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Baroness Noakes: That, while an admirable expression of faith in whether or not the system will work, is not much more than that. It does not constitute evidence that the system will work. Most Members of the Committee who have spoken in the debate have raised concerns about whether or not these arrangements will work in practice; whether all the PCTs will be ready, able and/or willing to participate in specialised services commissioning, as the noble Lord wishes they would; and whether within a strategic health authority area they will agree on the same things—such as whether there will be effective commissioning or whether there will be a lot of dispute. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, we really cannot wait until the specialised services have fallen apart to say whether or not this approach is right.

The hour moves on. We have had a good exchange. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I think that this subject will not go away. We shall reflect carefully on what the noble Lord has said. We look forward to the items that he will table for us to read in the Library. I anticipate that we may well return to this matter. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Lord Filkin: I beg to move that the House do now resume. Perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage be resumed not before 8.36 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

7.35 p.m.

Lord Laird rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the activities of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise a topic in your Lordships' House, which is of great interest to many in Northern Ireland, and which is an important part of understanding the complex picture of the Province today. The issue is the vital one of human rights and, in particular, the activities since the formation of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

At the outset I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who is widely respected in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. He is currently travelling so much to the Province that I believe that he may be in line for

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support from the tourist board. None of my remarks reflect on him. Since June of last year, I know that he has taken an interest in this topic.

I should like to think that those who know me accept that I hate criticism for its own sake, rather I look to the best in most things and peoples and am dedicated to the concept of positive thinking. As an Ulster unionist, I feel that over the past four years I have exhausted all my abilities in that direction and am forced to move to the area of attack and outright criticism. I take no pleasure in that task.

Much has been made of the Secretary of State's warning that Ulster has become a cold house for unionists. So tonight we shall examine one of the central factors that has contributed to the chill felt by unionists.

The concept of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the consideration of all issues against human rights requirements and the possibility of a Bill of Rights specifically for Northern Ireland was welcomed by all on the unionist side. But the applause soon faded away when the reality of what had been created became clear.

The right honourable Mo Mowlam's contribution to events in Northern Ireland will be the subject of much debate by future historians. Those of us who have to live with the reality have made our own judgment. To be kind to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I would explain her appointment of the members of the commission initially as being clearly designed to appease Sinn Fein. As a body required to reflect the community balance as laid down in the Belfast agreement and promised by the right honourable Paul Murphy in another place, it failed from day one.

The community balance was just not there. Where, for example, were the representatives of the evangelical community or the Ulster Scots community, each with a substantial section of the population? Indeed, who was appointed to represent the 25 per cent of the community who rejected the Belfast agreement? It was even worse than that. The republican representatives appointed were robust in nature, most were linked to the so-called Committee on the Administration of Justice, and, in several cases, had a very suspect record of human rights activities.

In the appointment process well-known figures from the unionist community with excellent human rights credentials were not even considered. In a glaring oversight, a former Queen's University law lecturer in European human rights and author of a work on the topic did not even get an interview.

From day one the commission was off to a bad start. Then things got worse. I want to underline that there are many honest and decent people who are members of the commission and who have done, and continue to do, their best as they see it. However, my concern relates to the republican cabal that proceeded to consider the commission as its vehicle into power and to operate as it wished. During the following few years,

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an ongoing chapter of events positioned the commission as having, crudely and openly, a one-sided agenda.

I reject out of hand the concept that human rights apply only to republicans and nationalists and not in equal measure to unionists and others. The qualification for human rights is to be human, not Irish republican. In evidence of the attitudes of the chief commissioner, Professor Brice Dickson, I shall cite from Human Rights Law and Practice, the general editor of which is the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. Professor Dickson said in 1999 that the commission's role includes,

    "convincing people, especially those perhaps of a unionist disposition that human rights are for all, not just for one particular community".

There we have a candid insight into the non-unionist thinking of the chief commissioner from the start.

I can list many problems with the commission and its work, but I shall point only to a few tonight. First, there is the highlighting of areas of interest to republicans, almost ignoring the rest. Worse is misrepresenting the position of official bodies—for example, suggesting that the police used plastic baton rounds for crowd control and not just for the preservation of life. Another is funding the challenge to Belfast City Council over the possible reduction of resources for a nationalist parade, yet failing to support the families of the Omagh bomb victims.

One of the largest abuses of human rights, which I have raised in the House before, is the enforced relocation of populations. A year ago, I supplied a detailed file on the enforced movement of 250,000 unionist people from towns all over the province. That controversial issue has to my view been ignored. Why?

