Thursday, 2 November 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Dardis: The Order of Business is No. 1, a motion agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which sets out the arrangements for the address by the European Union ambassador to the United States, Mr. John Bruton, to Seanad Éireann on Wednesday, 8 November 2006, to be taken without debate; No. 2, statements on the sectoral plans in accordance with section 31(6) of the Disability Act 2005, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.45 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, on which Senators may share time and with the Minister being called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and No. 3, Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 — Committee Stage, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.45 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Mr. Finucane: On foot of a report in this morning’s newspapers, I contacted Women’s Aid to ascertain the actual position of the organisation. Women’s Aid, which provides a helpline for women in distress, received approximately 26,000 calls last year. Regrettably, owing to a lack of manpower——
Mr. Finucane: —— and financial resources, only three out of every five calls were answered and, as a result, more than 10,500 people went unheard. It is interesting that 57% of calls made to the helpline related to emotional violence, while the remainder concerned physical violence. Despite the talk about the success of the Celtic tiger, the volume of calls has doubled over the past four years.
Last October, when the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, was presiding over the launch of the Women’s Aid statistics for 2004, the organisation indicated that it needed an additional €70,000 to continue its work. In response, the Minister of State promised to make the requested funding available through the Health Service Executive. I urge Senator Dardis, as Acting Leader of the House, to take this matter up with the HSE so that the funds can be released to allow Women’s Aid to continue providing this valuable service. The sum in question is minuscule in the context of the HSE’s overall budget and the spending excesses committed by the health services in the past.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on the salmon fishing industry, in the course of which a number of passionate contributions were made by Members representing coastal communities. Overall, we had a broad and enlightened discussion, although given that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources had already made his decision on the industry, it was probably post-mortem. In October 2005, the joint committee produced a report on the fishing industry which had a degree of validity at that time, so it would be wrong of us to ignore its advice. There was a sense of realism at that meeting regarding the advice on banning drift net fishing and having a voluntary situation for draft net fishing.
We cannot ignore what is happening in our coastal communities, which are under siege. They are faced with less fishing at sea, quota restrictions and now the added burden of not being allowed to fish for salmon. It will put pressure on other fishing sources.
Mr. Finucane: I am about to conclude and I ask for some latitude. It is a very important issue and I am trying to be balanced in my contribution. It will put pressure on other fishing species such as lobster and crabs. The report has mentioned a compensation figure of €25 million and a further €5 million, which the Minister has accepted. The issue of compensation should be considered. The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, indicated it should be at least €50 million.
Mr. Finucane: It is a valid contribution. I was about to reach a natural conclusion anyway. The report has been published and the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, recommends €50 million in compensation. We should give serious consideration to this community, which is under siege. We ignore it at our peril.
Mr. Norris: I support my colleague in what he said about Women’s Aid. It is a very valuable organisation which has done tremendous work. The amount involved is negligible and the community gets a very good service from it. I also urge that this money be made available to it.
Regarding salmon, I unequivocally congratulate the Government and in particular the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, a brave, courageous and idealistic Minister who has a fine track record. He did the right thing on this occasion. I have spent the past few days castigating the Government side because I thought its nerve would wobble under the very understandable electoral pressure. I also congratulate the Acting Leader, Senator Dardis, who certainly fought this fight as we on this side also did. Well done and I am glad to have the opportunity to congratulate the Government.
However, in one final area I cannot congratulate any of us. I will give a few points which I would like taken up in discussion. I call for a debate on the protection of consumers’ rights. In my opinion the consumer has no real protection. For example, we have no proper telephone service. We cannot get our phones serviced. It is never anybody’s responsibility. It is always franchised out. We are still paying foreign investors for landlines. It is a kind of absentee landlordism. How on earth are we putting up with it? The company tells us it is recording our phone calls. How dare it? It never asked my permission. I hear these bland announcements that the phone call will be recorded.
