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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers report of Ireland

Committee on Economic, Social
  and Cultural Rights

9 June 2015

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today concluded its consideration of the third periodic report of Ireland on the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Introducing the report, Sean Sherlock, Minister of State for Development, Trade Promotion and North South Cooperation of Ireland, said the Government had had to make tough choices in the face of an unprecedentedly precarious financial situation and had reformed expenditure in a way that continued to protect the most vulnerable people to the greatest extent possible within available resources.  Core welfare payments had been maintained: in 2013, social transfers reduced the at-risk-of-poverty rate from 38.4 to 15.2 per cent, lifting almost a quarter of the population out of income poverty.  Expenditure on social protection had increased by a third since 2007 and in 2014, €19.8 billion had been spent in direct support of 1.4 million recipients, with a further 800,000 dependents.  A 10-year Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with a Disability would soon be published and would include a number of ambitious targets to enable people with a disability to enjoy their right to work.   Social housing was a priority and Ireland had adopted Social Housing Strategy 2020 and added a further €2.2 billion in funding to the Budget 2015 for housing.

In the discussion, Committee Experts noted that Ireland continued to apply austerity measures and to focus on cutting the budget, including in the areas essential for social protection, health and education, and the increase in rates of poverty, food poverty and youth unemployment.  The legislation in Ireland did not cover all grounds of discrimination and Experts asked whether a comprehensive law to this effect would be passed.  Women’s rights still fell short of equality, as evidenced by the gender pay gap and the low percentage of women in the work place, and the delegation was asked about the plan to overcome gender inequality.  An administrative system called “direct provision” violated a number of rights of asylum seekers, and was an issue of concern to Committee Members.  Ireland had one of the most punitive and restrictive laws on abortion because of the constitutional right to life of an unborn foetus, which trumped the right of women to sexual and reproductive health and resulted in the criminalization of abortion.  Experts expressed concern about discrimination in the education system against migrant children, minority children, and children with disabilities and asked about measures to set up secular schools, and the change in laws which prevented children from enrolling in some schools based on their religion and confession.

The delegation said that the scale of the challenge facing the Irish Government since the economic crisis had begun had been gargantuan.  Revenues had collapsed by €10 billion during the period 2007-2010; the Government had introduced new taxes and changed existing taxes, and reduced expenditures by 14 per cent or €9 billion between 2009 and 2014.  Ireland ensured the maintenance of a social floor below which no citizen would fall and had increased its expenditure on social protection by 30 per cent during the period 2007-2015.  The law on abortion was indeed very limited and abortion was prohibited except in very limited cases when the life of the woman was at risk, and that risk could only be averted by the termination of the pregnancy.  A Constitutional referendum would be needed to broaden the scope of the abortion law to include cases of rape, incest or foetal anomaly.  The National Women Strategy addressed violence against women, women’s under-representation in key decision making roles, ongoing gender segregation in education, the workplace and in the labour market, and over-representation of women as providers of unpaid care in the family.  A consultation with civil society had been launched recently with a view to putting in place by 2016 inclusion strategies for Travellers, Roma and persons with disabilities.  There were no plans to widen discrimination grounds in the legislation because ample discrimination and equality legislation was in place which adequately protected citizens in relation to Covenant rights.

In concluding remarks, Mr. Sherlock said that Ireland respected the weight of the opinion of the Committee Experts and took the process very seriously.  In spite of the very tough decisions made over the past several years, Ireland had tried to ensure that the social protection floors were there and would endeavour to raise living standards for its citizens.

Waleed Sadi, Committee Chairperson, in his closing remarks said that this was a very fruitful dialogue from which the Committee had learned a lot.

The delegation of Ireland consisted of representatives of the Ministry of State for Development, Trade Promotion and North South Cooperation, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Office of the Attorney General, Department of Social Protection, Department of Job Enterprise and Innovation, Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will release its formal, written concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of Ireland towards the end of its three-week session, which will conclude on 19 June 2015.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will start its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Chile (E/C.12/CHL/4).

