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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The Government remain concerned at the level of paramilitary activity and control exercised by both republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations within their communities. Internal tensions within loyalist paramilitary groups remain high, with continuing incidents. Dissident republicans continue to carry out attacks, although many of their activities have been thwarted, intercepted or nullified by the security forces. The Independent Monitoring Commission is due to report again on this issue shortly.
Mr. Robertson: A few moments ago, the Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) that relations with the Irish Republic were very good. Can the Minister therefore explain why the Irish Republic refuses to hand over Paddy Dixon, who was wanted for questioning in connection with the Omagh bombing? Can he also tell me whether Paddy Dixon has been relocated to the United Kingdom? He was recently stopped by the authorities in Cardiff and found to have a great deal of cash on him. Why was the Police Service of Northern Ireland not alerted to the fact that he was in Great Britain?
Mr. Pearson: What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that there is a good, strong level of co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana on a wide range of issues, which certainly include dealing with paramilitaries and with the issue of organised criminal activity. So far as the individual whom he mentioned is concerned, I will look into that issue and get back to him.
Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the continued involvement of paramilitaries in the rise in hate crime in Northern Ireland? Will he ask the PSNI to look at two issues? One is the continuing protection and extortion rackets run by loyalist paramilitaries and aimed against ethnic communities that have small businesses in Northern Ireland. The second is the involvement of the British National party and the White Nationalist party on those estates, almost at the requestand certainly with the co-operationof some of the paramilitaries there[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend is right to point out the continuing level of paramilitary activity in Northern
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Ireland. In the first nine months of this year, there were 184 paramilitary attacks, and three times more loyalist attacks than republican attacks. Extortion and organised crime are particular issues. The police made an arrest only last week, which shows that they are very much on the case so far as dealing with extortion is concerned. My hon. Friend is also right to point out the issue of racism and the involvement of the BNP. This is something that the Government are extremely aware of, and we are committed, through the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Departments, to combat racism wherever it occurs.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): It is believed that between £250 million and £500 million is being taken up by criminals in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary activity is funded by illegal activity. Apparently the Assets Recovery Agency has successfully picked up about £3 million to date, but does the Minister accept that much more must be done to disrupt paramilitary activity and that that means cutting those people away from their financing? Can he assure us that, if it is needed, the ARA will be granted more funding to cut out the sale of counterfeit goods, the smuggling of tobacco and cigarettes and, of course, the importation of illegal fireworks from China?
Mr. Pearson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more needs to be done, and it is being done at the moment. The PSNI has a range of activities under way to tackle organised crime. The Assets Recovery Agency has had some major successes in recent weeks and, as he will be aware, went to court only last week with another major seizure. We need to hit criminals where it hurts them, in the pocket, as well as bringing them to justice. The Assets Recovery Agency has an adequate budget, which increased by 20 per cent. this year. We shall continue to keep that under review.
My right hon. Friend will know that as health indicators have continued to improve, one set of statistics nevertheless continues to give public concernthat of cancer. That is partly because diagnostic techniques have improved and partly because things that used to kill people before cancer have been wiped out through good medication and so on. What will my right hon. Friend do to help improve public understanding of that disease, particularly in terms of improving issues around lifestyle, and what will he do to improve screening within the NHS for the disease?
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The Prime Minister: The public health White Paper will be published shortly. It is worth pointing out to the House that there is a huge extra investment that is going into cancer services at the moment, with more than 1,000 extra cancer consultants and more than 1,000 items of modern equipment to diagnose and treat cancer. I should also say to the House that over the past seven years, the number of premature deaths through cancer is down by over 12 per cent.; that is 33,000 lives saved.
However, we recognise that we have to do more, and today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is announcing that we are investing almost £40 million over the next two years to fund a national bowel cancer screening programme. That will begin in April 2006 and this is all part of the investment and reform programme being rolled out across the whole of the health service.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Last week the Prime Minister said there was no question of cutting the size of the Army. That answer, as he must know, was quite wrong. Will he now correct it?
The Prime Minister: We have increased the amount of investment in defence considerably over the past few years. It is correct, as we have said, that we are going to reduce the number of battalions, I think from 40 to 36we will announce the results of the review shortlybut actually, overall the number of people in our armed forces will not be reduced.
Mr. Howard: Well, I have here a statement from the Chief of the General Staff in which he says that Army numbers are falling from more than 108,000 to 102,000. Is the Prime Minister saying that the Chief of the General Staff does not know what he is talking about?
