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Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 34:

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"( ) An assessment carried out under this section shall include an assessment, as appropriate, of the impact of the proposal upon the general duties of OFCOM and, in particular, the furthering of the interests of consumers through competition as set out in section 3(1)."

The noble Baroness said: This amendment addresses the situation where Ofcom deems it necessary to carry out an impact assessment into the effects of a particular proposal it is planning to implement. The amendment states that such an impact assessment must include reference to how the proposal relates to Ofcom's general duties, and in particular how it would further the interests of the consumer through competition.

We welcome the impact assessment as a measure that will strengthen Ofcom's transparency. The wording of the Bill, however, provides Ofcom with a high degree of flexibility as to the form and content of such an impact assessment. Hence subsection (4) states that an impact assessment,

    "(a) may take such form, and

    (b) must relate to such matters,

    as OFCOM consider appropriate".

So while Ofcom may choose to set out how a proposal impacts upon its general duties there is no requirement to do so. Surely it is important, for the sake of transparency, for Ofcom to include reference in any impact assessment to how the interests of consumers are affected. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: The clauses in this section of the Bill were not made available to the Joint Committee when it submitted its report. That is perhaps why there is no amendment on this occasion from the "gang of four". While I welcome my noble friend's amendment, I take the opportunity of noting what the Joint Committee said on the subject of impact charging when we agreed with the argument advanced by NTL and Telewest that,

    "regulatory impact assessments must review the impact of proposals on markets as a whole, not simply on the companies that are the targets of the regulation".

Prompted by the fact that the amendment has been brought forward, I have for the first time, I fear, read this clause. As my noble friend said, it is extraordinarily widely drafted to give the ultimate possible discretion to Ofcom as to what constitutes a regulatory impact. In the light of the fact that the Joint Committee did not look at this issue previously and that particular recommendation, we may need to examine the clause more thoroughly than simply in regard to the point raised by my noble friend.

Lord Puttnam: I support the amendment. It makes an important general point that will no doubt be raised later. I was delighted that the Government showed enthusiasm for an impact assessment but I am puzzled even more today than at the time of the Joint Scrutiny Committee when we asked the Government to

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commission impact assessments on cross-media ownership, changes in media ownership and cross-media and cross-platform promotion—issues which are tremendously important and, for the most part, not fully understood. The Government, I rejoice to say, have made almost an obsession of evidence-based policy, but they are making very significant changes to long-established policy without any attempt to create any evidence whatever.

Baroness Blackstone: I can be helpful in regard to the amendment. We shall resist it because, as drafted, it does not properly reflect the relationship between Clauses 3 and 7. In carrying out all its functions, Ofcom must comply with its general duties. The duties can apply only where Ofcom has functions; they are not free-standing objectives or principles.

Amendment No. 34 inverts the relationship between Clauses 3 and 7. An impact assessment can relate only to one of Ofcom's functions—which is subject to its duties—and not to the duties themselves. We cannot therefore require Ofcom to assess the impact of a proposal on a general duty.

We can consider, however, whether impact assessments should state how a proposal will fulfil the general duty. I am not promising that we shall bring forward an amendment on Report because I want to be clear that requiring Ofcom to include a reference to its general duties would be helpful to those who would benefit from an impact assessment. We shall look at the issue.

I also want to see what the amendment would add to subsection (4), which already enables Ofcom to consider what form an assessment should take and what matters should be included in it. I hope that on that basis the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister. At this late hour, to have such heartening news is a lovely way to end the evening, for me at any rate. I thank my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for his unexpected support, and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. After the Joint Committee supporting our Front Bench and the Minister almost giving me my amendment, I am not sure I shall sleep. However, I thank the Minister very much; I greatly appreciate the response and the offer of a rethink. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.

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Northern Ireland

10.50 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

    "Mr. Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about political developments in Northern Ireland. I reported to the House last Thursday on our assessment of the state of Northern Ireland political dialogue, and our regretful conclusion that the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, due on 29th May, must once again be postponed. We thought it right to announce that decision to the House as soon as possible, given that the election campaign was beginning. But the result was that many honourable Members from Northern Ireland or interested in its affairs were unable to be present.

    "I said, therefore, that I would return this week to say something more, giving those honourable Members who wished to participate in discussion a chance to come here. I am now also able to report on the discussions in Dublin today between the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and colleagues, including myself.