Report
 
The third periodic report of Ireland can be read here: (E/C.12/IRL/3).
 
Presentation of the Report
 
SEAN SHERLOCK, Minister of State for Development, Trade Promotion and North South Cooperation of Ireland, said that on 22 May 2015, Ireland chose, by popular vote, to provide for same-sex marriage and they were very proud to be the first country in the world to achieve marriage equality through a public vote.  The Gender Recognition Bill 2014 was moving through the House of Parliament; it would for the first time provide legal recourse for transgender individuals over 16 years of age to change their gender in the eyes of the law.  The Children and Family Relationship Act 2015 enabled civil partners and cohabiting couples who had lived together for three years to jointly apply to adopt a child, thus providing legal bedrock upon which the diversity of families would be valued, recognized and protected.  Since the last review in 2002, Ireland had enjoyed a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, followed by an equally acute financial crisis, resulting in an international bailout package, and several years of fiscal adjustment aimed at reducing the deficit.  Some data demonstrated the extent of the crisis: in 2006, the unemployment rate was 4.5 per cent and in 2012 it stood at over 15 per cent; in 2014, the unemployment rate was at less than 10 per cent.  There were still far too many unemployed but Ireland was determined to continue to implement the right policies to deliver the goal of full employment by 2018.  The Government had had to make tough choices in the face of an unprecedentedly precarious financial situation; the approach to budgetary adjustment had not been to apply blanket reductions to all areas of spending, but to reform expenditure in a way that continued to protect the most vulnerable people to the greatest extent possible within available resources.  Core welfare payments had been maintained and set strong basic standards of living available to everyone in the society. 

The burden of economic adjustment had been shared across society, guided by a social impact assessment of budgetary choices.  In 2013, social transfers reduced the at-risk-of-poverty rate from 38.4 to 15.2 per cent, lifting almost a quarter of the population out of income poverty.  The strong performance of the social transfer system and the highly progressive structure of income tax system gave rise to a tax and welfare system that was the most effective in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development at reducing market income inequality.  Expenditure on social protection had increased by a third since 2007 and in 2014, €19.8 billion had been spent in direct support of 1.4 million recipients, with a further 800,000 dependents.  The Government had maintained core social welfare rates, increased the national minimum wage and enhanced in-work support.  A Low Pay Commission, established in February 2015, had been tasked with ensuring that any changes to the minimum wage were incremental and evidence-based, giving people a decent wage for the work they carried out. 

Ireland would soon publish a 10-year Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with a Disability which would include a number of ambitious targets to enable people with a disability who were able to, and wanted to enjoy their right to work, through building skills, capacity and independence; providing bridges and supports into work; making work pay; promoting job retention and re-entry into work, and others.  Social housing was a priority: the Social Housing Strategy 2020 had been adopted and an additional €2.2 billion in funding had been added to the Budget 2015.  Ireland had allocated to its education sector over € two billion for the period 2012-2016 toward the provision of additional permanent places to meet the demographic need at both primary and post-primary levels, as over the course of next six years, there would be an additional 50,000 students in primary and post-primary education.

Questions from Experts

ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY PILLAY, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur, said that Ireland continued to take austerity measures and to focus on cutting the budget, including in the areas essential for social protection, health and education; the assessment of the impact of those measures on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable groups, had not been carried out, but rates of poverty and food poverty, as well as youth employment had increased.  The Country Rapporteur said that the Committee had taken up the application of the Covenant in domestic law in its 1999 and 2002 concluding observations and recommendations to Ireland, and asked the delegation whether Ireland planned to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights into the Constitution or in the domestic law; about measures taken to ensure that judicial enforceability of economic, social and cultural rights were part of the judicial and law enforcement training; if it would renew the National Action Plan against Racism which had ended in 2008 and take concrete measures to monitor instances of racism and deal with them; and how it was ensuring that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission was adequately resourced and empowered to implement its mandate.  Mr. Pillay also asked how Ireland ensured that the principles of non-retrogression, progressive realization, non-discrimination, and minimum core obligations in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights were applied in austerity measures, particularly for disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable persons.