The extra powers sought by the commission are excessive and unwarranted. They include the power to,

    "enter and search premises",

and to require people,

    "to attend before the Commission to answer fully and truthfully any question put to him or her by the Commission".

The SS would have been proud of such powers.

The most evident example of the commission's hunger for power is its manipulation of the Belfast agreement. It has disregarded the Secretary of State's request for advice on the scope for devising a Bill of Rights specific to Northern Ireland. Instead, it has actually drafted a form of Bill of Rights. The consultation period for that draft Bill was only three months. First, we were informed that ideas could be added to the draft but that none could be taken out. Worse, the contents were clearly directed to aid republicans—and, in my view, those involved in terrorism. The commission spent public money on areas of activity not required of it by legislation.

Even the groups that it constructed and then consulted on areas of interest for the draft Bill were clearly weighted to the non-unionist advantage and so subject to considerable controversy. The outside groups listed in the commission's document, entitled Making a Bill of Rights and published on 4th September 2001, demonstrate a clear lack of

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unionist input. In several cases, I have identified organisations on the list that have not made submissions. What credibility has that document?

If we should expect one feature of a human rights body, it is openness. Perhaps that is one of the commission's greatest failings. Against a background of open hostility from the unionist community, the commission has seemed to go about its business in as much dark as possible. The only way to obtain so much information about its activities is that I and others drag it out line by line in parliamentary Answers. I resent having to do that; it is a waste of my time and of public money and makes it look as if I have a vendetta. As far as I can see, that is the only route by which the commission is held to account.

When a review of the working of the commission was due after three years, what did it do? It refused to accept £25,000 from Her Majesty's Government, so that it could run its own review by picking its own investigator, creating its own terms of reference and even supplying the investigator with a list of "suitable" organisations to contact for opinions. The investigator, Mr Peter Hosking—a man of outstanding reputation, I have no doubt—has been uncontactable by e-mail to allow the input of critical views.

If another organisation—let us say the police, for example—had organised an inquiry into its own workings and picked the judge, the jury and the witnesses, the first organisation to explode in anger would be the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Is not sauce for the goose sauce for the gander?

Having outlined only a flavour of the discontent felt by many groups in Northern Ireland, not just unionists, perhaps I may suggest what may be the only way out of the problem. First, a full, impartial investigation into the running and procedure of the commission is vital. The main area to be addressed is openness. A code of conduct on the timescale for reply to letters must be introduced. Monitoring of all considerations with equal balance must take place. All information must be available as soon as possible on the Internet. That includes minutes and correspondence that is not private.

The terms and conditions of the consultation process, the supply of money to individuals and the selection of working parties must be reviewed and made available to all. The commission must be asked to stick to its remit without excesses. I acknowledge that the letter from the Minister of State to the commission of 22nd November 2001 goes much of that distance.

Unless the commission is publicly brought into line, the aim of some republicans of making their Bill of Rights a vital part of the peace process—not open to change, like Patten—may be achieved. We want a commission that is not out of control. Added to its membership must be those who would redress the balance and allow the commission to become that which was promised in the Belfast agreement—a balance of the total community—and so become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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Failure to act will ensure that the cold house for unionists outlined by the Secretary of State will maintain indeed a frosty climate.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, it is not often these days that I venture to participate in debates about Northern Ireland. That does not reflect any diminution in my interest nor in my regard for the people of Northern Ireland. It is simply a recognition of the fact that I have fewer opportunities to inform myself. My reasons for speaking today are twofold. First, my noble friend Lord Dubs, who was anxious to participate, is unable to be here. He asked me to convey his apologies and, in effect, to be his messenger—particularly as, as it transpired, his views and mine are very much in accord.

My second reason for speaking is that I have had some discussion with the commission on the possible content of a Bill of Rights, although I hasten to add that my contribution was minimal. To that extent, I declare an interest, but my interest is essentially in peace and justice in Northern Ireland.

I listened with care to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I regret that we do not have more time to examine some of the detail in his speech. I have noted the Questions that he has asked in recent months, but in the brief time available today, I should like to clarify what I believe to be a misconception that is fundamental to what he said. I hope that I have established my credentials as a friend of both the noble Lord and Northern Ireland, and that he will forgive me.