The Prime Minister: I am certainly not saying that. What I am saying, however, is that the number of people employed in the armed forces overall is not going to fall. We retain the commitment to invest in our armed forces; we will carry on doing so. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that, as a result of the strategic defence review, we decided that we needed to reconfigure the money that we spend on defence capability, and we will be spending that money on, for example, things like strategic lift capability, where we need new equipment. Also, other people will be employed in our armed forces to provide better logistic services. It is therefore true that fewer will be employed in one area and more will be employed in other areas. Overall, however, the number of people supporting our armed forces is not falling.
I think that we actually got an admission from the Prime Minister that the answer that he gave this House last week was wrong. Does not it say everything about the Government's priorities that, when there are already more civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions than there are soldiers in the British Army, the Government are cutting the Army by more than 6,000 men and women? In a dangerous world, we need stronger forces and a Prime Minister who gives straight answers. Is it not clear that under this Government we have neither?
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The Prime Minister: First, I find it extraordinary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman accuses us of cutting defence forces in circumstances in which he and his party are pledged to freeze defence spending. The shadow Chancellor has said that every budget, apart from schools and hospitals, will be frozen in cash terms. It is true that his defence spokesman has said something different. Perhaps he will now tell us whether the shadow Chancellor is right to say that all budgets other than schools and hospitals will be frozen in cash terms.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): Now that the Association of Chief Police Officers is saying that a complete ban on the physical punishment of children would be more workable than the partial ban proposed in the Children Bill, would my right hon. Friend be prepared to meet a small group of Members this week to discuss whether we can have a free vote on what is a fundamental issue of conscience?
The Prime Minister: I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and any other Members on this issue. My view is that there is a common-sense way through this issue. It is important that we recognise that most parents can tell the difference between disciplining their child and abuse of their child. I know that there are strong arguments on all sides in relation to this matter, and I shall listen carefully to any argument that he puts to me. Sometimes in these circumstances, however, it is best to feel one's way instinctively as a parent, rather than as a politician.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): Last week, the Prime Minister assured us that the Black Watch would return home by Christmas. The clear impression conveyed was that that would mark the end of the requirement for British forces to carry out this additional responsibility. Can I clarify whether that is the case?
The Prime Minister: Yes, we have said that the Black Watch will come back by Christmas. As to what then happens, we cannot be sure at the moment. We do not believe that there will be a further requirement for other troops, but I cannot guarantee that, because, obviously, I do not know the situation that may arise. What I do know is that if there is any contingencyI think that this is what the Chief of the Defence Staff was sayingwe are able to meet it. I said, with the authority of the Chief of the Defence Staff, that the Black Watch will be back by Christmas, and that holds.
Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. May I press him further on one aspect? Has he sought, or been given, any assurances by the United States Government that if the Black Watch is withdrawn in due course, its position will be filled in by American rather than British troops?
The Prime Minister:
I have not been given such an assurance, and I have not sought such an assurance. First, we can be immensely proud of the work that our troops are doing in Iraq. We can be proud of the Black Watch and the work that it is doing. But we are engaged in a joint operation in Iraq with this purpose in mind: to make sure that elections in Iraq can take place in January. If they can, it will be the biggest blow for
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freedom, stability and prosperity in that country that we can imagine. We should not go into this with an attitude of mind that tries continually to pick holes in the strategy. That does not help the overall joint effort in Iraq, which I believe passionately is in the interests of the security of this country.
Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend tell us what steps his Government are taking to encourage agencies such as the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services, Ofcom and the telecoms network operators to protect our constituents from organisations, both at home and abroad, that are dispersing automatic network diallers over the internet? The practice has caused many of our constituents to incur enormous telephone bills through no action and no fault of their own.
The Prime Minister: I think I had better consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and get back to my hon. Friend to tell him what we are doing; but I can tell from the calls coming from behind me that this is an issue of deep concern.
Q2.  Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): The Prime Minister will know that Norfolk police authority, along with many others, faces a serious funding shortfall next year. At the same time, the Home Office is imposing yet more bureaucratic burdens. Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that front-line policing will not suffer as a result?
The Prime Minister: I understand that there are record police numbers in Norfolk. That, of course, is a result of the Government's extra investment in policing. Of course we want that to be maintained. As well as providing record numbers of police not just in Norfolk but throughout the country, we are increasing the number of community support officers and support staff. This is all part of bringing back community policing for today's world, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I want to see it extended, not curtailed.