With regard to austerity measures and difficult budgetary decisions that Ireland had to make, Experts expressed concern about their impact on health, education, access to justice, and an adequate standard of living.  They asked how Ireland had taken into account economic, social and cultural rights in the development of its public policies and about the temporary nature of austerity measures, particularly in the context of the country emerging from the crisis.  Ireland had concluded a Memorandum of Understanding for financial support with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund 2010-2013, and the delegation was asked whether they felt it had been imposed when Ireland was in a weak position vis-à-vis its creditors, and whether the European Union Member States acted in violation of the Covenant by imposing on Ireland measures they knew would result in the violation of the economic, social and cultural rights of the population.  The combined weight of taxation and social welfare cuts adopted for 2015 would result in 0.8 per cent of average household income and the largest proportions would be in the lowest and highest percentile of the population at 1.5 per cent.  What were the lessons learned from the crisis that would lead to a different approach in economic, social and cultural rights?  How did Ireland plan to strengthen the consultation process and improve the decision-making process affecting budgetary allocations?

The legislation in Ireland did not cover all grounds of discrimination and Experts asked whether a comprehensive law to this effect would be passed.  Women’s rights still fell short of equality, as evidenced by the gender pay gap and the low percentage of women in the work place, and the delegation was asked about the plan to overcome gender inequality.  The administrative system called “direct provision” violated a number of rights of asylum seekers, and was an issue of concern to Committee Members.

The delegation was asked how it intended to address the lack of disaggregated data; the plan of reparation to victims from the Magdalena Laundries; challenges in the implementation of the National Women Strategy and what improvements were needed in addition to low representation in policy and law areas; the meeting of the 0.7 per cent official development assistance target and the integration of human rights policy in development aid; and the implementation of the Children and Family Relationship Act 2015 and the availability and affordability of child care facilities. 

The delegation was also asked how habitual residence conditions affected access to social benefits, particularly in case of persons fleeing domestic violence, and to comment on instances of cruel and inhumane treatment of persons with intellectual disabilities in care institutions, including inappropriate treatment of children with intellectual disabilities, and on the trend concerning poverty among single female parents.

The Constitution of Ireland gave preference to the right of the unborn foetus before the life of the mother.  A number of recommendations by human rights treaty bodies had been made to Ireland in this regard.  What process and mechanism was in place for the consideration and implementation of concluding observations or recommendations issued by human rights treaty bodies?  Ireland had one of the most punitive and restrictive laws on abortion because of the constitutional right to life of an unborn foetus, which trumped the right of women to sexual and reproductive health and resulted in criminalization of abortion.  Experts asked about the recourse for women whose pregnancies presented a risk to their own lives, or were the results of a crime, such as rape or incest; why did the Government not organize a referendum on abortion; and the steps taken to disseminate the knowledge among women and their doctors about the Guidelines and their Constitutional right to life-saving abortion.

Response by the Delegation

The scale of the challenge facing the Irish Government since the economic crisis had begun had been gargantuan.  Ireland had found itself in the eye of a perfect storm, with a credit crisis, banking crisis, economic downturn, and over-reliance on one sector of the economy.  Ireland needed to ensure that it had maintained a social floor below which no citizen would fall: during the period 2007-2015 it had increased its expenditure on social protection by 30 per cent. 

Ireland had decided not to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant until it made sure that it could comply with its obligations.  A referendum would be needed to include the Covenant rights in the Constitution.  Consultation with civil society was an important part of the Government approach to human rights. 

The delegation acknowledged that the law on abortion in Ireland was very limited and abortion was prohibited except in very limited cases when the life of a woman was at risk, and that risk could only be averted by termination of the pregnancy.  In this case, a woman’s right to life took precedence.  A Constitutional referendum would be needed to broaden the scope of the abortion law to include cases of rape, incest or foetal anomaly.  The Crisis Pregnancy Programme had drafted guidelines for professionals working with vulnerable women to ensure they were aware of their rights in case of pregnancy and there was an ongoing work with maternal services to highlight proper referral pathways for women in crisis pregnancy. 

