HC Deb 21 February 1968 vol 759 cc437-52

(1) The Minister may by regulations—

  1. (a) provide that the functions under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 of agricultural wages committees established in pursuance of that Act shall include such further functions as the Minister considers appropriate for the purpose of enabling or requiring those committees to give effect to orders made or which may be made by the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales under that Act and (without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions in this paragraph) to determine whether any person is a member of any special class of workers as defined in such an order;
  2. (b) make provision with respect to the procedure to be followed in connection with the exercise of the further functions aforesaid and provide that section 15 of that Act (which relates to evidence of resolutions and orders) shall apply with such modifications as the Minister considers appropriate to decisions made in the exercise of those functions.

(2) In this section "functions" means powers and duties.

(3) In the application of this section to Scotland, for any reference to the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 and the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales there shall be substituted 7espectively a reference to the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949 and the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board.—[Mr. Peart.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.42 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Clause would extend the powers and duties of agricultural wages committees. This is necessary because the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales has just reached agreement in principle on proposals for a statutory wages structure under which, in addition to a basic minimum wage as at present, higher minimum rates of pay would be prescribed for workers possessing particular skills or occupying positions of special responsibility.

It is proposed that the qualifications required for the premium grades should be laid down in the Board's orders, together with a provision that, in certain marginal cases, a worker's entitlement to a particular grade would be decided by the agricultural wages committee for the county in which he is employed.

This would, however, necessitate a small amendment to the Agricultural Wages Act, as at the moment committees have no power to take on additional duties of this kind. The Board accordingly asked for suitable provision to be made in the present Bill to enable me to confer upon the wages committees such additional powers and duties as may be necessary. The request, I am pleased to say, is supported by the farmers' and workers' unions.

As regards the Clause itself, it will be seen that we propose to apply it to Scotland, which has its own Wages Board and district committees set up under the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act, 1949. I shall leave it to my hon. Friend who is to reply to deal with that. There is one other point. As the House knows, the Boards are autonomous bodies; they make their own orders fixing minimum rates of wages and so forth, and Ministers have no power to intervene in the exercise of their functions. Their position under this Clause is unchanged. The Clause enables the rather limited functions of the wages committees to be extended by the Minister but it does not in any way detract from the powers and duties of the Boards. New functions given to the committees by the Minister will have no practical effect unless they are brought into play by an appropriately worded order of the Board itself.

I cannot say when the proposals for a wages structure will be worked out, and it may be a considerable time before they are implemented by order of the Board. It could, however, be longer still before there is another opportunity for amending the Act, as the Board has requested, and this is why we have decided to insert a Clause in this Bill.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)

We are grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the Clause, though, perhaps, it might have helped us more if the Clause had appeared in the Bill originally. However, we understand that there may be reasons why it has been possible only recently to bring it forward. We on this side welcome at least the intention behind the Clause. It is a step forward in a process which has been evolved over a considerable time. Over the years, there has been a lot of thought and, sometimes, a certain amount of controversy regarding a wages structure for the industry, but I believe that it is a logical step forward, and for that reason we welcome this proposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) will deal with the provision regarding Scotland, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. This is, we believe, one of the rare occasions when, perhaps, Scotland is a little ahead of England and Wales. We readily acknowledge that.

As regards the generality of matters raised by the Clause, the Minister will agree that its introduction at this time has a certain appositeness. The whole question of training and education in agriculture has come very much to the fore, as he knows. The right hon. Gentleman has not been so closely concerned, perhaps, because these matters have come under the Ministry of Labour, but he will know very well that, to put it no more strongly, there has been considerable perturbation about the Agricultural Training Board.

There is something of a duality here. The Agricultural Wages Board is dealing with a wages structure, and the whole question of training must be involved in it. Other industries have wages coun- cils, as they are mostly called, and these come under the Ministry of Labour. Agriculture has its own arrangements which come under its own Minister. Nevertheless, the point has been made on previous occasions in the House that there may well be a case for the Agricultural Training Board to come under the Minister of Agriculture. I am not suggesting that it would be possible to do this under the present new Clause, but there is that close relationship.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That matter cannot be discussed on this Clause.

Mr. Godber

May I submit the point to you, Mr. Speaker? We are dealing here with the question of a wages structure, and the Agricultural Wages Board must be concerned with the training which enables people to fit into a particular part of the structure. I do not wish to develop the point, but I submit that it would be wrong for us to deal with the present question completely in isolation, when there is a clear link between what is provided under the training scheme and the categories to be provided for under the Clause. I put it to the Minister that, at some stage, the Government of the day ought to look at the relationship here just as they do in relation to other industries, bringing the two sides of the business under the umbrella of one Minister. There is reason to consider whether things may not go at cross-purposes under the set-up which we now have. I take the matter no further now.