I opposed the lifting of the groceries order. However, there was a gathering rush by the so-called Competition Authority which could not even submit its views in time in a matter involving the oil industry. It failed to meet the deadline. The head of the body previously advised one of the companies, which is an extraordinary business. It is led on the other hand by a television entertainer, who at the moment is answering questions about his, apparently, quite honourable involvement in a failed investment company, in which at the time it collapsed he retained 24% or 25% of the shares. How can people be pushed into this? We know now that there has been no reduction in prices despite the suspension of the groceries order.
The banks refuse to deal with their customers on a human level. Many of us pay the highest possible rates to the Voluntary Health Insurance and are entitled to free treatment. Do we get free treatment? No, we must pay by cash or cheque with a banker’s card. We then need to do its paperwork to get money back eventually after it has invested it and got interest. There is no real protection. These are just a few areas. I am sure all my colleagues could produce other areas in which the consumer does not have his or her interests guaranteed or maintained.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I read a very disturbing report today, which should be a source of great concern to all reasonable people. I refer to the case of the young pregnant woman in Limerick who was arrested and put in prison because she owed a few hundred euro as a result of a road tax court case. I am told that within the prison she was highly traumatised, was acting uncontrollably and was within days of giving birth. She was taken to hospital where she gave birth and then disappeared from the hospital. In this case common sense and compassion should have been used. I could not imagine this happening in the most repressive regimes in the world.
We need to ascertain how a young woman could be placed in prison for not having paid €200 in road tax. People who are in debt to the State for millions of euro are walking the streets and constantly thumb their noses at the courts, yet this woman with no one to defend her was placed in that position. It is unacceptable because, as legislators, in some way this eventually impacts on us as well. It is not a matter of suggesting that people should not be held accountable. However, for heaven’s sake, surely common sense and compassion should have been employed in this case.
Mr. Coghlan: I fully support what Senator Finucane said about coastal and estuary communities. They are under severe pressure with a complete change of lifestyle forced upon them. I support what he said in echoing the thoughts of the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher. It appears the compensation package is not nearly sufficient. I appeal to the Government to reconsider the matter.
Mr. Coghlan: It is close to there as well. It is for the laudable purpose of regenerating the ancient oak and yew woodlands. The Acting Leader may be aware of questions being raised about the EU habitats directive and our UNESCO biosphere reserve designation. I would hope, as would everybody, that there would be no conflict inherent therein. Perhaps a Minister or Minister of State could come to the House for a debate on the matter.
I will briefly touch on what Senator Norris said about the Competition Authority and other matters in the past, so to speak. A television entertainer has commented thereon. It would seem that we have not achieved everything that was held out and promised in the interests of the consumer. It might be a useful matter for debate. That television entertainer seems to be getting mixed up between competition and competitors. Perhaps a case could be argued that he should stick to the knitting.
Dr. Mansergh: In a few weeks we will debate the budget. I am sure it will come as a great comfort to everyone to know that on the basis of a benchmarking of the 12 eurozone Finance Ministers in yesterday’s Financial Times, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, was adjudged the most effective. He has been able to generate additional resources for worthwhile social purposes, which include those mentioned by Senator Finucane.
Many of us will have observed with interest the visit of the Northern parties to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, yesterday, which emphasises the best economic future will lie with having a devolved Government and institutions restored. We will not be surprised, however, that a corporation tax rate like ours is only likely to be possible if it is lowered in the United Kingdom as a whole. It raises more fundamental questions as to whether, in terms of first-class economic opportunity, all the people of Northern Ireland would not be better served by a closer relationship with this part of the country.
Mr. Quinn: May I comment on Senator Mansergh’s reference to corporation tax? I agree it is a real reminder of the benefits we have enjoyed in this part of the country and of the disadvantage the Northern part of the country has experienced by being connected to the United Kingdom. Whether devolved government would give them some ability to break that link in the future is interesting from that point of view.