Ireland had incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights, but not the International Covenant, which did not mean that Ireland considered that they belonged to two different categories of rights.  The content of the Covenant was to a large degree incorporated via domestic legislation which was the basis for public funding and rights therein contained were justiciable in domestic courts.  The Irish Law Reform Commission has just started to address the issue of systematic review and implementation of concluding observations by human rights treaty bodies.

Ireland was currently in a consultation process with the view to produce a new Migrant Integration Strategy which would contain an important racism component.  The legislative base and the structural independence that had been laid down for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission were comparable with other countries; its budget had been cut as a result of austerity measures, but had been significantly increased in 2014 although not at the level of 2007/08.  Ireland had recently launched consultation with civil society with a view to putting in place by 2016 inclusion strategies for Travellers, Roma and persons with disabilities.  Disaggregated data was essential in policy making and the collection needed to be done without unnecessary burden and in accordance with the law on protection of data; a paper was being developed on the issue before it would be brought to the attention of the Cabinet as it needed a whole of Government approach.  Ireland had no plans to widen discrimination grounds in the legislation because ample discrimination and equality legislation was in place which adequately protected citizens in relation to Covenant rights.

The National Women Strategy addressed key issues of violence against women, women’s under-representation in key decision making roles, ongoing gender segregation in education as regards uptake of specific subject, and gender segregation in workplace and in labour market, and over-representation of women and providers of unpaid care taking work in family.  Consultations were ongoing with civil society on the preparation of the next phase of the strategy.

Ireland’s revenues had collapsed by €10 billion during the period 2007-2010; almost half of the taxation measures had been taken in 2008 and 2009.  Measures amounting to €11 billion had been implemented and tax changes had been introduced in nearly all taxes: income taxes, capital taxes, duties and other new taxes had been introduced.  Expenditures had been reduced by 14 per cent or €9 billion between 2009 and 2014.  There was reduction in public service employees by ten per cent; of the 9 billion in reduction, €3 billion had come from pay reduction from the public service pay.  The economy was now recovering: revenues amounted to €41 billion in 2014, which was not yet the peak years’ level and that was why the focus on reducing deficit was still maintained.  Adjustments agreed with the Troika in 2010 had been made on the basis of two-thirds on expenditure side and one-third on taxation side and that was because by 2010, most of the cuts had already been made.  Revenues were recovering and Ireland was estimating that in 2016 there could be about €1.5 billion available to provide further expenditure increases and tax reductions. 

Ireland was committed to the target of 0.7 per cent of the gross domestic product for official development assistance and strongly adhered to the policy of providing at least half of its development assistance to the least developed countries.  Achieving the 0.7 per cent target would be a challenge, but there was a firm commitment to do so.

Questions from Experts

Regarding the employment of persons with disabilities, Experts asked why they were not on the list of cohort of unemployed identified for additional support, when the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with a Disability would be published, and to explain the difficulties in the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Further on employment, Experts noted the high youth unemployment rate and asked how the Youth Guarantee Pact could be instrumental in addressing the issue; about employment of migrant workers and asylum seeker; to explain the zero-hour contracts including in relation with social protection; and the measures to counter the differences in wage and in employment between women and men.

Concerning minimum wage, the delegation was asked about the position of the Government on its adjustment which was not being done automatically, the level of minimum wage, and the proportion of employed population who received the minimum wage.  Experts stressed the provision of the Covenant which stipulated that minimum wage had to guarantee decent standard of living. An Expert noted the cuts in the social protection system and tightening of social welfare measures during the crisis and asked about the current understanding of the social protection system, and whether Ireland could assure the Committee that in the post-crisis period it would be able to deal with issues of concern and ensure the temporary nature of austerity measures? 

Although schools in Ireland were publically funded, most were private schools of religious denomination; 96 per cent of schools were religious and 91 per cent were Catholic.  The delegation was asked how this was compatible with the rights of parents to choose education for their children, and about the impact of religious patronage on admission in the schools, selection of teachers, and the building of curriculum.

