HC Deb 05 July 1883 vol 281 cc446-61

Ordered, That the Electric Lighting Provisional Orders Bill, the Electric Lighting Provisional Orders (No. 4) Bill, and the Electric Lighting Provisional Orders (No. 5) Bill, be committed to a Select Committee to consist of Seven Members, Four to be nominated by the House, and Three to be added by the Committee of Selection.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, subject to the Rules, Orders, and Practice of the House, all Petitions against the Bills, or Orders, be referred to the Select Committee on the Bills, and that such of the Petitioners as pray to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, or Agents, be heard upon their Petition, if they think fit, and Counsel heard in favour of the Bills, against such Petitions."—(Mr. Chamber-lain.)


said, this Motion had only appeared upon the Paper that day; and, therefore, not knowing that it was to be proposed, it had been impossible for him to place on the Paper the Amendment which he was about to move. When the Bill was read a second time yesterday he asked his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. J. Holms) what the intentions of the Board of Trade were in regard to it; and his hon. Friend informed him that it was intended to refer the Bill to a Hybrid Committee, in order that the Petitions against it might be considered, and that the Petitioners might appear before the Committee. With that reply he was perfectly satisfied; but it appeared now, from the unusual words which had been inserted in the Resolution, that the power of the Petitioners to appear before the Committee would be very limited. He feared, although it did not appear to be quite certain, that the words "subject to the Rules, Orders, and Practice of the House," might and would exclude Petitioners in general from being heard before the Committee. Now, he thought that would be an extreme act of injustice. They were, in fact, only upon the threshold of this great question of Electric Lighting; and he might say that the question as it affected the carrying out of Electric Lighting in a practical way had not yet been fully considered and thrashed out by any Committee of that House. He had said that the words were unusual. He had with him a good many cases—almost, he believed, precisely parallel to this—in which the Reference was that all Petitions that might be presented during the Session relating to the matter should be referred to the Committee, and— That such, of the Petitioners as pray to he heard by themselves, their Counsel, or Agents shall be heard, He quoted that passage from a very important case—that of "The East London Water Bill" in 1867. He had other cases at hand; but he would not weary the House by referring to them. There were, however, precedents, going down to the 2nd May last, in which similar References had been made without the insertion of these words "subject to the Rules, Orders, and Practice of the House." He thought it was in the interests of the public that this question should be thoroughly thrashed out; and he feared that if the Reference to the Committee was in the form in which it now stood, full consideration would not be devoted to it before a Committee. He thought it would only be a simple act of justice to the inhabitants of a parish that if the lighting of that parish was going, by a Provisional Order, to be practically assigned to a particular Company for 21 years, the inhabitants of the parish should have the right to be heard, in order to see whether any better bargain could be made in reference to the lighting of the district. It appeared to him that they were proceeding much too fast in this matter. It was entirely a new question, and yet throughout the whole of England the local authorities appeared to be pledging themselves, and pledging the inhabitants of their district, to the adoption of particular schemes, without being informed that better and cheaper schemes might hereafter be practicable. At any rate, they had a case here, in which two very large districts, possessing an enormous population, were concerned—namely, the districts of St. James and of the Strand, and the inhabitants of those districts desired to be heard before this Hybrid Committee. He had understood that a Hybrid Committee was to be appointed specially in order that the inhabitants interested might be heard. He had certainly gathered from his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade that that was the intention of the Government; but the words which had been introduced into the Resolution would, he feared, prevent the inhabitants of the districts affected from being heard. The case would be brought under the Standing Orders, and under the Standing Orders it would not be possible for the inhabitants to be heard. Therefore, on the broad ground of justice to the inhabitants, he hoped that his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade would be inclined to assent to the omission of these words, in order that the whole case might be fully heard by the Committee. He was informed that a most substantial Company was quite ready to contract for the lighting of this district at a rate 40 per cent less than the rate proposed by the Company to whom the district would be assigned by the Bill now before the House. If that were so, surely it would be an act of the grossest injustice to the inhabitants that they should not be heard before the Committee, but that they should be forced into an agreement with a Company which, for the next 21 years, would tax them 40 per cent higher than they could get the same thing done for elsewhere. By the terms of the Act of last year the Board of Trade were authorized to submit to Parliament, for confirmation, any Provisional Order granted in pursuance of the Act, but no such Order was to be of any force unless it was confirmed by Act of Parliament; and while a Bill to confirm such Order was pending in either House of Parliament, any Petition presented against any Order comprised in the Bill might be referred to a Select Committee, and the Petitioners would be allowed to appear and depose as in the case of a Private Bill. Now, it seemed to him that the very object of that clause was to secure that the question should be submitted to the distinct judgment of Parliament, and the matter was before the House now in that position; but if it were impossible to submit the Bill to the judgment of the Committee in the ordinary way, and if the Petitioners most interested in the question were shut out from being heard, then it appeared to him that a great injustice would be done. He might add that he was not pecunarily interested in the matter in any shape or form; but he simply brought it forward because he believed that it was a great public question, which ought not to be hurried through, but which ought to be carefully and fully considered before a Committee of the House of Commons. He begged to move the omission of the words "subject to the Rules, Orders, and Practice of the House."