Q3.  Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Modernisation of the accident and emergency services is bringing real improvements to patient experience and safety. Sir George Alberti's report, published yesterday, made that clear. How can we ensure that if there are local difficultiesas there are in the Surrey and Sussex trust, where most services have been transferred to another hospital and ambulances are waiting for up to two hoursthey do not undermine the fantastic work that is going on?
The Prime Minister:
I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern. It is important for the strategic health authority to decide how local needs can best be met, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that, as yesterday's report said, accident and emergency care has undergone something of a transformation over the past few years. It is good to note that people coming from abroadfrom America and Australia, for instancehaving observed our accident and emergency services, describe them as an example that should be followed elsewhere. Nevertheless, that does not take away the difficulties that can arise locally. My hon. Friend can make
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representations about them to the strategic health authority, but I think that in the end such decisions are best made locally.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The answer to the completely bogus point made by the Prime Minister a few moments ago is that both the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Defence Secretary are pledged to increase spending on Britain's front-line forces by £2.7 billion. Why, on Friday this week, is the Prime Minister going to sign a constitution that will entrench Europe's economic failings, and drag Britain down as well?
The Prime Minister: Just before I get on to that point, I should like to continue the discussion on defence spending a little longer, if I may. It simply is not right. How can the right hon. and learned Gentleman have the shadow Chancellor saying that he is going to impose that[Interruption.] Oh, yes. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: We shall continue that discussion over the coming months. As for Europe, we want to sign the treaty because we think that it modernises European institutions. When Europe is operating as a Europe of 25, or perhaps 27 and later 30 countries, it is important to have sensible rules in Europe; but that protects absolutely the right of this country to set its tax rates and its foreign and defence policy, and it preserves our opt-in on asylum and immigration. It is therefore a sensible deal for this country. We know where the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his friends want to go: they want to go out of Europe, and that is not sensible.
"entrench Europe's economic failings and drag Britain down too"
The Prime Minister:
I am sure that I always took his advice seriously, but it is important to recognise that a Europe of 25 is a Europe that Britain should be part of. Why? Because 60 per cent. of our trade is with Europe, millions of British jobs depend on our being in the European Union[Interruption.] The Tory party actually wants to use the refusal of this treaty as a means of renegotiating existing membership of the European Union. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] So let us be quite clear: the right hon. and learned Gentleman's opposition to this new treaty is not about the treaty itself; it is about using the treaty as an excuse to renegotiate existing terms of European membership, which means getting out of Europe. Perhaps he will at least confirm this: that it is his policy to renegotiate our existing terms of membership.
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"those in favour of the constitution would like to box people in to suggesting the only alternative . . . is leaving the European Union . . . that is not the case at all."
"The British government never really thought through its own position. First, it opposed a written constitution and then it put forward its own draft, which was treated with contempt. Then there was all that nonsense about tidying up . . . There was no strategic thinking."
So why is the Prime Minister going to Rome on Friday to sign up to a constitution that he himself said was never necessary, which his advisers say is damaging for Britain, and which the British people overwhelmingly do not want? He promised that he would
"stand up for Britain's interests in Europe",
The Prime Minister: I shall tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what is gutless. It is gutless to run from the UK Independence party into a position[Interruption.] Oh yes, that is what is gutless. He has ended up in a situation whereby his policy now is to renegotiate Britain's existing terms of membership, which would mean that Britain would face either humiliation in that negotiation, or withdrawal from Europe. I agree that it is difficult sometimes in this country to make the case for Europe, but I will carry on making that case because it is right and in Britain's interest. A true leader would stand up to UKIP, not run from it. [Interruption.]
Q4.  David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is genuine concern in the country about various aspects of the Gambling Bill, which is due to be debated shortly, and in particular about the establishment of very large casinos? Instead of trying to encourage further gambling and debt, would it not be far more sensible to reduce these problems? The last thing that we want is a casino-type society. Ministers should reconsider the whole matter.
The Prime Minister: I entirely understand the concerns that my hon. Friend and others have expressed, but it is important to realise that 90 per cent. of that Bill is actually about regulating gambling better and more strictly. For example, it will have restrictions on access to gambling, particularly in respect of children, that are being introduced literally for the first time. It is also important to emphasise that where one of these casino leisure complexes is sought, any local authority has the right to declare that it will have no such complexes in its area at all.