The education issue in the country was a sensitive one, and it appeared that there was discrimination in the school system against migrant children, minority children, and children with disabilities.  Experts asked how discrimination in schools was being addressed, about the results of the Education Strategy 2010-2015, whether Ireland planned to speed up measures to set up secular schools, and if it would change laws which prevented children from enrolling in some schools based on their religion and confession.  What arrangements were in place to ensure the minimum standard of education for children not participating in the school system? 

The number of Traveller families had risen by almost 80 per cent, and now stood at over 8,400 families, which was an indicator of the wish to maintain their cultural identity; why were Travellers not recognized as an ethnic minority, what was their legal status, and did they have access to the minority protection regime of Ireland?  What measures were in place to address the high drop-out rate of Traveller children and address discrimination against them in schools?

WALEED SADI, Committee Chairperson, said that the separation between the State and Church was a bit fuzzy; this separation was almost sacrosanct by European standards and Ireland.  Ireland seemed to be a uni-cultural rather than multicultural society, and the Committee Chairperson wondered about the situation with minority rights and whether there was an integration policy in place.   

ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY PILLAY, Committee Expert acting as a Country Rapporteur, said than not all women workers were covered by maternity benefits and paternity leave was not statutory.  There were gaps in the legislation in protecting and assisting victims of domestic violence, and Ireland had committed to introduce the Domestic Violence Bill by the end of 2015; what was the status of the bill and could the delegation comment on the significant cuts in funding for shelters as a result of austerity measures?  There had been a rise in homeless families: between January and November 2014, 450 families including some 1,000 children had become homeless.  What measures were in place to accelerate social housing programmes and reduce the waiting list and what measures were in place to protect tenants from evictions?  What progress had been made in introducing universal health coverage and community-based health services, and in the reforms of the 2001 Mental Health Act?  The Committee was concerned about the mental health of asylum seekers placed in the direct provision system, and about the poor health status of Travellers and Roma whose life expectancy was 15 years lower and who suffered disproportionately high rates of infant mortality.

Response by the Delegation

Responding to those questions, the delegation said that the Constitution guaranteed equality of treatment and freedom of conscience to all persons and all religions, and those of no religion. 
 
The Government was reforming the disability service system under which new a model of support was available for persons with disabilities to move from congregated setting to more community-based ones; the closure of congregated centres would happen only when each resident was ready to leave and had in place a personal life plan.  All residents in the centres could expect the best standards of care and the respect for human rights, while centres were subject to verification by the Health Insurance Quality Authority.  A plan of action was in place to address instances where the Health Insurance Quality Authority had expressed concern that standards of care and standards were not being respected.  An Expert Group had been established to review the 2001 Mental Health Act to give it a more person-centred approach. 

Female genital mutilation was an issue that needed to be addressed; a specialized clinic in Dublin had been established for the needs of women in this area and an information pack had been developed for general practitioners.  It was estimated that nearly 3,800 girls and women aged 15-44 years were in this category.  Travellers had the right to access all social services like any other person.  Efforts were made to align the response of primary health care to the needs of Travellers and Roma.  The health reform policy was to move towards the new model of integrated care where patients could be treated with the least degree of complexity.  Universal health insurance was a Government policy which was being gradually introduced; the number of medical cards had been substantially decreased during the crisis and was a demonstration of the commitment of the health services to meet the needs of those in need.

Provisional figures indicated that the gender gap had increased from 11 per cent in 2001 to 13.6 in 2012; the pay gap had remain steady in the private sector, decreased in the public services, health and social sector, but in the education sector it had increased from 7.8 per cent in 2011 to 29.9 in 2012 and this was flagged as an area for further investigation by the Government.  Domestic violence was not classified as a separate criminal offence in the law and this affected the collection of disaggregated data.  Ireland was committed to reform domestic violence legislation and would publish it by the end of the year; Ireland would soon sign the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and ratify it as soon as the required legislation was in place.

