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Old Age Security Act

Bill to Amend--Third Reading--Debate

March 2, 2022


Hon. Jane Cordy [ - ]

Moved third reading of Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (Guaranteed Income Supplement).

She said: Honourable senators, it is my pleasure to rise today on the traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people and speak to third reading of Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act as it relates to the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

As I stated in my second reading speech, the aim of Bill C-12 is to exempt pandemic benefits received from the calculation of Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS, or allowance benefits beginning in July 2022.

This legislation, once passed, will protect our most vulnerable — and valuable — low-income seniors from seeing reductions in their GIS or allowance benefits as a result of accessing pandemic benefits.

As I outlined in my second reading speech, Bill C-12 may be short, but it is extremely important to seniors in Canada who receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement benefit.

As honourable senators know, the government introduced pandemic benefits in 2020 to help people avoid catastrophic income loss.

It was the right thing to do.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, and then the Canada Recovery Benefit did just that. These benefits have helped millions of Canadians, young and old, through unprecedented times. These financial supports were set up quickly to respond to the pandemic, and the benefits were made taxable to prevent misuse of the program.

However, because these benefits were made taxable, those seniors who needed to work and rely on Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement to survive saw their benefits clawed back as a result of accepting pandemic benefits, which qualified as income. The Guaranteed Income Supplement is an income-tested benefit, payable to low-income seniors who also receive the Old Age Security pension. A reduction of their monthly income is significant as too many of Canada’s seniors have limited monthly income.

Colleagues, to fix this problem for the upcoming Guaranteed Income Supplement reassessment period at the end of June and going forward, the following specific benefits will be exempt from the calculation of income for GIS or allowance purposes: the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, including any amount that was issued under the Employment Insurance Act; the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit; the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit; and the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit.

Colleagues, it was brought up by some senators during second reading and again during the committee study of the bill that there was a drafting error contained in the 2021 Budget Implementation Act. They believed this error will make a $500 government supplementary support payment that was recently sent to seniors a taxable benefit, which is not the intent.

An amendment was moved at committee by Senator Patterson to address the numbering error in the 2021 Budget Implementation Act by making changes to Bill C-12.

We know that there was a numbering error in the 2021 Budget Implementation Act. The Minister of Seniors’ officials assured committee members that this error would have no material impact on the delivery of services and benefits for seniors. Finance Canada also assured us that it will not have an impact on the delivery of services to those receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

I think we can all agree that the drafting error should be corrected. Government officials agree the drafting error should be corrected. There are several better options open to make this change rather than doing it here and putting seniors’ GIS payments at risk. The government can use the next Miscellaneous Statute Law Amendment Act process, the next Budget Implementation Act or introduce another bill. Honourable senators, the government has expressed an interest in working with senators on resolving this.

Colleagues, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Do we risk not passing Bill C-12 on time? Do we risk missing this deadline, which could affect 80,000 low-income seniors relying on their benefits arriving on time? Every witness who appeared before the committee urged us to pass this legislation immediately.

Thank you to the Social Affairs Committee who allowed me to ask questions during the debates.

Witnesses all shared their concerns that after passing this bill we continue to bring forward policies to help seniors deal with the challenges they face on a daily basis. We know that the seniors who will be most helped with this legislation will be mainly women, minorities and people facing disabilities. We also know that far too many of our seniors live in precarious financial situations where every dollar is necessary.

We heard excellent and impassioned testimony at committee from witnesses who are dedicated to helping ensure seniors are supported to live with dignity. But we know that by passing this bill, it is not the end; there is still much left to do.

Honourable senators, this legislation is important. It might be short, but its importance to seniors cannot be overstated.

As I said earlier, every witness — four panels — who appeared before the committee supported Bill C-12, and every witness said this bill should pass immediately with no amendments.

I hope that you will support this legislation as well, and that we will pass Bill C-12.

Thank you.

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson [ - ]

Will the honourable senator take a question?

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Certainly.

Senator Patterson [ - ]

Senator Cordy, you quoted the officials as saying that there will be no material impact on the payments to seniors as a result of what you have agreed is a legislative drafting error.