I ask that we consider having a debate on privacy. I am not talking about media intrusion because legislation will be forthcoming on that issue, but a conference is taking place in Britain today which has just published some papers the contents of which are frightening. They state that Britain is the most snooped upon nation in the world. I do not know whether that is true but they believe it is true. They talk about the number of closed circuit television cameras that intrude on people’s lives, the DNA database of almost 3.6 million citizens in Britain that is available, understandably, to police and others in an anti-terror campaign, and the fact that we can detect where each of us have been because of the phones we carry on our person, even if we never made a phone call. When I inquired recently about somebody in the United States, I was interested to discover that one can find out what every citizen in the United States who pays tax earned last year. I am referring to these trends because there is another piece of information available to us, namely, patients’ medical records which are available under certain circumstances to certain individuals.
We are in danger of a Big Brother attitude taking over in western civilisation. There may be great benefits to be derived from having information about the way we run our lives available to others, but it is something we should consider debating. The Data Protection Commissioner publishes a report every year. This House has not debated it. That would be a worthy debate to determine whether this is the direction in which we want to go.
Mr. Glynn: I want to raise two matters. Will the Acting Leader arrange for the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House for a debate on vandalism? The recent feast of Hallowe’en is a time when a considerable amount of wanton vandalism takes place but an act that is perpetrated throughout the year is the vandalising of telephone kiosks. As a result, Eircom removes the kiosks but the victors are the vandals in that case, with the public being the losers. I ask that a special fund be made available to provide surveillance to ensure the perpetrators of these acts are caught and punished.
Will the Acting Leader convey my concerns and those of this House to the Minister for Health and Children arising from changes in the medical examination for the appointment of certain consultants? I understand there are certain difficulties in that regard arising from the Devlin report that was issued last year. Those difficulties are causing delays and other problems and I ask the Acting Leader to convey our concerns to the Minister because these difficulties are causing unjust and undue delays.
Ms Terry: On a number of occasions in this term I called for a debate on domestic violence. I do so again now, especially in light of the launch yesterday of the statistics by Women’s Aid, and to support what the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Senator Finucane, said in highlighting the lack of funding available to Women’s Aid in particular and to other organisations which deal with women in great difficulties. I recognise that a number of men suffer from domestic violence also, about which we are being constantly told.
Such a debate is timely and in light of the forthcoming budget, I ask the Minister for Finance to look sympathetically on the organisations which deal with women and men experiencing domestic violence and that these organisations be funded sufficiently to deal with the problems. It is not good enough that an organisation like Women’s Aid cannot deal with all the calls it receives in its office. We should take this issue seriously knowing, as we do, that many people are in difficult situations and need their problems addressed. I hope we would have such a debate shortly.
Mr. Lydon: I support Senator Glynn’s call for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come into the House to discuss the question of vandalism. I also want to put to the Minister the question of the sale of fireworks, which I believe cannot be sold legally here, yet travelling from Monaghan yesterday morning I saw huge containers full of fireworks. They are also being sold in shops and from vans on the side of the road. Are these fireworks illegal or are they not? Why do the police not arrest the people selling them? We might ask the Minister about that if he comes into the House for a debate.
Mr. Browne: Will the Acting Leader find out whether more amendments will follow today’s Committee Stage debate on the Child Care (Amendment) Bill arising from the Ferns Report? The Minister’s speech last week was somewhat ambiguous. I hope we will take all the amendments today and that amendments will not be introduced in the Dáil which this House will rubber-stamp subsequently. Will the Acting Leader inquire whether further amendments will follow from the Ferns Report and, if that is the case, explain the reason they will not be dealt with today?
The Minister did not refer to it last week in his speech on the Ferns Report. I understand there are no Government amendments and I am asking if amendments will be made in the Dáil, provided the Bill is passed by the Seanad, which this House will have to
Mr. Browne: —— oppose it but it is worrying to read in today’s newspaper that the Taoiseach said yesterday there is a problem with a shortage of staff in the Bills Office, which is causing a delay in legislation coming forward. I ask the Acting Leader to investigate that matter. I have no difficulty explaining our expenses and our salaries but we should push as much legislation as possible through both Houses. It would be regrettable that because of a shortage of suitably trained staff legislation is not coming forward as quickly as should be the case.