More than 3 per cent of public sector employees were persons with disabilities; there were no plans to introduce statutory requirements for employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector, but rather to encourage and support private sector employers in the employment of persons with disabilities.  The real barrier to the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was legislative as the legal system in Ireland required that the necessary laws were in place before the ratification.  Further, there was a blanket ban on people with intellectual disabilities to establish a family, which was currently being revised, and there were also issues with reasonable accommodation. 

In terms of recognizing Travellers as an ethnic minority, Ireland was in discussion with Traveller groups in order to understand exactly their needs and requests.  This consultation process would lead to a statement by the national organization of Travellers, which would then be discussed in a round table.  They were self-identifying as Irish and it was important to them that their culture and heritage were recognized, not necessarily legally, but in practical terms.

The crisis in Ireland was that of unemployment and decrease of income, in which people started to fall through the cracks; the welfare system acted as an automatic stabilizer in this crisis that had been on a scale that Ireland had never seen before.  Ireland had invested heavily in social protection prior to the crisis to ensure an adequate standard of living: between 2000 and 2007 it had doubled the investment into the system, making it robust and effective.  A key statistical measure of the role of the social protection system in cushioning the effect of the crisis was the at-risk-of poverty rate: prior to the crisis, social transfer decreased the rate by 50 per cent, and during the crisis social transfers reduced the at-risk-of poverty rate from 38 per cent to 15 per cent.  Ireland was the best performing country in the European Union in reducing poverty rates though social transfers, and was two-and-a-half times more effective than other countries using the social transfer system.  This data highlighted the crucial role that the social protection system had played in Ireland.  With the introduction of social transfer and the tax and welfare system, income inequality had been reduced from the highest in Europe to the lowest in Europe: a good social protection system was crucial when a crisis occurred and this was one of the lessons learned. 

Major progress had been made in reducing the unemployment rate since 2012 which now stood at below 10 per cent, and the percentage of long-term unemployment had been turned around.  The Government had developed Pathways to Work to ensure that the unemployed were aided and assisted back to employment, with one-stop-shops providing integrated services throughout the country.  Over the past several years, Ireland had created 8,000 jobs of which 86 per cent were full time jobs.

The rate of in-work poverty was five per cent and was the lowest in the last ten years.  Measures that had been successful in addressing in-work poverty included robust minimum wage, extensive range of in-work benefits to make sure work paid, and increased support for low-paid families, back-to-work family dividend to assist those out of work for a long time, and a very low threshold to access the social security system.  The consistent poverty rate was eight per cent in 2012, and at-risk-of poverty fell to 15.3 from over 16 per cent in the three years before the crisis.

The rate of the national minimum wage was €8.65 per hour, which was the fifth highest among the 22 States of the European Union which had national minimum wage.  At the moment, 4.4 per cent or over 70,000 workers were being paid minimum wage.  The Low Pay Commission had been established in February 2015 to examine categories of workers on minimum wage and how they were treated; it had already initiated a consultation process and would submit its first recommendations by mid-July 2015. 

There was a heavy preponderance of patronage in private schools; the Government had established the Forum on Patronage to examine how the education system could change to respond to the needs of the changing society. 

In a series of follow up questions and comments, Committee Experts stressed the supremacy of human rights law and the Covenant and its application in times of crises.  Ireland needed more vigorous legislation for the banking sector and the reform of the taxation policy.  Consistent poverty had increased including for children; there was no national food and nutrition policy in place and Ireland led the obesity trend. 
 
Concluding Remarks

SEAN SHERLOCK, Minister of State for Development, Trade Promotion and North South Cooperation of Ireland, thanked Committee Experts for the constructive engagement and the valuable dialogue; the Committee had asked more than 100 questions to which Ireland would reply comprehensively.  Ireland respected the weight of the opinion of the Committee and took the process very seriously.  In spite of the very tough decisions made over the past several years, Ireland tried to ensure the social protection floors were there for the citizens and would endeavour to raise living standards.  There was a more collaborative approach in delivering good governance and Ireland was moving to the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights and the increase of the standard of living for Irish citizens.

WALEED SADI, Committee Chairperson, said that this had been a very fruitful dialogue from which the Committee had learned a lot.

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