There are two possible approaches to democracy. One is to say that the voice of the people is the final arbiter on all issues and that the voice of the people is ascertained by counting votes. The alternative is to say that majorities may sometimes be wrong—in particular, they may sometimes be unfair to minorities or individuals—and that there should be some machinery to adjudicate between them. That may consist of giving the majority—I mean the majority on any specific issue, not a permanent majority—an opportunity to think again. It may provide scrutiny of detail in order to expose the impact of a particular provision on an individual or group. It may go further to provide that a specific right should be entrenched or subjected to a process of conditional validation, so that no one has power to infringe that right.

Those two approaches go back far into history. They have been debated since Socrates said, "The majority has voted that I shall die; therefore, I shall remain in the city and drink the hemlock". I believe that Socrates was wrong and that he would have served posterity better by upholding the principle of free speech and declaring that the right to free speech did not depend on the counting of heads, just as the rights to due process of law, equality of esteem and humane treatment in places of detention do not depend on the counting of heads and should not be left starkly to electoral politics.

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The concept of human rights is a contribution to that debate. It seeks to provide a filter between the vote of the majority—the product of the electoral process—and those who are exposed to what has been decided. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said, the rights are for all, irrespective of beliefs or traditions. The concept consists in trying to secure agreement on certain general principles, so that when a specific question arises, emotions run high and the argument becomes an argument ad hominem, so that it becomes a dispute between their side and our side, there must be general guidelines that have already been agreed and which can protect us from ill considered and, sometimes, Pavlovian reactions.

As I understand it, those who concluded the peace agreement had those considerations in mind when they provided for a human rights commission. I believe that they were wise and that the whole of the United Kingdom may draw on that experience when, at some time in the future, we must consider whether to follow the precedent. Of course, the winning of confidence depends largely on the wisdom and judgment of those who are chosen as commissioners and officials. I may be prejudiced. A number of them I regard as friends, including the chairman, Professor Brice Dickson. They are trying to exercise their remit fairly and sensibly. They would do more if they had access to greater resources, but their annual reports provide ample evidence of a serious and thoughtful approach. They have a difficult remit. In their annual reports, they have included recommendations designed to encourage a balance in appointments and the independence of those who are appointed. That is not an issue; they want those things too.

In passing, I pay tribute to British-Irish Rights Watch, which can supplement the functions of the commission, as its remit is not restricted by statute. It has monitored the human rights dimension with commendable objectivity and has shown equal concern for Billy Wright and Patrick Finucane. I hope that in the future we will continue to see mutual co-operation and respect between statutory bodies and NGOs.

The commission represents an attempt to remove certain fundamental principles from electoral politics. The purpose was to help bring confidence and, with it, peace, justice and reconciliation to Northern Ireland. I suspect that that process would be set back, if the commission and its work, so far from being protected from electoral politics, are dragged into electoral politics. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, will reflect further on what, I am sure, is his ultimate objective, as it is mine.

7.54 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, the only human rights commission project of which I have knowledge is the proposed Bill of Rights. I understand, however, from the commission that it has established a victims' rights project and a committee for victims and closely examined the possibility of taking further legal action on behalf of families who feel that the killing of their loved ones has

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not been thoroughly investigated. I do not know whether it also intends to require the IRA to investigate the murder of Jean McConville, whose body is still missing.

I also know that, according to the evidence that the commission gave to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs last year, it had not, until then, conducted any research into the extent of paramilitary intimidation, especially the permanent exile, on pain of death, of whole families. Nor had it, according to its own testimony, compiled information on the steps being taken by government and law enforcement agencies to eliminate the activity, or the measures adopted by government and public bodies to assist the victims of such intimidation. It had met the Maranatha community to learn more but felt that it had no authority to grant practical assistance to individual victims of intimidation other than to help with court proceedings they might wish to pursue.

The draft Bill of Rights speaks of victims of the conflict. With the exception of one reference in chapter 6, citing some submissions highlighting concerns about the protection and safety of individuals' physical well-being, home and neighbourhood, there is no explicit reference to the greatest single current abuse of human rights, which has continued unabated and indeed enhanced ever since the Belfast agreement, namely, the merciless oppression of their own communities by the paramilitaries. It is simply not mentioned. The Bill of Rights sees the state as the only threat and speaks repeatedly of the tragedies of the past and of the need for,

    "an independent and public process with international involvement for dealing with the past".

The commission is concerned to preserve the Irish and Ulster Scots languages—that is good—sign language and the language of travellers. It wants to abolish the Diplock courts and believes that the improved political and legal circumstances in Northern Ireland now negate the justification for non-jury trial. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, does not share that opinion. Nearly the whole of the section on criminal justice is aimed at curbing the powers of state, which is the target of most of the proposals. The state is a villain, seen throughout as the potential oppressor and source of violence. The commission is concerned with the right of prisoners, once released, to have as much right to enter society as a law-abiding citizen. That is very proper, but, in Northern Ireland, the hidden agenda is to ensure that they may serve in the new community police units, representing those worthy citizens.