I asked the Leader yesterday about compensation for beet growers but she did not reply to my point. It is disgraceful that beet growers who, through no fault of their own, saw their industry wiped out overnight, like the drift net fishermen, still have not received any compensation and may be liable to tax on any compensation they receive. I understand that in the case of drift net fishermen, their payments could be made over a three-year period to lessen the tax burden. It is important therefore that we ask the Minister for Finance to come into the House to explain the steps, if any, he can take to assist beet growers who are now without work in the beet growing area, have not been compensated and are caught in the middle of a court battle between Greencore and the State. That is not fair.
I have a motion about MRSA on today’s Order Paper. Yesterday, the Minister admitted there were 285 known cases so far in the first six months of this year, which is disgraceful. While she correctly points out that the overuse of antibiotics is a cause, that is not the only reason. Unfortunately, many of the State’s health facilities are failing in their duty of care in ensuring that when patients arrive with an injury, they are not discharged with an injury unrelated to the one for which they were admitted. That is not acceptable in 2006.
Ms Tuffy: I want to raise an issue that was raised previously by Senator Hayes and other Senators and on which it is important we have a debate. The draft register of electors has been prepared by the various local authorities. In the South Dublin County Council area and elsewhere across the country, the system for preparing it has changed. A form was dropped in the letter-boxes of people who were not at home when the officials checking the register called around. If the recipients did not return this form to their respective county councils, they were deleted from the register. I anticipate that thousands of people will have been deleted from the register by the time of next year’s general election, despite their having been on the register in previous years, during which they did not have to return a form to the county council.
This will become a major problem and we must address it. It is not satisfactory. The county councils will have information days to try to get people to check the register for their names and to have their names added if they have been deleted. This will not be enough. The officials will have to call to houses again and put people back on the register so they can exercise their democratic right to vote. We should have a debate on this urgently and have the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the House to tell us how he will deal with the problem. It will be a much greater problem than that outlined in the survey carried out by the Young Fianna Fáil group last year. We must act quickly.
Mr. McHugh: We need an urgent debate on the follow-up to yesterday’s announcement on drift net fishing for salmon. The process has been handled in a simplistic way, pitting drift net men against anglers. This has done an unbelievable amount of damage to the whole fishing industry. I refer to an entire coastal community that has been completely alienated as a result of the decision. It was in no way consulted on it.
Mr. McHugh: The decision was made before most of the fishermen from Donegal and Cork were able to set foot in Dublin yesterday to protest. It was made by Cabinet and not before the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. This is not indicative of consultation.
We have alienated an entire coastal community that is otherwise alienated as a result of a decline in the industry, pelagic boats being tied up in Killybegs, crabmen in Downings having to go to Holland to fish——
Mr. Coonan: It is appropriate that the Deputy Leader is present because I read in The Irish Times yesterday a comment by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to the effect that it would be a betrayal of patients to give them inferior service for the sake of keeping local hospitals open. This is an alarming statement for any Minister responsible for health to make. Is she saying she will close local hospitals or that the service offered by them is inferior? Will the Deputy Leader arrange for the Minister to debate the health services in the House, particularly in respect of local county hospitals such as the one in Nenagh? This hospital provides an excellent service to the rural community.
Could we also have a debate on the number of people waiting to receive health services? We read that in Cork alone, more than 10,000 people who are sick and in pain are waiting for appointments with consultants, yet we are told waiting lists have decreased or have practically been eliminated. Of course they have because we are not talking about the queue to queue.
The Deputy Leader should be concerned about the spin put on the health services by the Health Service Executive, which comes from none other than his Fianna Fáil colleague, who was employed by the Government. It is clear there is collusion with the HSE to massage the figures, such that we are not receiving the full truth. I call for a debate on this serious issue and it is up to the Minister to clarify the position. She cannot have it both ways.
Mr. Dardis: Senators Finucane, Norris and Terry raised the issue of women’s aid and the related issue of domestic violence. I am not au fait with the figures that have been circulated but I have no reason to believe they are incorrect. I accept the proposition made that emotional violence is a very significant factor and that it affects both men and women.