    "In my earlier Statement, I recalled that, since the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland on 15th October last year, we had made a great deal of headway in discussions between the two governments and the parties there, aimed at completing the implementation of the Belfast agreement, including full restoration of the institutions. A comprehensive and detailed set of proposals had been drawn up by the governments, capable, we believed, of achieving broad support among the parties.

    "We published those proposals last Thursday. They consisted of a joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments setting out a vision of the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, with detailed annexes on security normalisation, devolution of policing and justice and human rights, equality and identity.

    "There was also an agreement between the two governments on how to monitor the parties' and the governments' honouring of commitments set out in the agreement and joint declaration, along with arrangements for remedying breaches of those commitments.

    "Finally, we set out a scheme for the handling of the cases of those on the run for terrorist offences.

    "But from the start, both governments had made it clear that, as the Prime Minister and Taoiseach put it on 14th October,

    'it must be clear that the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, which has been ongoing since the Agreement, and indeed before, is being brought to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion'.

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    "Unfortunately, a draft statement by the IRA and subsequent comments by Gerry Adams were neither clear nor unambiguous. And without clarity, there could be no trust between parties—and no early return for devolved government in Northern Ireland.

    "The question that the Prime Minister—and the people of Northern Ireland—wanted the IRA to answer was a simple one. Will the IRA call a halt to all the activities listed in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration? Will it stop the so-called punishment beatings? Will it stop the targeting and the procurement of weapons? Will it stop inciting people to riot on the streets of Northern Ireland? Those are simple questions, to which there should be a simple answer—yes or no.

    "The IRA has tonight published its statement. As the two governments acknowledged at the time, it represented some progress. But Members of this House and the people of Northern Ireland can read it and judge for themselves whether it answers the fundamental question posed by my right honourable friend: does it mean the definitive end to all the paramilitary activity referred to in the joint declaration?

    "The view of both governments is that it does not. It is not a clear and unambiguous statement. Without that clarity, there can be no trust and, therefore, with great regret, we concluded that elections should be further postponed. We shall introduce later this week, and propose to debate next week, a Bill to authorise this postponement. We hope that the election will be held in the autumn.

    "I know the concern felt by many at this further delay and at the late stage at which it was announced. There is also a frustration on the part of many members of the political parties who had geared themselves up for a mighty effort, which is now abruptly halted.

    I well understand these feelings.

    "This was for us a very difficult decision. But, in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland and the unique form of government established by the agreement, we believed it was the only course to take. It is clear that, as the political dialogue stands at present, there would not have been the willingness to participate that is necessary to partnership government under the agreement.

    "We are planning to bring forward a Bill that will allow us to hold an election as soon as it is clear that the necessary trust between the parties has been re-established. We hope that that can be in the autumn.

    "The Government's course for the future is clear. We will go on seeking to build trust between the communities and hence the foundations for political advance.

    "We have had a great deal of success so far: what we are now experiencing, I believe, need be no more than a temporary setback. We are indeed in a position of great strength. Most of those foundations

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    are already there. We have the agreement, and that must be the bedrock of any future progress. It is not something that is open to renegotiation. Indeed, a vast amount of progress has already been made in implementing it, especially in the vital areas of policing and criminal justice. However, it is a further strength that the joint declaration published last week represents a shared understanding between the governments and the pro-agreement parties of how we can proceed to the full and final implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

    "That too has been the subject of discussion with all the pro-agreement parties and agreed by the governments. That also is not open to renegotiation.

    "As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister indicated this evening in Dublin, we shall proceed to implement many elements of the joint declaration which are not conditional upon action by others, for example in the areas of policing, criminal justice, equality, human rights, and some aspects of normalisation. We will also introduce the legislation necessary to set up the Independent Monitoring Body, which will, among other things, report on paramilitary activity.

    "But the joint declaration package also contains a number of measures which can only be implemented if there are acts of completion by the IRA. It is a strength of the present position, I believe, that there is such widespread recognition of the benefits that devolution has brought to Northern Ireland, and a wish on all sides to return to a local administration.

    "In the coming weeks, the Government will be consulting with all the parties—whatever their position on the agreement—about the best way of bringing devolution back to Northern Ireland as soon as possible.

    "Finally, I should remind the House that a key element in the progress that has been made is the close partnership between ourselves and the Irish Government. Without that relationship and the unstinting support of successive US administrations, the transformation that has already occurred in Northern Ireland would not have been possible. In fact, the reason for the late hour of this Statement is that I wanted to report to the House the results of this afternoon's meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, in Dublin. That was an important opportunity for the governments to reaffirm the centrality of their partnership to continuing political progress in Northern Ireland. There was agreement about the implementation of aspects of the joint declaration to which I have already referred.

