Finance Bill

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Clause 8

Transfer of unused nil-rate band etc
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
11.45 am
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): Sir Nicholas, what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship—this is my first opportunity to speak during our proceedings. I am delighted to learn that the sun was shining over the fine county of Cheshire at the weekend—long may that continue. The sun was also shining over the fine county of Hertfordshire on Sunday.
I would like to take the opportunity to make a few remarks on the Government’s policy on inheritance tax and the provisions contained in clause 8, with the details set out in schedule 4. We have tabled a number of amendments about those details, which I will address when we reach that point.
The Conservative party welcomes attempts to address the issue of the increased burden of inheritance tax. In 1997-98, 3 per cent. of estates paid inheritance tax, but according to the most recent figures, that is now up to 6 per cent. Research for Scottish Widows showed that 37 per cent. of households are now worth more than the inheritance tax threshold. The average detached house price last September was £326,000—above the then threshold for inheritance tax of £300,000. The average house price may have changed since then. None the less, inheritance tax is a concern for a far wider group of people than was the case not so long ago. In my constituency, relatively modest properties in towns such as Rickmansworth, Berkhamsted and Tring—attractive towns, I would concede—are well above the inheritance tax threshold. There is great concern about inheritance tax and it would be churlish for us not to welcome the move of allowing the nil-rate band to be transferred between spouses and civil partners, as clause 8 and schedule 4 would permit.
Not everybody welcomes those provisions. In The Guardian of 12 October, Polly Toynbee was most critical. I am sure, Sir Nicholas, that like me you read Ms Toynbee’s articles with great interest. She stated:
“This was more than a horrible humiliation for the Prime Minister. This was the week that social democracy ebbed away in England.”
Indeed, she makes a clear distinction between what is occurring with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, and what is happening in England. She went on to describe inheritance tax as “a Labour talisman”.
In a recent pamphlet, the Fabian Society described the announcement of the Government’s policy on the issue as
“a profoundly depressing moment for those interested in fair taxation”.
We do not share that view. We think the fact that inheritance tax now applies to a much wider group of people is unfair. There is consensus that there is a role for it, but to apply it to relatively modest homes and estates seems wrong. When inheritance tax hits ordinary families in ordinary homes, it is right that it is reformed.
However, we do agree with some of the criticisms made by the likes of Polly Toynbee and the Fabian Society. The policy was a response to the Conservative party’s policy on the matter, and the announcement by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) in Blackpool on 1 October, about raising the threshold for inheritance tax to £1,000,000. The Fabian Society paper describes the Prime Minister’s “panic-stricken failure” to stand his ground, and the pre-Budget report as a “panic-driven surrender”.
A letter to The Guardian on 15 April 2008 by various notable figures on the left of British politics, referred to
“the Government’s retreat in the face of a rightwing challenge over inheritance tax”.
The letter was signed by 14 Labour MPs, including one Parliamentary Private Secretary. I know that Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not necessarily all expected to support Treasury policy these days, but it is striking that there was such distrust and opposition from Labour figures to the policy. I note, however, that none of the signatories to the letter is serving on the Committee—members have clearly been selected with some care.
I refer again to Polly Toynbee’s article of 12 October when she wrote about the Prime Minister. It is an important point because it gets to the motivation of the policy under clause 8 and schedule 4. She wrote:
“But when Cameron threw ‘phoney’ at him in Prime Minister's Questions, it stuck like napalm. He could duck the bottles thrown over his election funk, but ‘phoney’ will stick because his comprehensive spending review smacked of panicky, comprehensive cowardice.”
The criticism was that the move was tactical, and it was reiterated this weekend by the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) in an article in The Sunday Times, in which he stated:
“In the past year far too many decisions about tax have been taken to try to secure a tactical advantage. This has led to some damaging mistakes. Whether in relation to the changes to inheritance tax, capital gains tax, the treatment of nondoms or the abolition of the 10p income tax band, the whole approach has been about political positioning.”