The development of a general wages structure within the industry will help to provide what we all want to see in the long run, namely, a proper recognition of skill in the industry and proper rewards for the skill which is undoubtedly there. This is what we all wish to achieve. If the new Clause will help to that end, we on this side give it a warm welcome.

Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

May I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is to reply, to clarify one or two points? I think that I was probably right to assume that the Clause would have slightly more relevance to England and Wales than to Scotland, but a phrase in line 8 has caught my eye. It is: …any person who is a member of any special class of worker… I do not know if that is the kernel of the proposal. My understanding is that in England and Wales there is no classification of workers under the Wages Acts for wage awards, although it exists in Scotland. I do not have a wage schedule with me, but my recollection is that male workers are grouped as ordinary farm workers—or what are called in Scotland orramen, of whom there are very few nowadays—grieves, tractormen and shepherds, each of whom has a minimum wage rate, probably varying between each wage district.

If that is so, and if power is being given for England and Wales to come into line with us, could the hon. Gentleman tell us what application the Clause will have to Scotland? There is a reference in subsection (3) to its application in Scotland, and it would seem that that was not put in for no purpose. What will be the effect on the agricultural wages system in Scotland?

Mr. Bert Hazell (Norfolk, North)

As a member of the Agricultural Wages Board for over 20 years, I welcome the Clause. As my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) said, the Board has for a very long time had some form of wages structure for agriculture under consideration. The matter has not been easy. I have taken part in discussions on the Board for more than 20 years, off and on, but it is only within the past 18 months or so that it has really got down to detailed consideration of how a wages structure could work for an industry so involved as British agriculture. It is true, as my right hon. Friend said, that the Board has not yet finalised its plans or arrived at details of a wages structure. But it is confidently expected that by the end of this year a detailed plan will be submitted. Then it will be a question of how to operate the plan.

When making its unanimous decision to ask my right hon. Friend to introduce a Clause on the lines of that which we are considering, the Board had in mind that undoubtedly about 90 per cent. of the workers employed in agriculture will automatically fall into the scheme of a wages structure, but that there will be 10 or 12 per cent. about whom there will be problems of whether they have the necessary skill and knowledge to be classified for the plus rate that the various scales will permit. It is unanimously suggested that the better people to sort out the problems of that minority are the members of the local wages committees, who have local knowledge of the men and employers concerned. But the Board understood that at present it does not have the power to delegate that responsibility to the committees, and that is why it sought the support of the Minister and the introduction of the Clause.

In its early stages, the operation of a wages structure will create some difficulties, but in view of the importance of attracting men on to the land and of men recognising that the industry has a career and opportunities to offer, it is essential that something more than the basic minimum wages should be legally operative, and that there should be fair recognition of skill and responsibility in the pay packet. That is the practical way in which recognition of skills and responsibilities is appreciated by workers.

It is well known that many good farmers unofficially pay premiums, bonuses, plus rates or some other form of additional payments above the basic minimum rates. But the Board long ago came to the conclusion that it was unfair that good employers should recognise their responsibilities in that way when perhaps some others did not recognise their obligations to reward the skill of their workers financially. That is what impelled the Board to get down to practical details of working out a wage structure. The Clause will enable the local wages committees to iron out difficulties between employers and employed in the minority of cases that are not capable of automatically being fitted into a wages structure.

Therefore, on behalf of the Board and my own union, I welcome the Clause and the reception it has received from both sides of the House.

Sir Frank Pearson (Clitheroe)

I welcome the new Clause and entirely agree with the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) that it is very important.

We sometimes fail to realise how agriculture may well find itself extremely short of skilled men, especially skilled stockmen, in the years ahead. In the big arable farms of East Anglia and Yorkshire, where there are fairly regular hours and where, during a great part of the year, not very much may be happening on the farm, it may be easy to get men. But my mind dwells much more on the stock-raising areas, where conditions are often not as good or comfortable as they are in the East, and where, particularly when one is handling stock, the men invariably work seven days a week and not five days a week. I know men who have had to milk cattle twice a day, day in and day out, all through the week, for years on end. The Clause will allow us to categorise the skills of agricultural labour and to fit in a wages structure suitable to those skills. It is only by doing that, and doing it generously, particularly for skilled stockmen, that we shall obtain the men that the industry must attract.