    "I shall continue to work closely with the Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, to ensure that the political parties in Northern Ireland are encouraged to engage with each other to resolve current difficulties and to re-establish trust.

    "We have faced many challenges and setbacks in the five years since the agreement was reached and I will not pretend to the House that the current impasse is not serious. However, we are determined

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    that this obstacle will be overcome—as others have been in the past. The critical issues of trust—over commitment to exclusively peaceful means, and about the stability of the institutions—can be addressed with clear statements of intent from all parties.

    "Events in the past few weeks have been deeply disappointing for everyone concerned—but they should not obscure the great progress that has been made. The publication of the joint declaration represents a major step towards the complete implementation of the Belfast Agreement. That agreement remains the only sustainable basis for a fair and honourable accommodation between nationalists and Unionists. It remains the only possible basis for peace. In the coming weeks and months we will work openly and transparently to further fulfil our side of the bargain struck in 1998.

    "We call upon the IRA to find the clarity—in words and deeds—to convince the people of Northern Ireland that they are ready to fulfil theirs".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

10.59 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement, which I think is being made in parallel in another place. What a sad day. I think that this is a terrible time of the day to take a Statement. When I heard some time back that there was to be a Statement tonight, I was looking for something momentous—a real happening and exciting news. However, as we have just heard, there is virtually nothing that has not been in the public domain for some time. The fact that we have the Statement now is not, I accept, directly the fault of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal. However, it is a rather sad Statement.

The Government have again got themselves in a mess with Northern Ireland. They are going to need some support from all of us, which I suspect that they may ultimately get at some stage. However, I have a few questions on the Statement, the first of which concerns the actual decision-making process and the communication of it. Why did the Northern Ireland public hear that their elections had been cancelled from an Irish Minister making a statement in Ireland? It was pretty clear to those of us on the outside that this was another prime ministerial decision. In the Corridors I have heard it said that even the Secretary of State himself was not aware that the decision was being taken until it had been, and indeed that he was not thinking on those lines himself. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord will give us a little enlightenment on the Corridor-speak.

The Statement talks about elections in the "autumn", which is a very loose term. I suggest that the Government do not really know where they are in relation to elections. I do not blame them for that. They are waiting, quite rightly, for a response from the IRA. The Statement makes it quite clear that such a response is expected. Of course I strongly support the Prime Minister in his stance on that. However, I

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should like the noble and learned Lord to confirm that this will be the very last postponement of any future elections; that elections will not be called on the off-chance that the IRA might deliver something that is vaguely satisfactory; and indeed that they will not be called until such time as the pro-agreement parties are in a position of trust and understanding among themselves, which will allow the formation of a meaningful and workable Executive and government process. I suppose that it is always easy in hindsight. However, I do not think that it should have taken a lot of thinking and understanding of Northern Ireland affairs for that decision to have been taken some months back.

The Statement raises one other big issue: the mention of the joint declaration. I purposely do not wish to go into it tonight, and I hope that the noble and learned Lord and other noble Lords will not expect us to. The joint declaration is a sizeable document which is now in the public domain. I do not feel that now is the time to debate it. However, I should like the noble and learned Lord to assure the House that the Government will continue to negotiate from strength and not drift back into giving away bits and pieces in the hope that they might get a titbit from the IRA's table in response. Noble Lords will understand that that will never happen. The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on finally taking a serious stance, digging in his heels and saying to Sinn Fein/IRA, "Do it first". I ask the noble and learned Lord to ensure, and assure us, that that will continue to be the Government's policy.

My final topic concerns detail. Many human beings, civil servants, candidates who were members, Ministers, chauffeurs, drivers and secretaries are involved in this matter. Where do they stand in relation to salary, costs, future, insurance, pensions and so on? If there is to be some form of compensation, perhaps the noble and learned Lord will give us some idea of how that will be worked out and the cost that might be incurred.

11.5 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for making the Statement available earlier.

Last October I predicted a very long suspension of the Assembly. I regret that that has turned out to be the case. We reluctantly agreed to one month's extension before the calling of the election. We were assured time and again by the Government that elections would take place this month. Last week, without any consultation within Westminster, the Government peremptorily announced that there would be no elections until the autumn or even beyond.