Amendment proposed, to leave out the words "subject to the Rules, Orders, and Practice of the House."—(Sir Henry Hussey Vivian.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, there could be no doubt that the subject which his hon. Friend had brought before the House was one of considerable importance. He was not present in the House on the occasion on which the Bill passed a second reading; but he understood that on that occasion his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade stated distinctly that any question as to the Committee before whom the Bill should go was one for the consideration of the House itself. His hon. Friend gathered that the sentiment of the House was in favour of a Hybrid Committee, and, accordingly, he (Mr. Chamberlain) had put down a Notice referring these Bills to a Hybrid Committee. He understood the object of substituting a Hybrid Committee for an ordinary Committee was that they might have a rather larger Committee, and a Committee selected, perhaps, with a little more consideration. But he did not understand that the House desired that this substitution should have any effect at all upon the locus standi of the Petitioners. His hon. Friend the Member for Glamorganshire (Sir Hussey Vivian) had referred to the clause in the Electric Lighting Act of last Session which applied to all cases of Provisional Orders approved by the Department, and which required the Board of Trade to submit such Provisional Orders to Parliament, and, in case of opposition, provided that they should be referred to a Select Committee. But, of course, the Bills themselves were subject to the Standing Orders of the House, and no one had a right to appear before the Committee contrary to the usual regulations. If the Motion which had been put upon the Paper were carried in its present form, no doubt the effect would be the same in regard to the question of locus standi; and he thought his hon. Friend was right in saying that, in the case of the particular Bill now before the House, two of the parties now opposing would not be allowed to be heard. He would ask the House to consider two things. In the first place, was it desirable to throw these Provisional Orders open to opposition more than was the practice of the House? What had happened in this particular case? The question of electric lighting, being a new subject, had been referred to a Select Committee presided over by the hon. Member for Mid Lincolnshire (Mr. E. Stanhope). That Committee had many sittings; it heard all the parties; it paid careful attention to the whole subject; and it laid down in a Bill, which afterwards passed through Parliament, the conditions and principles on which Pro- visional Orders should be granted by the Board of Trade. The parties who went to the Board of Trade under the provisions of that Act had all been carefully heard, and in a great number of cases the promoters had been opposed by the local authorities. But certain concessions had been made, and the local authorities and all the other parties had become satisfied, and, as far as this kind of opposition was concerned, this was now really an unopposed Bill. Then he would appeal to the House whether, under these circumstances, on any occasion when there was opposition by any competitor, a Provisional Order was to be sent to a Hybrid Committee, and all the world was to be heard in opposition? If that were done, the object the Legislature had in cheapening legislation and in relieving the House from an annoyance and a serious burden would be entirely frustrated, and such a course, if adopted generally, would be fatal to the general Provisional Order system. He did not think that any part of the proceedings of the House in regard to Private Bills gave greater satisfaction than these Provisional Orders, and he wished the House to consider what the particular case was in which they were asked to make an exception. In this case the Edison Company had applied for an Order to light this district. They were opposed by the local authorities; and here let him say, in passing, that the Electric Lighting Act, in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee, decided that the Vestry should be the local authority in the matter, and not the Metropolitan Board of Works, Now, in the district of St. James' the local authorities were heard, and after a prolonged controversy the Board of Trade were able to bring all the parties together; whereupon the Vestry assented to a Provisional Order, and the opposition was withdrawn. Another Company now came forward, and said, "We should like to have this district." In answer to the inquiry—"Why did you not appear at the same time as the Edison Company, and ask for an Order?" They said—"We were not at that time prepared; but since then we have got our apparatus ready, and we are not only ready to light the district, but prepared to offer a maximum price 40 per cent below the maximum price offered by the Edison Company." Now, in the first place, that was entirely