Would you agree that this really means that the officials are saying that they, in Finance and in Employment and Social Development Canada, this means that they will ignore the fact that they clearly have no legislative authority under which to make these payments?

If so, is that a precedent that, in this chamber, we want to encourage; that officials will cast a blind eye to issues like whether they have the legislative authority to make payments?

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Thank you, senator. I think you’re making a stretch here.

I spoke to the officials in Finance. The officials in Finance were on the briefing for all senators. At that time they said that it was a drafting error. We know that the drafting error was that it was brought in in the Budget Implementation Act — I won’t read it — but it was brought up then, that this would be implemented, that seniors would get the $500.

What that did, because there was a clause removed, it meant that instead of being section 276 it was section 275. So the intent was there. It wasn’t like the bill was passed and there was a different intent. The intent was there.

Officials from both departments have said that this drafting error will not affect seniors receiving the $500, that it will not count as taxable income. I think that you’re stretching it a little bit far with your comments.

Senator Patterson [ - ]

Senator Cordy, I would like to ask you this: Officials have said to ignore the legislative drafting error and they will make the payments anyway.

I am wondering, how do you feel about relying on officials to ensure that we can overlook the lack of legislative authority when it was probably those same officials who were responsible for the legislative drafting error that we are now dealing with in the Senate?

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Thank you very much.

Sometimes we can get very angry with governments, frustrated with governments. We can get very frustrated with officials. But public servants, I believe, are excellent people. We have got many people in this chamber who are former civil servants. I believe that they are all trying to do what is right for Canadians.

We also have to assume, senator, some responsibility for this. This bill came through this chamber. We didn’t fix it. So we can’t lay all the blame on the part of government officials and government overall. We also have to assume some responsibility.

What I’m saying is, it’s done. It’s a done deal. Let’s not hold our seniors hostage. Let’s make sure that they get the money. The people who are getting guaranteed income, the seniors who are getting the Guaranteed Income Supplement, are not people running around with big cars, fancy apartments. These are people who are living on the edge.

With what is happening today in the economy as a result of COVID, we know that many of them are struggling, those who are receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement. These people have had to take part-time jobs, not full-time jobs, because that would affect their Guaranteed Income Supplement. They are working part-time.

What kind of jobs do they have? First of all, we know that they are mainly women. The stats show that they are mainly women. We know that the kinds of jobs they have are in the service industry. They are making minimum wage or barely above minimum wage. Let’s not punish them because we’re frustrated by the way that this bill has come to us initially, when we didn’t notice it, and now again.

I trust the government officials that this will be passed in the immediate future. But in the meantime, I, for one, can’t punish vulnerable seniors.

Hon. Ratna Omidvar [ - ]

Senator Cordy, thank you for your sponsorship of the bill. Will you take a question?

The question of the drafting error, and fixing it, was raised in committee to the minister. Can you tell us what her response was and what her proposal and undertaking was to fix this error?

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Thank you very much.

As you know, the minister explained that she did not want this holding it up. I know that some of the solutions that were provided — and I did read them in my speech — that we could have the solution in the next Miscellaneous Statute Law Amendment Act, through that process. We have done that. I know the last time was in 2017. When I hear that it was 2017, I think that we’re past due to have another one shortly. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one very shortly.

We know that it could also be in the next budget implementation act. If it’s not there, and we don’t have the miscellaneous statutes, then perhaps you and I can get together and bring forward an amendment to the budget implementation act bill with that very item in it, or you could introduce another private member’s bill. Personally, I would rather go with either one of the first two that I mentioned.

Thank you for that.

Senator Omidvar [ - ]

Thank you, Senator Cordy, for that response and the suggestion.

I believe it is incumbent on this chamber to hold the minister and the government to their promise. I took it as a promise. I think we need to be on it. This is not so much a question as a commitment on our behalf, maybe others, to make sure this happens so that we are in line and everything is in order as it should be, as opposed to an accidental fixing of errors here and there.