There is another way one could look at this. The mandates of the Northern Ireland parties are now past their sell by date. Those mandates desperately need to be renewed. If the elections had been held as planned, the parties could have negotiated between themselves as to whether an executive could be formed. It is far preferable, and possibly more productive, for them to

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deal with one another directly. The two governments have used their best offices so far but have manifestly failed to bring about an agreement. Put the onus now on the Northern Ireland politicians to address the matter head on between themselves. Sinn Fein would have to demonstrate its commitment to the full processes of democracy and the rule of law, as it should have done unequivocally long before now.

I know that the English element of new Labour has little or no understanding of coalition or power sharing negotiations which are a commonplace in many European democracies and which, it should be stressed, are taking place at this very moment to form a new Scottish executive. It is not unknown within the United Kingdom. Westminster new Labour needs rapidly to improve its knowledge of the democratic dynamics of coalition building.

The Belfast agreement provided for a review of its own workings. I suggest that if the Assembly had been elected, it could have been given a month to see whether an executive could be formed. If it could not—that may well be the result—the Assembly should be charged with reviewing the Belfast agreement. The agreement provided for its own review. It stated that,

    "the two governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation".

Next December is the latest date for that review. Let it now be brought forward. To do it convincingly the parties must renew their mandates. The people should be invited to speak through the elections as planned.

For those reasons it will be difficult for these Benches to support the Bill that the Government will seek to rush through next week. As my honourable friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland said in another place last Thursday,

    "we shall wait and see the contents of the Bill, but I foresee no circumstances in which we would support it".—[Official Report, Commons, 1/5/03; col. 463.]

That said, at the very minimum the Bill must fix a firm and final date. The policy of manana cannot carry on. Northern Ireland elections must not be given the euro referendum treatment—some time now, some time never. First, I ask the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House to confirm that the Bill will contain a fixed and final date.

Secondly—I reiterate in part what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said—what financial compensation will the political parties be paid to reimburse the moneys already paid out in preparation for an expected May election? Thirdly, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that in future Her Majesty's Government will properly and fully consult with the parties in Westminster, with whom they share legislative responsibility at the moment for Northern Ireland, and not simply rule by diktat? Not only is that offensive but it is highly likely to be counter productive.

The Statement tonight says that the Government will continue discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland. I hope that they will extend the courtesy and

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discuss matters with the parties in Westminster. The longer the Assembly is suspended, the greater are the chances that it will not be restored.

11.10 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I take the feeling of disappointment. I do not disagree that this is a sad occasion, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said. All noble Lords who have an interest in Northern Ireland affairs will know that I wrote to them as soon as I knew of the timetable today, as I always try to write to everyone with an interest. I explained that the Statement would be late but that it was preferable to try to deliver it today. I pointed out, I think accurately, that I normally do my very best to get prime time.

Because the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State did not return by aeroplane until well into this evening, it simply was not possible to have the Statement earlier. I came to the conclusion with the Secretary of State that it was better to inform Parliament as fully as we could of this disappointing news rather than put it off until tomorrow. I think that that was the right judgment.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that the Government had got themselves into a mess. Nothing could be further from the truth. A particular section of political view, or paramilitary-connected view, in Northern Ireland has got itself into a mess, in my opinion. The question resolves itself to this: were the three questions that the Prime Minister put proper and legitimate questions to be put to Sinn Fein/IRA? If any noble Lord disagrees with the proposition that they were, I should be extremely surprised.

That having been a conclusion, were the answers to those three questions sufficient to justify embarking on elections? Two questions were reasonably fully answered, and one was not. The Prime Minister pressed again for an answer to that third question, and the answer was not sufficient. It was insufficient not simply for a Westminster government, but to safeguard the legitimate interests of our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister made his decision in full conjunction with the Secretary of State—they work very closely together, to my certain daily knowledge—and of course having consulted our colleagues in the Irish Republic's Government. He came to the conclusion that there was no prospect at all, if the elections took place, of an effective government being set up in Northern Ireland. I do not know of any commentator on Northern Ireland who would reasonably come to a different conclusion. That being so, the decision was plain. Do we have elections on the basis of delusion of the electorate that there is a sensible prospect of a workable executive, or do we not? The difficult decision was the one that was come to.

"Autumn" is a loose term. It is almost like "soon" or "shortly", and I cannot define it any better than that. I was asked by the noble Lords, Lord Smith and Lord Glentoran, whether I could say that this was positively the last postponement. After 600 years, however modest my reading of recent Irish history and

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politics, I do not think that anyone will invite me to say that. If they did, I would say, "No, not today, thank you".