In the section on the rights of children and women, there is no word of the real source of violence, the threat from the paramilitaries. The Government have consistently refused to recognise that many of the citizens of Northern Ireland, since the signing of the Belfast agreement, have been living under the heel of the paramilitaries. The then Secretary of State spoke of,

    "an acceptable level of violence"

and said:

    "the peace we have now is imperfect, but better than none".

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Would it be acceptable on the mainland? No. Would it be tolerated here as a price worth paying if it were a case of racist violence? No. The Government, despite the explicit assurances that there would be no more violence, given by the Prime Minister when the agreement was signed, are determined to do nothing to inhibit the so-called peace process, which allows the political representatives of the paramilitaries to sit at Stormont, allegedly involved in the democratic process while the paramilitaries remain in sole control of their unfortunate communities. Having destroyed an effective police service, they now refuse to recognise the new one, which wholly conforms to the requirement of 50:50 composition. They never intended to cede control of their communities to any legal force. The complete control that Sinn Fein, at least, exercises over its paramilitaries was twice demonstrated when they turned off the tap of violence completely when they wished to do so.

I find the priorities of the commission, in the light of the daily violence and the growing desperation and despair of the people, difficult to understand. Of course, I respect the members of the commission, but it is still extremely difficult. Many—not all—of the commission's priorities would certainly coincide with those of Sinn Fein/IRA, which wisely encouraged sympathisers to join many of the new bodies created following the Belfast agreement. That was wise, and it was their right. Their agenda, however, is, naturally, to diminish the power of the state and to advance their own green agenda. Sinn Fein/IRA, with its Marxist roots, is naturally entryist and foresaw the value of infiltration and control. It saw that power would lie with the new institutions and focus groups, many of which are lavishly funded by the EU. In some, they have quietly taken control and, at the same time, demonstrated their democratic credentials.

Unfortunately, serious recommendations such as those in Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's major report on victims have been ignored by the Government. He advocated the appointment of a victims commissioner: none was appointed. A Minister for Victims is no substitute, as the Government are determined to see no evil and hear no evil, and is part of the problem. The Government will not recognise that neither participation in power in the Assembly by political leaders nor restorative justice schemes, which are often infiltrated by the paramilitaries who wish to encourage and control any alternative to formal justice, have in any way reduced the brutal punishment and killings of young people or exilings. The guns have not been silenced, and, in the past two years, assaults have increased.

Kenneth Bloomfield also argued strongly for a senior public servant to be responsible for championing victims, co-ordinating the relevant public expenditure and enforcing the need for an understanding approach by public agencies. It is only too clear that the various agencies, from NIACRO and Victim Support to the social security agency, the compensation agency and the housing executive, do not treat the innocent victims of paramilitary violence, often political, as people in a special category needing

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special care and understanding. There appears to be no central machinery to co-ordinate their actions and their approach. The agencies either minimise the problem or remain indifferent to it, or think the victims must have done something to deserve it. Conversely, the victims are too terrified to seek help from any state-sponsored institution, especially the police, for fear of retribution by the paramilitaries.

I urge the commission to make it a priority to get the Government and the Assembly to co-ordinate the state-funded bodies and require of them an active and immediate plan to tackle the needs of the victims, not of the state but of the paramilitaries. I would hope to see it urging the Government to require the political parties to take immediate action to end the violence, as it is in its power to do. Next, I would hope it would call the Government to account on the total absence of co-ordinated support for exiles in the UK and the lack of any focal point to which the lost and frightened may turn. Finally, I urge the commission to implement the recommendations for action made to it by the Maranatha Community over a year ago.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Laird on securing this important debate. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was created as a result of the Belfast agreement. As such, the Ulster Unionist Party supported its establishment. Indeed, I believe that unionists in general shared with me high hopes and expectations for it. Up to the present point, however, I regret to inform your Lordships that those hopes have not been fulfilled.

The first major challenge for the commission was that posed by the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and, in particular, the so-called 50:50 recruitment policy contained therein. Shamefully, the commission took the decision to support this measure which, in effect, legalised religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. I simply ask the question: since when was the ability to discriminate against an individual on the grounds of their religion a fundamental human right?

Next for the commission was its draft Bill of Rights. Under the terms of the Belfast agreement, it was,

    "invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".