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Sometimes a statement is very valuable. Your statement was, indeed, very valuable. I think that we should each make that commitment to do something about it in the very near future. I thank you for your leadership at the committee.

Hon. Patricia Bovey [ - ]

Senator Cordy, would you take another question?

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Yes, I will.

Senator Bovey [ - ]

Senator Cordy, I would like to thank you for your sponsorship of this bill. I just want to clarify if you heard what I heard from some of the witnesses.

Of the 185,000 people who will be affected by this, did we not hear that most of them were women and most of them over 80? Many of them are widowed or living alone.

When the question was posed, what would the effect be if this was not passed, did we not hear, as a committee, that it would be disastrous?

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Thank you very much. That’s a really good question.

Of course, we heard from witnesses that it would be devastating. As I said earlier, every witness who appeared before the committee, every witness, said this had to be passed immediately.

They went into great length to talk about other ways that we should be helping seniors, that this should not be the end, that we have one piece of seniors’ legislation to help them and then another one in a few years’ time.

It’s very important that we look at policies and financial help for seniors who are living on the edge and just barely making it from paycheque to paycheque. We heard of very poor situations that seniors are living in overall.

Thank you very much, Senator Bovey.

Hon. Terry M. Mercer [ - ]

I have another question for Senator Cordy.

Senator Cordy, I appreciate the fact that we have heard good words from public servants, and perhaps even the minister, that this will be fixed sometime in the future.

This is a minority government. This government could be defeated any day now. I do not see it happening in the near future, but it could happen.

Let’s say that Canadians then have lost total control of their senses and elected a Conservative government. What happens then? We have no commitment from them that they will fix it this way. We have a commitment from the current government.

It seems to me that we have talked here time and again about the House of Commons putting pressure on us to get things done quickly. Well, maybe we should be putting the pressure on them, reminding them that they are the ones who are going to go to these seniors, if there was an election called quickly, looking for their votes. They would have a hell of a time explaining this to them at the door. I know that.

Senator Cordy [ - ]

Thank you very much for your comment and your question. I saw Senator Plett smiling at some of your comments. I know Senator Plett is the same age I am, so he and I are both concerned about seniors being taken care of.

But you raised a really good point about this being done quickly. I have assurances from the minister, the department, Finance and the minister’s department. I even called them last weekend to make sure that all of these things were reiterated to them. They were very gracious about taking my call on a Sunday night, so that was good.

But you’re right: This has to be done quickly. I am hopeful it will be done this spring. I hate putting timelines on things, but I hope it’s done quickly.

Senator Mercer [ - ]

We could ask our Conservative colleagues in the upper chamber and in the leadership convention going on that you put this question to Mr. Charest and to Mr. Poilievre to maybe get them on the record as being committed to do the right thing.

Senator Cordy [ - ]

I’ll pass your message along to Senator Plett, even though he has heard it.

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)

Honourable senators, I hope Canadians heard Senator Mercer questioning their sanity as depending on who they voted for. I believe Canadians are always right when they vote, and they have always been right when they have elected a Conservative government, as well. Surely to goodness, I would expect that even our fine senators from Nova Scotia would agree that Canadians are right when they elect any government.

Now I’m going to talk about this bill.

Senator Cordy talked about the good intentions of the government. I’m sure we have all heard the proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In any event, there are good intentions here.

I’m wondering how short a bill needs to be before this government can get it right. This is a one-line bill, and they can’t number a bill properly. That’s really troubling to me that the fine citizens of Canada would elect a government that cannot tell the difference between 256 and 257.

With that, let me now make my non-partisan speech on this bill.

As I outlined in my second reading speech, our caucus does support this legislation. It is vitally important, because seniors who relied on pandemic relief programs should not be penalized for doing so. And yet, penalizing seniors is exactly what this government has done.

When the CERB program was announced in March 2020, seniors and senior advocacy organizations tried to get answers from the government: Would there be any negative impacts on their eligibility for other benefits, such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS? If they accepted the COVID benefits, they were assured there would not be. This would prove, again, to be tragically false, colleagues; seniors who collected pandemic relief soon found out that those benefits would be counted against their ability to qualify for the GIS.