What amazes me beyond all measure is that such an important matter as this should have been introduced into the Bill practically at the tail end of our proceedings. This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. It has happened throughout the Bill, and the only conclusion I can draw is that when the Minister worked out what he wished to include in the Bill he did his job in a somewhat cavalier manner. One or two Clauses which we shall debate later today should never have been introduced at a late stage. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of why an important matter like this is introduced at the tail end of our proceedings. What conditions have suddenly arisen to justify this? What conditions are coming today that were not coming last November?

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman must surely have heard what I said at the beginning. I had to take action at this stage because of the recent decision of the Board.

Sir Frank Pearson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for explaining it. But I cannot help feeling that, the whole question of skills and wages having been under consideration for a very long time, the right hon. Gentleman should have been aware that this matter was coming up. However, I am grateful for and accept his explanation and I welcome the Clause.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I understand that the provisions of the Bill as it affects the Scottish agricultural workers will be more fully explained by my right hon. Friend in replying to this debate. Because wages in Scotland are being linked with those in England, I understand that the Bill will help raise the standard of life at least a little for the Scottish agricultural workers, and I am grateful for that.

I am rather surprised that the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) attacked my right hon. Friend for being rather late in this respect. When did we get any Measure of this kind from the Conservative Government? It is entirely new to me that hon. Members opposite are concerned about the wages of agricultural labourers. When it comes to rents for landlords, they are always enthusiastic. Now they have decided at this late stage, after having enjoyed political power for so long, to accuse the present Government of being late.

I rejoice in this new Clause and hope that it will result in raising the standard of living of agricultural workers throughout the country.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I, too, welcome the Clause, but I disagree strongly with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). Some of us have been interested in wages for a long time and practise what we preach.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

That is interesting.

Mr. Mills

I have always believed in a wage structure and have always put it into operation on my farm. Many farmers do it because they want to reward their men for the skills they have—and they are genuine skills. The other side of the coin is that, if one did not introduce a wage structure, one would not get workers. I welcome the new Clause. It is right that, in 1968, men should be paid for the undoubted skill they have.

However, I must criticise the Minister in that we should have had far more time to discuss it. There are many points one would like to go into—for example, whether the N.F.U. and the National Union of Agricultural Workers have been fully consulted. There is also the problem of the small farmer with one man. This will create problems which must be overcome and we should have had a chance to discuss them.

How do we define skills? How do we put a man into a category when he may be a cowman in the morning and a tractor driver during the day? How does one define the skilled worker? The Clause gives hope of a proper farm ladder for the farm worker which he can move up as he gains these various skills and can enjoy the very high standard of living which is true of the top people in the dairy industry at the moment. My cow man earns over £22 a week. He is a skilled man and is enjoying the advantages of that skill. That is only right and proper. Of course other men should have these advantages as well and that is why I welcome the new Clause.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

I also welcome the Clause. It is important to keeping men on the land. I agree that it is a pity that we could not have had this provision before us in Standing Committee, when we could have had a good discussion of it. I think that the Minister feels that himself and he should have brought it forward in Committee.

I also disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) about his aspersions upon East Anglian farmers and farm workers. It is not only stockmen who have to work long hours. People lifting sugar beet and loading it—

Sir Frank Pearson

I apologise to my hon. Friend. It was never my intention to cast any aspersion on East Anglian agricultural workers. I merely wished to point out that the conditions in the wetter, colder grass areas of the west side of the country entail very long hours which will never be found, possibly, on the arable farms on the East side of the country.

Mr. Hawkins

I invite my hon. Friend to come to Norfolk in November to lift sugar beet. He will see how the wind can blow.

I must also cross swords with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). I raised the matter of agricul- tural wages 15 years ago. I have been fighting for higher wages for agricultural workers all that time. I mentioned them in my maiden speech and initiated an Adjournment debate on the matter.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

What success did the hon. Gentleman have in those 15 years?

Mr. Hawkins

As much, apparently, as the hon. Gentleman. It is a great concern to anyone interested in agriculture that agricultural workers earn £5 a week less and work five hours a week longer on average than manual workers in industry. So I welcome anything which will give the agricultural worker a status and enable him to qualify for better skills. I welcome the Clause, late though it is.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I, too, welcome the Clause, but perhaps with more caution than some of my hon. Friends. In the Midlands we have had to provide an adequate wage structure for our farm employees for years. Industrial employment in the Midlands is at a very high level, with the unemployment rate at about or just under 1 per cent. per annum on average. The result has been tremendous competition for skilled and sensible agricultural labour, and unless one pays one's men not what the Wages Board lays down but considerably more, and one's skilled stock men considerably more still, one has not a chance in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire or Nottinghamshire of keeping men on the land.