Many hon. Members, in the House and in Committee, might have that concern about the policy and think that it is an act of political calculation in response to a policy announcement at the Conservative party conference that was undoubtedly extremely popular.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman still regard the Conservative policy of raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million as wise, rather than giving greater assistance to those who are losing out as a result of doubling the 10p rate?
Mr. Gauke: Of course, we are not discussing an either/or case. The inheritance tax policy was wise, as was the raising of the threshold. The policy responded to the legitimate concerns of a large number of people. It was to be fully funded by introducing a levy on non-domicile people within the United Kingdom. I do not regard the matter as an either/or approach. As for the 10p rate, we will all hear a statement about it later today, and we have called on the Government to reopen the Budget. We shall learn this afternoon precisely what they propose to do.
Mr. Hammond: We might.
Mr. Gauke: We might. It will take some days before we learn the full details and, on the basis of recent experience, we should not rush to make a judgment.
The Chairman: Order. I advise the hon. Gentleman that, hopefully, we are debating the transfer of the unused nil-rate band in respect of inheritance tax. I have allowed him pretty wide discretion in dealing with inheritance tax, but the clause is fairly narrowly drawn and relates to the transfer of the unused nil-rate band.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to you, Sir Nicholas. I shall return to that precise point.
One of the issues that has been disputed is when the Government decided to introduce a transferable nil-rate band. There was an exchange on 6 November 2007 in the House of Commons when the Leader of the Opposition raised that very question with the Prime Minister, and said:
“look me in the eye and tell me that you were planning to reform inheritance tax before our party conference. Can the Prime Minister look across the Dispatch Box and just say it?”
The Prime Minister gave a clear response:
“The answer is yes—unequivocally yes...All the records will show it, under whatever rule they are released under the Freedom of Information Act.—[Official Report, 6 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 33.]
There was a press release on 8 November, two days later. It was certainly presented in such a way that it seemed the Government had made the decision to allow a transferable nil-rate band before the Conservative party conference in October 2007. In examining when the Government made that policy decision, it is worth looking at the Treasury press release of 8 November. It states:
“We have records of officials considering the proposal on January 9 2007.”
That is very clear. There was consideration on 9 January, no doubt in the run-up to the Budget of 21 March 2007. It is notable that, although that Budget set out thresholds for 2010-11 for inheritance tax, there was nothing on the transferable nil-rate band. Indeed, the press notice that was issued alongside that Budget states that the reason behind detailing the threshold for 2010-11 was:
“To continue to provide a fair and targeted system, with certainty for families”.
Given that that was the position in March 2007, it would appear that there was no intention at that point to pursue this proposal, although it had been looked at.
On 27 July 2007, the new Chancellor received the paper detailing proposals on the transferable nil-rate band. To be fair to him, on 20 August 2007 he confirmed that the proposal was under discussion. I do not know what is significant about 20 August 2007, other than that it was the day after the publication of an article by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton criticising inheritance tax and dropping what could be described as a fairly broad hint that a Conservative Government would look at that matter and that there may be proposals on the way. We are aware that the Chancellor was looking at these proposals at that point.
On 3 September 2007, the Chancellor received further advice on the proposals and on 5 September he asked officials to work up final proposals. I hope that I am giving a fair account of what happened. Then, we learn, subsequent detailed costings followed before the pre-Budget report set out all details on inheritance tax reform on 9 October 2007.
It was rather frustrating. The Treasury letter was quite detailed on how the policy was developing, but it is rather like a detective thriller with the last chapter ripped out. On 5 September the Chancellor asked officials to work up final proposals. Then we heard little more than that there were various costings. I will come back to the point about detailed costings. We did not receive the detail. We did not learn unequivocally—to use the Prime Minister’s word—that the Treasury had decided to implement the policy before 1 October.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): If this lengthy discourse is intended to demonstrate that tax policy is at least partly informed by political decision making, I am not sure that that is a tremendously profound argument.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he makes a reasonable point. Of course this was a policy that was more than influenced by the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton on 1 October. Our case is that that was the clinching aspect in the Government adopting this approach. It is significant that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, who is an extremely reasonable man, concedes that point, but the Prime Minister does not.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman seems to be making a persuasive case that there is no need to elect a Conservative Government because his party is such an effective think-tank that the current Government are pleased to take on its policies in their entirety.