It is important that all the agencies concerned be funded adequately. The Government definitely attempts to do so. The agencies are obliged to ensure the moneys they receive are spent properly and wisely. I will undertake to take up the matter with the HSE and the Minister for Health and Children. This was the specific request made by Senator Finucane.
Senators Finucane, Norris, Coghlan and McHugh referred to the decision made by the Government with regard to the cessation of drift netting at sea for mixed stocks of salmon. I have advocated this and I welcome the decision. I concur with the remarks made about the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources because he showed great resolve in making progress in the way he did. The so-called three wise men, Professor Collins, Mr. White and Mr. Malone, did a very good job which the State should acknowledge. They have done the State a significant service.
Mr. Dardis: One could not contemplate losing a species that has been so central to Irish life, culture and mythology. I recommend that Members read the report of the group because it is balanced and fair. It is important to state there is pain across the board. There is significant pain for drift net fishermen and also for anglers and others. This has been pointed out in the report. It states there should be single stock management in rivers, which will involve the closure of several rivers to everybody who harvests the fish. It is therefore not just a matter for coastal communities.
Of course we are fully conscious of the impact on coastal communities and of the nature of such communities. However, we must also think about guides on rivers, who will be out of jobs and who will receive no compensation. Most of them are self-employed and not by the landowners or fishery owners. Let us be fair and acknowledge that the ban has an impact on entire rural communities.
Some years ago I heard game fishing was worth €10 million to the economy of Connemara. What did we do only destroy the sea trout? We are now in the process of destroying the salmon. There is a wider issue to be considered in terms of tourism and the environment and the Government’s responsibility to the latter.
The expert group said the compensation scheme was “fair and proportionate”. It involves a six-year multiplier on an average catch over five years. I do not have much sympathy for those who caught fish illegally and now expect to be compensated as a result. There should be a verifiable catch on the basis of tags.
Mr. Dardis: There is no difficulty about the poachers. Of course there are other factors involved. The issues of global warming, silting and forestry are also factors. There are many factors, but this is the dominant factor. If Senators heard Dr. Ken Whelan, who is one of the world’s most eminent experts in this area, on the radio this morning, they would have heard him clearly explaining to anybody who is in any doubt why mixed stock fishing must end. Such fishing takes place at sea and nowhere else.
Mr. Dardis: Senator Norris made a fair point about the protection of consumers. In recent years, a great deal of legislation has been introduced to protect consumers and enhance their rights. However, there are many gaps in the enforcement of that legislation. I am conscious of the decision that was made about the oil merger. The explanation that was given was that someone thought there were 31 days in the month in question, rather than 30. It was an administrative slip. I can understand how that might happen, but I accept it should not have happened. This matter was also raised by Senators Coghlan and Quinn. Perhaps we should try to arrange a debate on the issue.
I am not aware of the particulars of the case mentioned by Senator Ó Murchú. It seems extraordinary, on the face of it, that such a thing should happen in a modern society. It seems very insensitive and wrong. In the past, one could not get out of debtor’s prison without paying back the moneys one owed. In other words, one stayed in prison until one’s debt was discharged. Happily we have moved on from those days. I will raise the matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Coghlan highlighted the deer fencing programme that is being pursued to protect oak woodlands under the EU habitats directive and the UNESCO guidelines. I am not too familiar with the case in question. I will ask the Minister about it. Perhaps it could be usefully discussed on the Adjournment, with the permission of the Chair.
Senator Mansergh referred to the budget and the benchmarking survey. Senator Quinn raised a related matter. I agree with Senator Mansergh’s comments about the Minister, Deputy Cowen, who has done a very good job. I am sure that will continue in the budget that will be introduced next month.
Senator Mansergh said that the Northern parties did a pretty good job yesterday when they received a commitment from the British Government that more than £50 billion would be invested over ten years. We hope the commitment will be one of the factors that will lead to devolved government in Northern Ireland. On the issue of corporation tax, I am aware it has been argued that because it is a national aid, Northern Ireland cannot be singled out from the rest of the United Kingdom. In other words, there cannot be a different rate there. I would have thought that something of that nature could be done under the regional policy of the EU. If Northern Ireland can have devolved government, one would imagine that it could be treated in a sympathetic manner by the EU, which is anxious to facilitate peace and economic development there.