Bearing in mind that the draft Bill was to include only rights "supplementary" to the European convention, why on earth did the commission include in it voting rights, rights for the disabled and rights for women? Did it even read the European Convention on Human Rights? If it had done so, of course it would have seen that those rights are already there.

Also on the subject of the draft Bill of Rights, the commission made great play out of the fact that it had attempted to draw on the South African experience. However, the South African Charter of Rights took six long years to put together with the aid of some of the

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best legal minds in that country. Yet the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission felt able to cobble together its version in a matter of months, obviously fearful that most of its members were not to be reappointed for a further term; a fear which in the end did not transpire.

I must tell noble Lords that I was completely opposed to the decision to reappoint the original commissioners en bloc. However, in addition to the reappointments, the Government also took the step of appointing another four commissioners. Your Lordships might not be aware that one of those who applied was my noble friend, and colleague of your Lordships, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass.

I am told—I am sure that noble Lords will have no difficulty in believing me—that my noble friend Lord Maginnis performed admirably, indeed, if I can spare his blushes, perhaps brilliantly at his interview for the position. However, despite his vast experience and the high regard in which he is held across both traditions in both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, he was not successful. Why was that? I suggest that it is generally known that the Northern Ireland Office effectively blackballed his appointment as it believed that it would have been deemed "offensive" to Catholics. That episode simply reinforces the current impression across the Province that proper human rights now appear to be considered important for only one tradition that resides there.

Finally, I have serious difficulties with the huge amount of public money being wasted by the commission on what I would regard as self-promoting and, indeed, vain activities. Just over two weeks ago, for example, the commission sent a weighty and detailed document to all Members in another place. The document centred on a number of suggested amendments for Members to table on Report. Unfortunately, the document arrived too late for those amendments to be tabled. In other words, the exercise was a complete waste of time and, more importantly, of taxpayers' money.

Then this morning I received a glossy background briefing pack which I understand has been sent to each noble Lord. Given that we have a list of only seven speakers this evening in what is a one-hour debate, can that really be regarded as a proper use of public funds? Further, the detail enclosed in the pack had obviously been put together to put the best possible slant on the work of the commission. To use a term which has become popular with the media in modern times, it was nothing more than a "spin exercise".

I have to confess that I am no fan of Professor Brice Dickson. However, I will give him credit for one thing: he is able to manipulate reality in a manner that even our Prime Minister would be proud of.

8.7 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, this brief debate has, I am afraid, moved along the usual lines when we debate Northern Ireland matters. There is not too much redress from people who hold a different opinion from that of the noble Lords, Lord Laird and Lord Rogan.

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I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, began with a scatter-gun approach which in a sense was altogether disproportionate and lacking in balance. Had he focused his criticisms of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission rather more narrowly, and prioritised them, one might have been able to grasp more than the general drift of his views.

Perhaps I may say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, gave a very considered speech which demonstrated a great understanding of human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke of a hidden agenda and, again, we heard more a general criticism of government action or inaction rather than a focus on the human rights commission in particular.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, wondered why the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, had not been successful. I should have thought that anyone who had recently been a Member of Parliament would rather have blurred the boundary referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer; that is, that on the one hand in safeguarding democracy elections are held, while on the other hand agencies are in place to ensure that the elected democracy attends to the interests of minorities at any one time.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, went on to complain that in its recent publication, the human rights commission had put forward the best possible slant on its work. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, as a distinguished practitioner in public relations would advise a client to put the worst foot forward.

The human rights commission plays a vital role in a very difficult milieu. It is under-resourced to take on all the tasks with which it has been charged, and the nearly 60 Questions about it tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, have drained limited resources. If a civil servant rather than the staff of the human rights commission had had to prepare the Answers, the Government would have said that his Questions were disproportionate in terms of cost and would have sought to reduce them. The Government should do more to protect such an important agency in this way.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said, the human rights commission is without precedent in the United Kingdom. As we develop our culture of rights throughout the United Kingdom, it will provide a valuable pilot study when the other three nations of the kingdom move along this path. It is learning as it goes and it is doing its very best in the circumstances. It is terribly easy to criticise an agency in its formative year or two—and, as I said, it has a very wide remit.

I declare an interest in that I employed Professor Brice Dickson when I was vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster. He was a distinguished colleague and I can say without contradiction that he is a man of extraordinary integrity. He is fighting a very lonely battle against a historical context which has required this kind of agency to be created in order to produce a fairer and more democratic society.

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