an ex parte statement. The House would like to know a great deal more than they knew now before they would be ready to assume either that the Telegraph Construction Company could supply electricity at a rate 40 per cent below that of the Edison Company, or that they had any satisfactory method of providing electricity at all. If they were to admit the claim of this Company, as finding out something new, to come and oppose a Provisional Order already drafted, as soon as the Board of Trade had decided that the Telegraph Construction Company should have the same privileges as the Edison Company, what was to prevent another Company coming forward and asking to go into the whole matter again on the ground that they would be able to do it 5 per cent cheaper than the Telegraph Construction Company? And so it might go on, and they would have one speculative Company after another coming forward to represent their case. He did not pretend to say that the promoters, in this instance, were speculators; but as long as there were speculative Companies, Parliament would have offers to do the thing cheaper. If it could be shown that this ex parte statement was absolutely correct, and that the Company were prepared to insert in their Bill a maximum of 40 per cent lower than that inserted in the present Bill, it would not necessarily be of the slightest advantage to the inhabitants of the district. The price charged would probably be much lower than the maximum allowed, because the Board of Trade considered it necessary, in dealing with a new subject, to allow a considerable margin. They had accordingly allowed a margin in all these Provisional Orders which they had reason to believe would be considerably above the actual price. It did not at all follow that, because the maximum price was higher than the Telegraph Construction Company were willing to do the work for, the Edison Company would not be able to supply electricity at a price 40 or 50 per cent below the maximum. The same thing occurred in regard to Gas Companies. There was not a single Gas Company in the Metropolis which did not supply gas for a sum considerably below the maximum price inserted in their Act to cover all contingencies. There was another important consideration he wished to sub- mit to the House. His hon. Friend the Member for Glamorganshire (Sir Hussey Vivian) argued the matter on the assumption that if the Bill were passed into law there would be practically a monopoly given to the Edison Company for the supply of the district for 21 years, and that if in any year afterwards a better system was discovered, either by the Telegraph Company or by anybody else, these unfortunate inhabitants would be prevented from availing themselves of it, and would thus be damnified by the passing of this Order. Now, that was not the case. It was not intended to give a monopoly to anyone. All that was given was an Order to the promoters of the Bill to take up the streets and lay down their wires. The Company were distinctly informed that this was not a monopoly conceded to them. There was nothing to prevent the Board of Trade to-morrow from granting a similar right to another Company; and though, of course, the Board of Trade would do nothing of the sort as long as the Edison Company fulfilled their obligations, yet, if they failed to fulfil their obligations, or some further discovery showed that their system was inadequate and that the district could be better lighted, then their monopoly would cease, and the Board of Trade would grant another Provisional Order. Therefore, if the Telegraph Company had any locus standi before a Select Committee—if they could show, not that they were willing to accept a less maximum than the maximum fixed in the Bill, but that they were able to sell cheaper than the other Company was selling for, then there would be nothing to prevent them from going to the Board of Trade next year, or next month, if they liked, and asking for a competing Order, and, if their allegation turned out to be true, no doubt the Board of Trade would grant it. He gathered, from what his hon. Friend had said, that the object of his claim was chiefly to obtain a hearing for the inhabitants, and not for the Telegraph Company. But the inhabitants of a district were represented by a local representative authority, and he thought it was the invariable practice to refuse a locus standi to the inhabitants as individuals, unless they had separate and individual interests. That seemed to him to be a perfectly reasonable course. In this case, the Vestry of St. James' had been a party to all the proceedings, and had assented to them, and it was not for individual inhabitants to come forward now, and ask that the whole matter should be gone into again. Such a course would enormously increase the expense to the Company in getting their Order, and also to the Vestry, which would probably be called upon to appear again, and defend the decision they had come to. Upon these grounds he should oppose the Amendment.