When the dust settled, 204,000 seniors had their benefits cut by a cumulative total of $742.4 million. That is almost a billion dollars, colleagues — three quarters of a billion dollars.

Extracting $742 million from any demographic in Canada is bound to have a negative impact, but removing it from the most vulnerable population — seniors living on subsistence incomes — is cruel.

Leila Sarangi, National Director of Campaign 2000, shared some of that organization’s stories with the committee:

I’ve heard stories of hardships from seniors across the country over these past eight months: a senior woman in the Northwest Territories evicted in late fall and living in her car when temperatures were sub-zero; immigrant seniors in Ontario being evicted in online tribunals in an unusually cold January, as pandemic rent moratoriums lift; a senior with $70.88 left after paying rent; a couple unable to afford medication on their combined monthly income of $1,300.

Ms. Sarangi went on:

Some have been going to their places of worship, families and friends to borrow money. Others have been taking out lines of credit or loans from predatory payday lenders and wrapping up interest charges. They are unable to meet their basic needs. They are going without food, without toilet paper, without medication, and seniors have shared with me very serious health complications that are worsening by the day. Fear, stress and anxiety are increasing and, in the worst‑case scenarios, we’ve heard of seniors taking their own lives.

Colleagues, the government knew that COVID benefits were going to cause a serious problem for many seniors as far back as May 2020, but they did nothing about it. Instead, they let seniors suffer for eight months.

Ms. Devorah Kobluk, Senior Policy Analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, shared the following story:

Among those impacted was the 68-year-old senior in Ottawa who reached out to the legal clinic system. She worked as a self-employed dog walker prior to the pandemic. The pandemic caused her small business to completely collapse. She used CERB to supplement her lost income, pay for groceries, personal protective equipment and taxis to medical appointments. The avalanche of unintended consequences has been devastating. She was trying to survive on approximately $650 per month. Her rent increased because her “rent geared to income” was recalculated when she received CERB. She was at risk of homelessness, and we have heard of cases of eviction. She lost her Trillium Drug Program benefit that helped her pay for medication. We do not know if she will make it to the lump sum payment time in April.

Like other seniors in her position, with every passing month, it is becoming harder to pay for rent, rising food prices, transportation and medical supplies.

Colleagues, these are a small fraction of the 204,000 seniors who were impacted by this government’s incompetence. The stories are tragic. If nothing could have been done, perhaps we could have been a bit more understanding. The government was in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic that was straining resources on every side, but the truth is that the government had no fewer than three possible avenues by which it could have easily addressed this problem sooner.

First, they could have tabled this bill a year ago. One year ago in February 2021, CERB benefits had been rolling out for almost a year. Although the GIS benefits had not been reduced, the government had known for 10 months that the impact was coming. They had 10 months to work on it, but they did not bother to draft the single-clause bill that is before us today and now needs to be reworked. Instead, they chose to do nothing, colleagues — zero.

The second thing they could have done, as explained to the Social Affairs Committee by one of the witnesses, would have been to simply continue using the 2019 year as the base year for income when determining eligibility for GIS. This would have avoided the problem of including CERB benefits in the calculation of income for seniors who were already eligible for GIS payments.

But even if all of that failed for whatever reason, the government still could have acted to minimize the impacts on seniors.

Let me explain. Two months from now, in April, the government will be sending $742 million to seniors who had GIS clawed back from them. It will cover all of their GIS losses from July 2021 to June 2022.

This payment is being made under section 7 of the Department of Employment and Social Development Act, which authorizes the minister to make one-time grants without even needing to bring the issue before Parliament.

There is no need for legislation, no need for a vote, no need for a debate, no need to wait for some future Canada Revenue Agency income-tax return cycle and no need for an amendment to this bill.

You may recall the government used this same statutory authority to make two other COVID benefit payments. The first was a one-time payment to seniors in May 2020. Another payment was made in August 2021. These payments were simply announced, and the cheques sent out shortly thereafter.

