Insurance Contributions Bill, but I will thoroughly examine Hansard to look at the arguments and points that have been raised in our debate this afternoon and I will respond to the Committee in writing as appropriate. I hope that the Committee will give the legislation a fair wind.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 5.
Division No. 1 ]
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Challen, Colin
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Kennedy, rh Jane
Moffat, Anne
Salter, Martin
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Wright, David
Browne, Mr. Jeremy
Field, Mr. Mark
Gauke, Mr. David
Gray, Mr. James
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Contributions) (Re-rating) Order 2008.
Committee rose at thirteen minutes past Three o’clock.

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