Senators Quinn and Norris spoke about privacy, which is an important matter, in the context of the installation of CCTV systems. It is a difficult debate. Basic infringements of civil liberties are taking place in many areas. On the other hand, the State has to use modern technology to eliminate vandalism and crime, as Senators Lydon and Glynn remarked. We need to strike a balance. The House could usefully debate this topic in a more extensive manner than it has done on the Order of Business this morning. We could reflect on the related issues of the protection of data and the use of the information about citizens that is held by various organisations. People have to register to act in this manner — they cannot do so willy-nilly. Perhaps we should consider this significant issue.
Senator Glynn spoke about vandalism. There has been an increase in the removal of telephone kiosks, but I understand that they are being closed because of a lack of use. I read about a telephone kiosk that was taking an average of €1 per month. The growth in the use of mobile telephones is an important factor in this regard. I do not think the vandalism of telephone kiosks is a good enough reason for the withdrawal of such services. There should be a way of overcoming such problems.
The use of fireworks, which was mentioned by Senator Lydon, is a serious issue. The Tánaiste was quite vocal about the matter last week, when he said that people who bring such materials across the Border can expect to have their vehicles seized, etc.
Senator Glynn spoke about the medical examination for the appointment of consultants. I will raise that subject with the Minister for Health and Children. I know she will he quite happy to come to the House to discuss it.
Senator Browne raised several issues. As far as I am aware, no further amendments to the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 are proposed, although I cannot give a guarantee of that. If more amendments are made in the Dáil, they will be referred back to this House. That is the way the system works. At this stage I cannot say what will happen.
The Senator also spoke about pay increases in the context of the difficulties we are having with Bills. In my experience, such difficulties have always arisen in the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel, and not in the Bills Office itself.
Mr. Dardis: That clarifies the matter. There have been problems in the past with recruiting people who have the expertise to draft Bills. The Senator has a point in that regard. The legislative process should not be delayed as a result of something like that.
Senator Browne also referred to the compensation to be given to beet growers. Yesterday the Minister said it is possible that the compensation scheme for salmon fishermen could be spread over three years. If there are tax implications for beet growers, that is something to be considered. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Agriculture and Food.
The Senator also spoke about MRSA, which is a serious problem. A great deal of progress has been made in that regard. The Minister for Health and Children has been very active in trying to provide that standards are high enough to ensure that this problem can be minimised. We should bear in mind that the use of antibiotics is an aspect of this difficulty. I will speak to the Minister about the issue.
Senator Tuffy made an important point about the draft register of electors, which has been highlighted by many people. It has been suggested that when officials from Kildare County Council visited houses in my home county to try to bring the register there up to date, it had a hit rate of approximately 20%. That has serious implications for the state of the register. I understand that the draft register has been available since yesterday, or is about to be made available. That will tell a story about this serious matter. Some people who have been on the register of electors for many years have been removed from it. One of the most basic rights in society is that citizens who want to vote should be able to do so. We have to pay serious attention to that. We should seek to have a debate on the matter in the House.
Senator Coonan spoke about local hospitals. There is no contradiction in the reasonable point that is being made by the Minister in this regard. If we are to avail of the best technology and the best people, we have to have centres of excellence. That does not mean that local hospitals will be unable to continue to do the things they have traditionally done very well. That is the position of the Minister and the Government, as far as I am aware.
Mr. Dardis: The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose, as we all know. I do not think it is a useful contribution to the debate. I completely reject the proposition that there has been any collusion between the HSE and anybody else with regard to this matter. If Senator Coonan has evidence of such collusion, he should let us know what it is. He cannot allow statements of this nature to hang in the air if he cannot back them up.
Mr. Dardis: Significant improvements have been made in terms of the waiting lists, as anybody who has been looking at the statistics will know. Public patients are able to avail of private operations.
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