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is quite right: the joint declaration is a sizeable document. Today is not the occasion to discuss it. It explains perfectly plainly the thinking of the two governments and the enormous opportunities available. The word tragedy is over-used but it will be a tragedy, after all this compromise, which is necessary, and all the achievement since 1998, if the opportunity is allowed to slip away. It would be grossly irresponsible, and I use those words with as much care as I can.

Will the Government negotiate from strength? I believe that the Government do not simply negotiate from their own strength, but from the strength of what has been achieved since 1998. There have not been Provisional IRA bombing attacks on security personnel or police officers. That is nothing to boast about in what we hope to be a democracy, but that was not the history before 1998 that we all know too well. We need to be cautious when we are disappointed and saddened that we do not overlook the very significant achievements that have been made. They are not enough, but they are of great significance.

It is suggested that the announcement was made by my former colleague, as Attorney-General, in the Irish Republic, Mr. Michael McDowell, now the Minister for Justice. Alarmingly, I did take the trouble to read his words. He was not making an announcement; he was stating what was possible as an outcome. He said that this is a potential outcome.

The noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, asked where the candidates stand, and developed the point further. There are people whose lives and livelihoods—both are important—depend on these decisions. Having attended substantial meetings in terms of length with the Secretary of State this morning, I can say that those decisions are being carefully looked at. It would be foolish to pretend to be able to come to those conclusions today. I can assure your Lordships that every care and consideration is being given to those matters—not simply in terms of those who are presently MLAs and who will be wanting to know where they stand. Not least, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, rightly said, people have expended substantial amounts of money on election campaigning, a matter that is foremost in the mind of the Secretary of State.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, is right. The happiest phrase in the English language is: "I told you so". He did say that he feared, with reluctance, a long suspension, and he is quite right. I was more optimistic than he. He was right and I was wrong—at that time.

There was no prospect of an executive being formed. I think I have dealt with that point. I cannot say yes or no to a fixed and final date.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, urged consultation. I think I can reasonably say that the previous Secretary of State, Dr Reid, and the present Secretary of State have been as careful as they possibly could be in keeping all your Lordships fully informed. In the letter

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that I sent out today I reminded your Lordships that there would be a Peers-only meeting tomorrow, which the Secretary of State is determined, other matters being equal, to honour as a commitment.

It has not been a matter of diktat. One cannot work in Northern Ireland in that way and one ought not to try to. We consult as fully as we can. This is a disappointment; it is not a terminal conclusion and we should not allow ourselves to be overcome with gloom—even at seventeen minutes past eleven.

11.17 p.m.

Lord Laird: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement. I thank him also for clearly putting the guilt for the dreadful situation that we are in at the steps of Sinn Fein-IRA. Rather than being here tonight, I had been looking forward with my colleagues to being on the hustings in Northern Ireland—an experience of which I have been deprived this spring, unlike other Members of this House, who have experienced elections over the past few weeks in other parts of the United Kingdom.

It is sad that this is where we have arrived today. It is sad that democracy has been turned on its head. I accept a great deal of the reasoning of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal concerning the activities of the IRA. There has been a breakdown in trust. We in the Unionist Party feel that very strongly.

The future for the island of Ireland is about trust and understanding. It is on that basis that the major tenets of the Belfast agreement were set up, including the north-south implementation bodies—the whole business of "north-southery". It is only on that basis of mutual trust and understanding that they can be successful. The two peoples on the island of Ireland must be involved in all decision-making processes before the process itself is finished. That was the cornerstone, the bedrock, on which the Belfast agreement was not just put together but was endorsed by the electorate in Northern Ireland.

Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal agree that if, for whatever reasons, no elections take place in the autumn, the whole area of north-south machinery may have to be looked at, and that it cannot continue if there is no Assembly and no Executive. The two items are very much interwoven. It is a case of the Belfast agreement or nothing.

Can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal give an undertaking that in all future decisions taken by both governments and the North-South Ministerial Council about the implementation bodies will be done through the fully correct and legal procedure? Will he also confirm that all decisions must include both administrations and unionists and nationalists?

On this sad day, there is not much I can say on behalf of my party except that we will look at the joint declaration very carefully—we have done so—and we will follow very closely developments in discussions in

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Dublin or elsewhere over the next few months. We will make our assessment of that and report back to this House.

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