Mr. Gauke: It would be fair to say that the intellectual weather is being created by the Conservative party. Unfortunately, the Government are not as strong at implementing Conservative policies as a Conservative Government would be. I will come back to that point in a moment.
12 noon
It is worth exploring how the policy formulation worked in this case. To be fair to the Government, there was a reason why further details were not provided. According to the Treasury letter, information was identified as falling into the exemption to disclosure set out in section 35(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to the formulation or development of Government policy when it is not in the public interest to disclose that information. Imagine the frustration that Ministers must have felt if vital evidence proving that the decision was made before 1 October was there, but officials declared that it was not in the public interest to release the documents and validate the Prime Minister’s words, particularly given the widespread scepticism of the media about the Government’s claims that the decision was entirely unrelated to the Blackpool announcement.
The Times on 11 October, referring to the original drafts of the pre-Budget report, stated:
“it is understood that inheritance tax did not feature... But when Gordon Brown received polling data for marginal constituencies on Saturday afternoon everything changed. The Prime Minister shelved plans for an election and a decision was made to change the direction of the Pre-Budget Report. With no election, Labour could neuter the Opposition by pinching the very policies that had given the Tories a poll bounce in marginal seats... The Chancellor and officials spent long hours on Sunday rewriting the speech. This process continued through much of Monday. Out went stamp duty and other tax cuts: in came inheritance tax.”
There were television reports on that particular Sunday. Jon Craig of Sky reported that a number of Treasury civil servants arrived at No. 11 at 6 pm
“in what looked like their gardening clothes or embarrassing leisure wear”.
I think that that was unnecessarily critical of Treasury officials. I am sure that they look splendid at the weekend. He surmised that they had been summoned at very short notice.
The Chairman: Order. I am a very kind and caring Chairman. The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating and entertaining speech, but it is not entirely relevant to the clause before us. Can I give him some advice? He is going a little bit too wide. If he could come back to the clause itself, the whole Committee would be very grateful.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful for your advice, Sir Nicholas. I will stay off the leisure wear or otherwise of Treasury officials, but I should like to make one brief point on the freedom of information request on the formulation on this policy. Section 35(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was the reason why further details as to when the policy decision was taken were not revealed, yet section 35(2) states:
“Once a decision as to government policy has been taken, any statistical information used to provide an informed background to the taking of the decision is not to be regarded... as relating to the formulation or development of government policy”.
Why is that significant? It is significant because we were told that a number of costings were prepared by Treasury officials. If any decision was made to implement the policy before 1 October, any costings subsequently produced could have been released under section 35(2). The Committee may draw its own conclusion from the fact that they were not.
I should like to make a number of observations, raise some concerns about these specific provisions and explore at greater length the issues contained in the amendments concerning the various groups that do not benefit from the nil-rate band. It is worth observing that the transferable nil-rate band relates only to married couples and civil partners, so the divorced and unmarried will not be able to benefit from those provisions. In other contexts, the Prime Minister has effectively said that recognising marriage within the tax system discriminates against children of single or unmarried parents, so I would be grateful to know whether the Financial Secretary believes that the tax system should recognise marriage in the way it does within the provision on the transferable nil-rate band and whether that principle could and should be recognised more widely.
Of course, another group of people who are excluded by those provisions are siblings, and there have been recent cases in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights in which siblings have addressed that issue with regard to inheritance tax. Will the Minister shed further light on the Government’s position on that and on whether there is an argument for recognising the position of siblings in those circumstances? There is also the point about whether that helps all spouses, which we will explore in a moment. The amendment that relates to estate duty is particularly important, and we will come back to that.