said, the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, at all events, made one thing clear which the Resolution left in doubt. The right hon. Gentleman did deliberately intend, by the form of the Motion he had placed before the House, to exclude from the consideration of the Committee the case of any Petitioners, whether they were inhabitants or rival Companies. Before he went further he wished to dispose of one argument used by the right hon. Gentleman, which, perhaps, might have some weight with the House. The right hon. Gentleman said that by granting this Provisional Order they did not create a monopoly for 21 years, because it would always be in the power of the Board of Trade to grant a second Order to some other Company. That, no doubt, was true; but he did not believe that any responsible Minister of the Board of Trade would venture to give such power to another Company, unless some tremendous revolution in electric lighting could be effected thereby. Unless something of that kind could be brought about the Board of Trade would be very chary in giving the right to another Company to pull up the streets. It would only be to a Company who had at their command some perfectly novel method of lighting that such a liberty would be conceded. Unless, therefore, some such revolution took place there would be a practical monopoly given to the Company in whose favour the Provisional Order was drawn. The right hon. Gentleman said that the statement of the Telegraph Construction Company was an ex parte one. Undoubtedly it was an ex parte statement; and it was because it was an ex parte statement, and therefore impossible to know the value to be attached to it, that he wanted the statement to be thoroughly sifted, and that could only be done before a Select Committee. The Board of Trade said that the local authorities in the parish of St. James' had assented to a Provisional Order, and the inhabitants of the parish were accordingly bound by the Provisional Order which had received the sanction of the local authorities. But it must be borne in mind that the Vestry of St. James' could not have had the whole of the case before them when they arrived at their decision. The Vestry of St. James' were not acquainted with the position of the competing Company, nor would they be aware, when they gave their assent to the Provisional Order, that they were restrained by that fact from considering the proposals of any other Company. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade said the Edison Company would very probably not charge their maximum rate, but would be restrained from charging the maximum by the competition of other Companies. There was, however, no evidence that such would be the case, and there was certainly no evidence that when the work was constructed the Company would by any means do the work at a price so much less than their maximum as 40 per cent. He understood that the other Company offered to provide the same thing for a maximum 40 per cent lower than the Edison Company. Of course, that offer might be wholly illusory; but let the inhabitants of St. James' know if it was so or not, and let them have a proper examination and inquiry into the matter before the Committee. He thought the President of the Board of Trade would commit a great mistake if he tried to draw too rigid a line in this matter of electric lighting. As had been pointed out by his hon. Friend (Sir Hussey Vivian), electric lighting was still in its infancy; and that was not the only peculiarity in the system of electric lighting. When they had one Gas Company competing with another Gas Company they knew that each produced its gas by precisely the same means, and so with Water Companies. They knew that the methods by which Water Companies introduced water into the Metropolis were practically the same; but that was not the case with electric lighting. There they had not only a Company which differed in their personnel, but which essentially differed in their means of producing light, and that ought to make the right hon. Gentleman careful before he gave preference to one method over another. There would be considerable danger, and great harm might be done, if any suspicion were to attach that a preference was given to one Electric Lighting Company over another. It appeared to him to be a monstrous injustice, and a very evil precedent from every point of view, that the Government should, by introducing words for which there was no precedent, try to exclude the people who were only concerned to have their lighting done as cheaply as possible. Before he sat down he would like to ask the President of the Local Government Board, or some other Member of the Government, how it came about that the Government had departed from the precedent which had been set in some very important instances? There was the case of the East London Water Bill, which had been referred to; and he had here the Thames River (Prevention of Floods) Bill, and the Epping Forest Bill, and in all those measures elaborate pains had been taken not to bring the people concerned under the iron rule of the Standing Orders of the House—there had always been care taken throughout that anybody who was genuinely and banâ fide interested in the Bill should have a chance of being heard. All he now asked for was that, in this peculiar and delicate case, the precedent should be followed which had been set by the Government in other cases.


said, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would accept the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for Glamorganshire, for he could assure the House that the Vestries of London looked with very considerable alarm upon the prospect of being bound for 21 years, when they might afterwards find that they could make better arrangements for themselves. They looked with great anxiety upon this question, and they wished to have more latitude than it was the intention of the Government to give them. The right hon. Gentleman had stated that the whole thing was in its infancy, and he (Sir Alexander Gordon) hoped that he would accept the Amendment.


said, he thought the House was very much indebted to the hon. Baronet the Member for Glamorganshire (Sir Hussey Vivian) for giving them this opportunity of discussing the matter. He (Mr. Raikes) did not go quite so far as the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. A. J. Balfour), who had said there was no precedent for the course taken by the President of the Board of Trade.


I meant that there were precedents on the other side.


said, that no doubt there were precedents in favour of the course recommended by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and there were others on the other side. There was one which he would call attention to as a cognate case; it occurred in the year 1879. In that year there were a great number of these Electric Lighting Bills. They were not in those days Provisional Order Bills, but Private Bills to light by electricity, and a Committee was first appointed in that year to consider this question. As he (Mr. Raikes) was concerned in the appointment of that Committee, he would like to quote the terms of the Order of Reference. The House decided that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider whether it was desirable to authorize Municipal Corporations or other local authorities to adopt any schemes for lighting by electricity, and to consider how far and under what conditions, if at all, Gas and other Public Companies should be authorized to supply light by electricity. The policy then present to the mind of the House was that monopolies should, if possible, be discouraged in dealing with the electric light; and the object of the Committee, which was presided over by the right hon. Member for the University of Edinburgh (Sir Lyon Playfair), and which presented a most interesting Report, was to consider how far it might be found practicable for public bodies to take advantage of those schemes as a means of serving the public without the creation of monopolies. He (Mr. Raikes) might say that he was very much impressed, by circumstances which were continually coming to his knowledge at that time, as to the enormous prices which were obtained by Gas and other Companies from municipal bodies when at last it became necessary to purchase them; and he was, above all things, desirous to protect the public against any such monopolies. In the year that these Electric Lighting Bills were brought into this House the Liver- pool Lighting Bill was, he thought, the only one that obtained the Royal Assent; and, in that case, it being the first Electric Lighting Bill promoted by a municipality and public body, and being of a very limited and experimental character, the House decided to refer it to a Hybrid Committee, and so framed the Reference as to admit all Petitioners to appear before that Committee. That was a case in point which might have been overlooked at the Board of Trade, and in that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board might find some justification for accepting this Amendment. Going on a year or two further, it would be found that last year the General Electric Lighting Bill was passed which contained two important and governing clauses. The first was what was called the Licence Clause, which enabled the Board of Trade, with the consent of the local authority, to grant a licence; and the next clause—Clause 4—provided that the Board of Trade might, without the consent of the local authority, frame a Provisional Order to pass through this House. If hon Members would glance at those two clauses, which must be read together, they would see that it was intended to give the greatest possible opportunity for challenging in this House any scheme to which it might be supposed there was local opposition. There was another consideration which he would like to point out. Until very recent times these Provisional Orders had to pass through Committee of the Whole House, and it would have been open to the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. A. Balfour), or to the hon. Baronet the Member for Glamorganshire (Sir Hussey Vivian), to come forward with Amendments in this House dealing with these particular questions, or they might have had that particular section of the Bill referred to a Committee upstairs, who would have considered the point as to terms on which the work should be done. Taking all these various considerations together, he thought they ought to pause, and not pass this Resolution as it stood, when so very strong a case had been made out for its being altered, especially where the interests involved were so large—for the district of London which was affected by the schemes now before the House contained the wealthiest and most important part of the Metropolis. If they wanted to have a test case, in which it would be possible that every consideration should be examined and every right carefully considered, they could not have a better case than this one. He was sorry to detain the House so long, and he would say as little in addition as he possibly could; but he must say that he thought a very grave responsibility would rest upon those who counselled the House upon this occasion to oppose the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for Glamorganshire. The local Vestry, as they had been rightly told by the President of the Board of Trade, would, by giving its assent to the measure, exclude all other Petitioners except the Telegraph Construction Company; but he should be rather inclined to doubt how far that Company was in a position to establish a locus standi before the Hybrid Committee. It was quite possible they might have their Hybrid Committee; but to do what? To do nothing. They would appoint a Hybrid Committee for the purpose of settling the question and taking evidence; but when they set to their work it might be found that the Petitioners could not come before them. He did not know what the Metropolitan Board of Works might do in this matter, or what their locus standi or attitude might be; but, if they did not come forward, there would be absolutely no opportunity of putting any counter case before the Committee. If some Amendment were not made it would be far better to abandon the Motion for a Hybrid Committee altogether; and he would rather send the Bill to the Chairman of Ways and Means in his own private room, and let him discuss the matter there, instead of having this very delusive inquiry by a Committee without the means of arriving at an opinion, although by its constitution it was supposed to be specially qualified to deal with the matter.