The issue that we must really decide on is this. We are modernising in a sensible way the overall gambling laws. Let us be clear: this process has been going on for four years and, until very recently, with a large measure of cross-party support. The fact is that as well as better regulating gambling, the Bill will allow some of these large casino leisure complexesprobably 20 to 40in
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areas that will be regenerated with hundreds of millions of pounds of investment and thousands of jobs. As the debate proceeds through the House of Commons, those arguments will become a little clearer.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Further to that answer, can the Prime Minister elaborate on which British interests will be served by the Gambling Bill? Does it not, in fact, provide further evidence of the fast-evolving and special, if not unique, relationship between this Prime Minister and the United States?
The Prime Minister: Many British companies also want to be involved in casino and leisure complexes, as they are involved in gambling across the country. It is also worth reminding the Houseand perhaps, through it, the countrythat this process began with an independent report by Sir Alan Budd in 2001 and we then had two lots of Scrutiny Committee deliberations on a draft Bill, so it is not true that we have ignored it. About 130 of the 160 recommendations were accepted. As to the others, there will be ample opportunity to debate them during the course of the Bill. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that 90 per cent. of the Bill is actually about establishing better regulation. People on both sides of the House have been saying for years that we should modernise our gaming laws, and that is what we are trying to do.
Q5.  David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Iraq has divided this House as it has divided this nation. However, there is a position on which we should all agree: that the innocents in Iraq are the children. Within my Midlothian constituency is a young woman, Katrina Turner, who was watching television 19 months ago and saw a young girl, Hannan, get burned beyond recognition. Over those 19 months she has waged a personal campaign, as a result of which Hannan is now in Scotland with my constituent. Tomorrow the girl is going to a special burns unit at St. John's hospital to receive treatmentpainful treatmentthat will take up to six months or longer to complete. Can I ask the Prime Minister to use his good offices to talk to world leaders, to recognise the fact that there are no burns units in Iraq and to make a plea for people in Iraqand, indeed, throughout the worldto be able to get that sort of treatment?
The Prime Minister:
The point that my hon. Friend makes is right. Of course, specialist health services suffered enormously under the previous regime and it will take a long time for Iraq to catch up to UK and international standards. I can tell my hon. Friend that there is a multi-donor trust fund, managed by the World Bank and the United Nations, which provides funds precisely for those types of specialist services. The UK is contributing about £70 million to those funds this year, and we are also working with the Iraqi ministry of health to try to make sure that we develop those specialist services. At the present time, I have to say, most of the emphasis in Iraq is on primary and emergency care, which is being introduced across the country for the first time in a proper and measured way. The Iraqis want to move on to specialist medical services and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will help them to do so.
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Q6.  Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): A group of former inhabitants of the island of Diego Garcia, who were dispossessed under a previous Labour Government, have started arriving in the UK and are currently being housed at the expense of the residents of Reigate and Banstead in Surrey, and thousands more could be on the way. Will the Prime Minister explain why my constituents in a small Surrey borough should pay substantial housing and legal costs as a result? Can he also explain why appeals to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and to the Deputy Prime Minister himself for help have so far gone unanswered?
The Prime Minister: I think it is because of the concern that if we start providing finance for this particular case, we would have to provide it for a whole series of others. The hon. Gentleman refers to thousands of people coming in, but that is an exaggeration. I shall have to look into the precise numbers that we anticipate, but I am told at the moment that it is far fewerperhaps 40 so far. I will look into it very carefully and get back to the hon. Gentleman about it. As I said, the concern has been that if we start providing funding in these circumstances, there is no reason why we should not provide it across the board.
Q7.  Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): A decade ago, my friend won the Labour leadership on a manifesto promising change and renewal. Now, after seven years in government, can he think of a single dramatic act of renewal that would make the British public sit up and take notice? [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: Actually, I can think of several[Interruption.]apart from the fact that we have had two successive Labour Governments. That is one renewal. What is more, we have had economic stability in place of boom and bust; we have had 2 million more jobs in place of 3 million unemployed; we have had a national minimum wage in place instead of no minimum wage; we have had record investment in health and education in place of cuts; and we have had half a million children lifted out of poverty. That is some renewal. Maybe my hon. Friend should go back and tell his constituents about it.