A number of married couples and civil partners are already able to benefit from the existence of nil-rate band trusts. If a couple have been properly advised, they could already benefit from a transferable nil-rate band. I do not know whether the Financial Secretary has any information on the extent to which nil-rate band trusts are already used, but she probably needs that information to assess the cost of that policy. If transferable nil-rate band trusts are in widespread use, the cost of the policy will be somewhat reduced, but the number of people benefiting from the change would perhaps not be as great as has been presented. I will be grateful if she looks at that point.
There is also the issue of the administration of the policy. In many circumstances the transferable nil-rate band could be used in cases where a spouse has died some years ago, but in those circumstances it might be difficult for the surviving spouse or their heirs to locate all the necessary documentation. That point was raised on the “Money Box” programme on 3 May—I am not sure whether the Minister heard it. It highlighted that the relevant form for benefiting from the nil-rate band states that it must be accompanied with the death certificate, the marriage certificate, the will, documents relating to the grant of representation and any deed of variation. Of course, the marriage and death certificates might be available from the Public Record Office, as the Financial Secretary, to be fair to her, will probably point out. The will and grant of representation will be held by the courts in some cases, but not in all. That raises the question of how the new policy will be enforced: will it be a light-touch regime, or will Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs rigorously enforce the requirement to produce all of those documents?
A related and ongoing point is that the better the record keeping, the more easily the policy can be implemented. Will there be any attempt to try to publicise the requirement to retain records? Having introduced the policy, we do not want to find individuals running into difficulties because they cannot locate all the documents that they need to use the new rate band. There could be a considerable number of years between the death of the first and the second spouse; I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is a legitimate concern. Guidance as to how HMRC wishes to deal with that matter will benefit the Committee.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I will not detain the Committee for very long, because this is a fairly simple and short clause. We all know that inheritance tax is a tax on transfers of value on death and also on certain lifetime transfers. It was introduced way back in 1984. In a previous life I was involved in it, and to think that it was 24 years ago seems amazing. When someone dies, their estate is chargeable to inheritance tax. The clause and the provisions in schedule 4 insert new section 8A into the Inheritance Tax Act 1984 to allow a surviving spouse or civil partner to benefit from the unused part of the IHT nil band of their partner.
At present, the first £300,000 is chargeable at a nil rate and the excess value is taxed at 40 per cent. The amendments mean that in future the remaining partner could pass on £600,000 free of inheritance tax on their death. On that basis, we support widening the exemption so that families can increase the chance of exempting the family home or their estate from IHT. However, there are a couple of aspects that we would like some clarification on. We seek the Minister’s reassurance on issues brought to our attention by the Association of British Insurers.
Under new section 8A(5), is the amount of nil-rate band that can be claimed on the death of the surviving partner limited to one marriage? What repercussions will that have for the taxpayer? Does the amendment to the penalty provision applicable when someone provides incorrect information make the person making the claim liable for any error, even if it was the deceased who gave that misinformation or lied on the original claim? Those are interesting and technical points, which I am sure the Minister will be able to give some reassurance on.
Another point, which has been touched on by the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, is in respect of those people who may have already paid some of the old estate duty because a spouse died a very long time ago, and are now liable for inheritance tax because they will not be able to claim the nil band. I think that one of the amendments to the schedule addresses that issue. It is an issue for a relatively small number of people, but I think that it will be unfair, even with those few people, if we do not address that. I will leave my remarks about that aside, but, overall, we are supportive of the clause and hope that we can address those other aspects in the discussions on the schedule.
12.15 pm
One of the biggest concerns, as my hon. Friend said, is that so many people now find themselves subject to inheritance tax as a result of rising house prices. Part of the difficulty with that is that there is no opportunity for such individuals to mitigate the effect during their lifetime. Their main home is obviously the place in which they have to live. Such people regard themselves as being asset-rich but cash-poor, and they are not in any position to mitigate that. Although at one level it might warm the Minister’s heart to know that 6 per cent. of estates pay inheritance tax, dare I say that it is often the wrong 6 per cent. that pay?