In the Midlands, therefore, in some respects we are ahead of the Board, and I welcome the Clause. But my welcome is somewhat cautious in so far as I can see considerable difficulty in laying down exactly what the remuneration should be or, for example, a stockman. He has many ancillary duties. Will the rate be based on the number of animals in his charge? This will have to be worked out with great care so that the industry does not get too bogged down in red tape and difficulty.

I give a cautious welcome to the Clause. I was not lucky enough to be a member of the Standing Committee, and I feel that the right hon. Gentleman has acted a little unfairly in bringing this before the House at such a late stage.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I cannot help feeling that the traditional party's enthusiasm for agricultural wages is of fairly modern date. For generation after generation the agricultural wage was kept at the very bottom. The county road man got two bob a week more and the groom got two bob a week more. I can remember my father telling me about the trouble which he had with the neighbourhood when he paid £1 a week instead of 18s., which was what his neighbours were paying. He was told that it was letting the side down. Perhaps that is going back a bit, but, none the less, there is no doubt that that was the attitude for generations.

It resulted in a highly inefficient agriculture. The lower the wages, the more inefficient an industry is, right through that industry. The most inefficient industries of all are the slave employing industries. Slavery went less because of enlightened ideas than because it proved hopelessly inefficient as a means of production. The great improvement which we have seen since the war—and it is since the war that the great rise in agricultural wages has occurred—has been caused more than anything by high agricultural wages, for as wages went up, labour had to be used more efficiently. Farmers could not afford to use labour unintelligently when they had to pay so much for it.

Agriculture has increased its efficiency far more than has any other industry in the country. Agriculture is ahead of the towns, ahead of the factories. It is far more efficient than any of its European competitors, a factor which always comes into my mind when I hear discussions about the Common Market. It is all founded on the fact that we pay the highest wages.

However, I am by no means certain that this proposal will work in the rather special terms of agricultural employment. Demand for skilled men now exceeds supply and a good man can command a very high wage, far higher than any wages board can give him. I doubt whether at this stage the skilled man needs this protection and I wonder whether, instead of being a minimum wage, the rate laid down by the Board will be treated as a maximum wage. This wants watching. It is for the Board to consider this—we are not settling anything—but I doubt whether at this stage regulating wages will be to the benefit of the men or the industry.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

It is an honour to follow the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and I agree with much of what he had to say at the end of his speech. I will not comment on his history of agricultural wages other than to say that much of what he said was true.

I, too, wonder whether the new Clause is a good idea. I wonder whether the time has not come to do away with the Agricultural Wages Board. I begin to wonder whether it is necessary in the context of today. The hon. and learned Member was right to argue that the advance in agricultural wages was largely due to the shortage of skilled men, who are now in a very strong position. The whole purpose of wages councils has been to protect men who were in a weak position, to bolster their wages, but those conditions no longer exist. Can the right hon. Gentleman justify not only the Clause, but the retention of the Board in conditions in which it is no longer fundamentally necessary?

I agree with those who have stressed the importance of a new structure of wages and of a ladder so that men can work their way up and receive higher rates of remuneration as their skills increase, but I do not believe that the use of the Wages Board is the best way in which to achieve that aim. I do not believe that we should extend its powers in this context. We have moved away from the days in the 1930s, and even the 1940s and 1950s, when the Board was necessary. In the late 1960s and 1970s it may be an encumbrance and even a hindrance and make us liable to forget that its wages level may be regarded as the maximum. Most farmers now pay well above the rates laid down by the Board and surely the time has come for the right hon. Gentleman to question whether this structure is necessary and whether amending legislation might not be needed to abolish it.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

The Minister has admitted that this is not only an enabling Clause, but, in a sense, a paving Clause, because he expects, before there is any future opportunity for agricultural legislation, to agree a general scheme as a basis for regulations. From what we have already heard, there seems to be material for a fairly general debate on the whole problem. The disadvantage of taking the Clause this afternoon is that we do not have a background against which to debate it. Our next opportunity to hear of any developments in this important project may be only when regulations have been published.

I therefore hope that the Minister will assure us that, as and when a general scheme with agreed principles comes into being, we shall be able to discuss the wages implications in advance of any regulations. It should be possible to arrange for such a short debate and I should be much happier about accepting this admittedly important Clause if we could have some such assurance.

Mr. Hazell

As the Agricultural Wages Board is now constituted, it is unneccesary for regulations to be issued for a variation in basic rates, and the rates to be applied under the new structure to particular branches of the industry will be basic rates. The whole Board, farmers' and workers' representatives, is fully alive to the difficulties which have been mentioned. All that the new Clause does in effect is to empower the wages committees to sort out difficulties as between men and employers, and the Board itself will determine any argument about where a man fits into the scheme.