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): Has the Prime Minister seen the paper published by the Department for Health advocating the reintroduction into the NHS of practice-based commissioningwhat we used to call GP fundholding? Will he confirm that it is the policy of this Government, as it was of their predecessor, to extend the opportunity of practice-based commissioning to any GP who wants to take advantage of it? Will he also confirm that the excellent policy set out in the paper by the Secretary of State for Health has the unqualified support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
The Prime Minister:
First, the policy is most certainly not a return to GP fundholding. We have no intention of reintroducing that two-tier system. However, it is true that we are devolving money down to the front line of the health service, as well as putting record investment into the NHS. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that, having read that document, he supports it, I am delighted.
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Q8.  Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): This week saw the sixth anniversary of the establishment of the new deal for lone parents. So far, 270,000 lone parents have found their way into work. That is why unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 53 per cent. since May 1997 and why, directly as a result of the new deal, 420 lone parents in Weaver Vale are now in work. However, 1,188 people in my constituency remain unemployed. What does my right hon. Friend propose to do to ensure that everyone in my constituency who wants a job gets the opportunity to work?
The Prime Minister: I am glad that the new deal has had such a positive impact in my hon. Friend's constituency. It has helped hundreds of thousands of peoplelone parents and young peopleto get off benefit and into work. It is a tragedy that the Opposition are committed to abolishing it. That would be a very regressive step. We intend to extend it and, through tax credits and the other help that we give people, to make work pay. In addition, the new training and skills measures and the extension of child care will give many people the chance to acquire new skills and get help with looking after children. That is all part of creating a society in which everyone who wants to work is able to do so.
Q9.  Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): Last month's report from the organisation Safer World identified that at least £450 million is spent subsidising UK arms exports. Would not taxpayers' money be better spent on local health services, such as those offered by Cranleigh Village hospital and Milford hospital in my constituency, which are so much valued by my constituents?
The Prime Minister: I shall have to check into the figure of £450 million but, if that covers defence sales as a whole and not just arms sales, it would be extraordinary if the Liberal Democrats were to say that we should not provide any support for our defence industry, which involves many thousands of jobs in this country. I do not think that it is wrong for this country, under the proper guidelines, to sell defence equipment. That is an important part of our manufacturing base.
Q10.  Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Last year, I received many letters from constituents complaining about the abuse of fireworks. Last week, Mrs. Catherine Foster wrote to me to say how different things are this year and how much quieter it is as a result of Government legislation. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the efforts that have been made to tackle the problem will continue so that all our constituents can enjoy this time of year without worrying about the distress caused to their pets?
The Prime Minister:
I am delighted that the legislation has had that impact on my hon. Friend's constituency.
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The introduction of fixed-penalty notices for firework offences has given the police a power that they can use easily and prevents the need for a long drawn-out court hearing. The police are able to take swift action, and that is all part of our measures on antisocial behaviour. We have closed down crack houses, shut down pubs and clubs where violence happens and under-age drinking goes on, and introduced antisocial behaviour orders. It is a question of ensuring that we give the power to local communitiespolice, local authorities and the local residentsto take action against that menace. In general, the powers have been widely welcomed.
Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): Is it not a serious setback to the tremendous efforts being made to prevent weapons proliferation to rogue states that some highly sensitive nuclear equipment and a very large quantity of high-quality explosives have gone missing in Iraq? Do the Government have any say in the protection and security of those very sensitive sites, either through our diplomatic services or our forces on the ground? If not, why not?
The Prime Minister: We do, of course. I think that I am right in saying that that was a result of the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Iraq and that nothing has gone missing in recent times, but we are awaiting a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. We will obviously act on that report, but until we have the report, we do not know what the precise facts of the situation are, and they may be somewhat different from how they appear.
Q11.  Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Derbyshire constabulary and the crime and disorder reduction partnership in South Derbyshire have made tremendous progress in pressing down on crime in my area. I met representatives of the police authority last week to discuss their analysis of funding needs in the coming year and their bid for community support officers. Will my right hon. Friend commend to the Home Secretary their proposals for CSOs? Can he give me some assurance on their future funding?
The Prime Minister:
Community support officers are having a big impact, along with neighbourhood wardens, in support of local police, particularly in dealing with antisocial behaviour. I can assure my hon. Friend that, as I said a moment or two ago, we want to see that encouraged and extended, not curtailed. The important thing is not just to have extra numbers of uniformed people on the ground, but to ensure that they have the powers to act where necessary. The combination of the additional police and community support officers and the powers is making a real difference, and as the report on antisocial behaviour that will be published tomorrow indicates, that is now beginning to have a real impact for the better on people's lives in this country.
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