One can argue—I could understand such an argument, although I might not entirely agree with it—that if we are to respect the idea of a life well lived, very wealthy people should be able to pass on certain things at their death. The worry is that the tax affects more than just middle England in our constituencies, Sir Nicholas. I note that there is great sun here in London, along with that in Cheshire and Hertfordshire. It is a coincidence that Hertfordshire, and, technically I should say Chester and west Cheshire, are two of the only counties in which I have lived outside London.
Emily Thornberry: Get on with it.
Mr. Field: I lived in Islington, North as well for a while. Thankfully those political memories are well in the past, which is just as well, as I would not have wished to infringe either on the hon. Lady or on her next door neighbour in Islington, North.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has raised some legitimate concerns. First, there is the sense of injustice felt by siblings living together, or unmarried couples whose relationship is of long standing, who will not qualify for any benefit under the nil-rate band. I hope that the Government will give some thought to that problem, not necessarily within the context of this year’s Finance Bill, but perhaps in the years ahead to ensure a just settlement.
I am particularly concerned about paperwork, particularly where the two relevant deaths are many years apart. I speak from my own experience as executor to my late father’s will some 17 years ago—I have no idea where those papers are now. We would like some reassurance that there will be a soft-touch approach by HMRC to such cases because, I hasten to add, if someone like myself has not got hold of those papers, I suspect that many others will have found that various papers have been mislaid, perhaps during two, three or four different moves. I hope to get some reassurance that no great rigour will be expected in that regard, and that the evidence will be straightforward and easy to obtain from any beneficiary.
I hope that we can initiate a strong debate, not only on the clause, but when we come to the meat of the matter in schedule 4, in respect of which my hon. Friends have made a number of recommendations and proposals. I hope also that the Minister will have some robust words of reassurance with regard to the important elements mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall.
Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire has said, clause 8 introduces schedule 4. There is a tax-free allowance or a nil-rate band levied on the estates of the deceased that takes the first part of every estate out of charge. Any excess is charged at a marginal rate of 40 per cent. As previously announced, the threshold of the individual nil-rate band for the current financial year is set at £312,000. It is set to increase in future years—to £325,000 in 2009-10 and to £350,000 in 2010-11. In addition, the inheritance tax legislation includes an exemption for transfers of assets to a spouse or civil partner. Many people use this spouse exemption to leave everything they own to their surviving spouse or civil partner without triggering an inheritance tax charge.
The changes announced in the pre-Budget report build on the long-standing spouse exemption. Under the new rules, if any nil-rate band remains unused on the death of the first spouse or civil partner, it may be carried forward for use on the second death instead. That means that if none of the nil-rate band is used up on the first death, the nil-rate band for the second death will be doubled. In 2008-09 it may be possible to exempt up to the first £624,000 of a widow or widower’s estate from inheritance tax, and, on the basis of the planned increase in the nil-rate band, that amount will rise to £700,000 by 2010. That ensures that the heirs of all married couples and civil partners will be able to benefit from both partners’ individual nil-rate bands, without the couple needing to have undertaken complex legal and financial planning. The change will reduce the number of tax-paying estates. For 2008-09 the Government estimate that only about 4 per cent. of deaths will give rise to an inheritance tax liability.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire asked a number of questions. I will try to deal with each in turn, particularly the pertinent questions—I will not be drawn down any of the other lines of debate, Sir Nicholas. The inheritance tax powers relief reflects the formal rights and responsibilities that marriage and civil partnership relationships necessarily entail. The hon. Gentleman asked about siblings: he will be aware of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the case of Burden v. United Kingdom. We welcomed that judgment, which recognised that cohabiting couples are not in a comparable position to a married couple or civil partnership for the purposes of inheritance tax.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about documentation, as did the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. This is a valuable relief, so it is right that individuals have to provide relevant documents to support their claim. We are aware, however, that where the first death occurred before the 2007 PBR announcement, the estate may not have retained all of the relevant documents. That is why in such cases HMRC guidance requires in support of a claim only copies of documents that can be obtained from public sources. I assure the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire that HMRC has already published guidance on its website about the documents that should be kept and that information is also included in the pack that people receive when they are dealing with the estate of a deceased spouse or civil partner.