said, he was one of those who were very much in favour of local government; and when the representatives of the people had their own local government, he thought it was not for the House of Commons to perform that duty. This case was a very peculiar one, not only on account of the nature of the light, but on account of the circumstances under which the Electric Lighting Bill passed this House, not one Member out of 100 understanding its effect when it was rushed though the House at the very end of the Session. They were told that the Electric Companies were extremely moderate in consenting to take a monopoly of only 21 years; but they did not then understand their view of the case, which was that the Companies were entitled to throw broadcast all over the country thousands of notices, and to say to every Municipality—"Stand and deliver! Either you must introduce electric lighting yourselves, or you must allow somebody else to get the privilege; you must not hesitate or wait to see what may happen." The result was that a very large amount of pressure was put upon the local bodies. There were a large number of the municipal bodies who had expressed the opinion that they would rather wait and not be in too great a hurry; but the Board of Trade acted upon their own views of the Act, and wherever they had a permissive power given to them, they used it in a way which amounted, to a certain extent, to compulsion to pass Provisional Orders. They seemed to have determined that the local authorities must either introduce the electric light themselves or allow these speculative Companies to throw hundreds of notices broadcast before them, and to exclude anyone else from doing the work. They had heard the views expressed by the experienced Chairman of Committees under the late Government—he said it was most undesirable that this responsibility should be thrown on the Chairman of Committees; and yesterday they had heard the present Chairman of Committees express views that were almost identical. He gathered that the present Chairman was unwilling to take the whole responsibility on these new and important questions, and might well desire that these Bills should not be referred to him alone, but to a competent Committee, who could deal with the whole subject, and deal with it thoroughly. It seemed to him (Sir George Campbell), therefore, that the Amendment was a reasonable one, and, as it was supported by the ex-Chairman of Committees and not opposed by the Chairman, he should vote for it.


said, he would appeal to the President of the Board of Trade to assent to the Amendment, as he was convinced that both time and expense to all the parties would be saved by it. He did not wish to express any opinion as to the relative merits of the proposals of the Electric Companies; but it was certain that this would virtually be a monopoly for 21 years. The President of the Board of Trade had said it was by no means certain that the Company obtaining these powers would charge the maximum rates; but it came at an unfortunate period, so far as the Metropolis was concerned, for the Water Companies, who, it was said, would not exercise their powers to the full, were now exercising them, and raising the rates to a very large extent throughout the district. It was very desirable that they should have an impartial tribunal to make the inquiry as to the best arrangement for the whole of the Metropolis. If that inquiry was refused, or obstacles placed in the way, he ventured to think that opposition would have to be revived at a future stage, and difficulties might be incurred which it would not be in the power of the Government to obviate.


said, he thought they were setting rather a dangerous precedent; but he had no alternative under the circumstances, and would accept the Amendment.


said, he thought the Government were making a great mistake in giving way on the point.

Question put, and negatived.

Main Question, as amended, put. Ordered, That all Petitions against the Bills, or Orders, he referred to the Select Committee on the Bills, and that such of the Petitioners as pray to he heard by themselves, their Counsel, or Agents, be heard upon their Petition, if they think fit, and Counsel heard in favour of the Bills, against such Petitions. Ordered, That Three he the quorum of the Committee. Ordered, That the Report and Minutes of Evidence of the Select Committee on "The Electric Lighting Bill, 1882," he referred to the Committee.

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