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who has reinforced my case, which is that the Clause will not give us the automatic right to discuss the principles of a wages structure. That is important because, as my right hon. Friend has said, there must be co-ordination of the bodies deciding what categories of skill can be used in an agricultural wages structure, and those bodies are nowhere near providing for agricultural training and education.

I apprehend that the easiest way of running the classification system would be on a basis of certification. It is only when there is no certification, that that kind of appeal to the Wages Board of which the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) spoke will arise. I hope that the Minister will give us some undertaking about a debate. He will get his legislation, but we need to debate the principles and the subject matter covered by this new Clause.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

I join with most of my hon. Friends in welcoming this new Clause, for one particular reason. If we can get a wages structure operating within the industry it will materially help to keep more men on the land. I am very worried about this drift from the land, which has been talked of all through my life as a farmer, but which has become much more serious lately, when the effects of mechanisation are being felt and when there is a real shortage of labour on farms.

If we can get a wages structure and can formalise the existing informal structure it will provide a great boost for training. Some of my hon. Friends are rather dubious about training and have some rude things to say about the Agricultural Training Board. I share most of those feelings but one cannot get away from the necessity to have a greater degree of training among our farm workers.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss training on this new Clause.

Mr. Jopling

This structure works well informally. It will be desperately hard to organise. If we are to have such a structure it must take place with the Minister's assistance. We can only have a healthy wage structure in industry if the prosperity of agriculture is much higher than it is now. I know that I will be out of order in going any further, but this is an absolutely vital matter.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I want to ask four brief questions on the new Clause, which I welcome. First, why has the Minister brought it in now? There was a long, massive Agriculture Act and it seems that that would have been the appropriate moment for it. There has been a very long Committee stage, which I did not have the pleasure to attend, but I would have thought that it could have been brought in then.

Secondly, can the Minister explain how this wages structure will work? No one will want to be at the bottom of it. There will be two essential features, categories and differentials. It is extremely difficult to define categories among farm workers. Farm work is an all-round occupation. Often, on my own small farm, I find that on the same day I am called upon to work as a carpenter, a bricklayer, a stockman, a book-keeper, a general labourer, geneticist and stenographer. I hope that the Minister will give us an idea of how he is to do it.

Thirdly, if the Board is to do it, what criteria will the Minister give to the Board as to how it should establish differentials between one branch of farm work and another? During the debate the suggestion seems to have crept in that this new Clause could mean an increase in farm workers' pay. I can see nothing suggesting that. When the Minister replies I hope he will say that the enormous new skill and investment that is now to be seen on the land will reap its commensurate reward. If a new wages structure does not succeed in improving the take-home pay of the farm worker it will not be worth the paper it is written on.

I must comment on the extraordinary speech made by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), who is not in the Chamber now. In my constituency of West Suffolk we have been seeking higher real pay for the farm worker for a very long time. It is disgraceful that an unemployed person in the Midlands car industry can still get more pay for not working than the farm worker gets for putting in five or six days, in all weathers, at all skills. I hope that the Minister will tell us that there is nothing in Government policy that will prevent this new wages structure improving the real income of the farmworker.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Norman Buchan)

We have had a good debate, covering a good deal of ground. I regret that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) is out of the Chamber, because I know that he would have been delighted to have had so many allies in his plea for higher wages. There is nothing in this Bill relating to wages, as hon. Members will know.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) asked about the effect of this new Clause in Scotland. He was referring back to the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act, 1949. In subsection (5) of the Third Schedule the question of a special class of worker is written in. The position is that the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board has not so far advanced proposals for a wages structure of the kind that has now been agreed in principle in England and Wales. It has adopted a rudimentary wages structure prescribing minimum wages for general workers and higher minimum wages for various classes of general workers, such as shepherds, stockmen and so on. There has been no difficulty in doing this; it is a function for the Board, not for a direction from my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The reason I ask the hon. Member to say that there was nothing in Government policy that would affect such things is that, as he knows, there is a prices and incomes policy and the need to prove productivity—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may know, but he cannot talk about it now.

Mr. Buchan

I did not know it, Mr. Speaker, but I thought that the question was out of order.

More than one speaker has asked why this new Clause should be brought in now. The answer is perfectly simple. It is only now that the Board for England and Wales has reached agreement in principle on these proposals for a statutory wages structure. It is agreed that we should bring this in as quickly as possible. The proposal meets with general agreement in the industry, both farmers and workers supporting it, and agreeing that it should be brought in at the earliest possible moment. We have consulted the Scottish employers and workers organisations who support the proposal that this opportunity should be taken to make possible the extension of these functions to Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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