The measure reduces the number of tax-paying estates by about 40 per cent., to only 4 per cent. of estates. Those are the facts, irrespective of what other commentators may claim. The number of tax-paying estates in 2008-9 is estimated to be about 23,000. More broadly, the measure provides the certainty and reassurance of a double allowance for 12 million married couples or civil partnerships.
The change ensures that heirs of all married couples and civil partners will benefit, without the couple needing to have undertaken complex legal and financial planning, as I have said. The costs were scored as normal in the PBR and Budget reports and, for the Committee’s information, they are costed at £1 billion in 2008-9, £1.2 billion in 2009-10 and £1.3 billion in 2010-11.
The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall asked about occasions when there had been more than one marriage or civil partnership. The transfer is limited to one extra nil-rate band for a good reason: it is a pragmatic step to prevent any one individual accumulating a large allowance. We consider that one extra nil-rate band is sufficiently generous. It hardly needs saying that that is sensible, but it was worth it for the humour.
Mr. Breed: I thought that may be the case. It is a matter of balancing the benefits of a large number of allowances against the disbenefits of a large number of wives.
Jane Kennedy: We will simply nod at that. The hon. Gentleman also questioned the penalty provisions. We will return to those in the debate on amendment No. 64, when I will give further details.
The clause will provide welcome simplification and reassurance for millions of married couples and civil partners. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about those who are asset-rich and cash-poor and who believe that their ability to demonstrate a life well lived in having a benefit to pass on to their families was being undermined. He described the effect of the rise in house prices.
Well over a year before this measure was announced in the pre-Budget report, I met a constituent in Liverpool, Wavertree who had worked as a joiner for Liverpool city council for the whole of his working life—more than 40 years. Early in his life he had married and he and his wife bought the house that they lived in for the whole of that period. They bought the most expensive home that they could afford. It was a large, comfortable family home. It was not a huge dwelling and by London terms was perhaps relatively modest; none the less, they kept that home and cherished it throughout their married life.
I am sure that having heard the debate, notwithstanding the questions that have been raised, the Committee will agree to see clause 8 stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s remarks. The example that she gave of the joiner who had worked all his life demonstrates why there are concerns about inheritance tax. She expressed that very clearly and I am glad that she takes a similar view to my party, as opposed to that of Ms Toynbee and the Fabian Society. I will not dwell on that point.
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s remarks on administration, paperwork and documentation. I hope that in the implementation of this policy HMRC will pursue the approach that she has outlined of not requiring documentation that will not be easily available from public records. She touched briefly on the question of recognition of marriage within the taxation system. The Conservative party supports that principle. There are other taxes where a stronger case could be made for such recognised, but I think that it should be recognised. We note that, in principle, the Government support that view in the context of inheritance tax, if not elsewhere.
I apologise if I missed the point about the number of nil-rate band trusts in existence. I am not sure whether the Government have it, but the number is relevant when working out the actual cost of the policy to the Exchequer. When making the announcement, the Government did not particularly acknowledge the number of families that would benefit from the arrangements in the immediate aftermath of the pre-Budget report. I did not spend a great deal of time on the matter earlier, but in a period of rising house prices—although, admittedly that is not the case at present—it may still be worth while for married couples to have a nil-rate band trust, and they are likely to continue to do so. However, the significance of the policy to the Exchequer and to a number of people will depend on whether they already have such a trust in place.
12.30 pm
The Financial Secretary would not be drawn on when the decision was made to introduce a transferable nil-rate band. She is being very wise, which is more than could be said of the Prime Minister on 6 November 2007, when he unequivocally stated that the Government had been planning to take such action before 1 October. The Committee will be pleased to know that I shall not expand on that point. We shall not oppose clause 8 because it is a step towards dealing with a serious concern that affects many people. It is not as big a step as we would want, but we welcome the Government’s proposals.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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