The inconvenient truth is that the government could have used this same statutory authority to make one or more payments to seniors at any time over the last year just like they are doing now. This option was available to the government all along, but they decided not to use it, even though it would have alleviated significant hardship for seniors.

Miss Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of the seniors’ organization CanAge, told the Social Affairs Committee, in response to a question from Senator Poirier, that they were aware the government had this option and pressed them to use it. The government flatly refused.

Ms. Kobluk from the Income Security Advocacy Centre said the following about their experience after contacting the government:

Minister Khera responded with a short, I would say, form letter inviting us to meet with one of her staff officials. We replied and never had a meeting. Minister Qualtrough never replied. Minister Freeland never replied.

Instead of responding and dealing with a desperate situation, the government allowed 204,000 seniors to have their Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS, cut back or eliminated altogether over the last eight months.

Seniors’ organizations were flooded with calls, emails and letters from seniors desperately pleading for help. Diana Cable, Director of Policy and Research at CanAge, shared some excerpts from emails she had received from seniors who were struggling because of the government’s failure.

Allow me to read just a few examples:

I am a 70-year-old self-employed senior who has asked all the right questions to CRA and accountants . . . . I was never ever told GIS would be taken if I took CRB to cover my lost employment, which cost me dearly. . . .

I have many friends who are over 70 and have been evicted and are sleeping in their cars because of this screw-up. Winter with no shelter is a death sentence for tens of thousands who have been cut off through no fault of their own. This is very scary and truly insane. How is this possible in Canada?

I had my monthly income drop below the cost of my rent. . . .

Another of the emails reads:

I’m nearing crisis mode here. Going to have to succumb to selling my car, selling furniture, selling personal effects just to make it. . . .

Colleagues, this is nothing short of shameful. Even as we stand here today, this legislation changes nothing for seniors until July of this year when their GIS benefits will be restored. Furthermore, the government is going to force seniors to wait another two months before repaying them the income they have lost. The money will be welcome, but the damage has been done.

What of those who lost their homes because they couldn’t afford the rent? Or those who sold their car because they needed cash to buy groceries? Or those who lost their health because they couldn’t afford their medication? What of those who lost their lives because the stress was simply too much?

The GIS benefits can be repaid, but the cost of an incompetent government is difficult to calculate and can never be repaid. This is a price that Canadians have been paying for far too long.

Senator Mercer, thank you for supporting us.

Colleagues, as I said last week, our caucus supports this bill, but we reject this government’s incompetent, cavalier approach to enacting public policy and the impact that this has had on our most vulnerable Canadians.

Colleagues, let’s pass this bill today before the government can make another mess of things — today, colleagues. Thank you.

Senator Patterson [ - ]

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (Guaranteed Income Supplement).

Before I get to my main concern about this bill, I want to voice my concern about the hardships that Canada’s seniors are facing. I heard, during the committee study, of the difficulties that seniors have faced throughout the pandemic. Minister Khera spoke at committee about how the one-time payments authorized in the December economic and fiscal update will “fully compensate” — she said that several times — seniors for Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS, clawbacks experienced last year.

Yet, the witnesses were all clear that this is not full compensation. True, it would replace money that they would have been entitled to had the provisions in Bill C-12 been in effect then, but it will not come close to addressing the money that seniors are out, as other senators have said, because they had to take out a payday loan at exorbitant and predatory interest rates. It does not calculate the pain and mental anguish they suffered when they were faced with losing their homes and unable to pay their bills. There is no price tag we can put on the hunger they felt when they couldn’t afford groceries.

This important point arose during the committee, and I wanted to address it here today. It should also be noted that if and when this bill passes, it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that all seniors know their rights and entitlements in Canada. That means making more agents available via telephone and ensuring that there are staff who can explain these entitlements to unilingual elders in English, French and, where required, Indigenous languages.

As for my concerns with this bill, I must admit, I’m starting to feel like a broken record. I find myself constantly being pushed to rush through and, in some cases, like this one, even abdicate my duty of reviewing legislation in the name of expediency. Because this government cannot successfully manage its legislative agenda, I am told that any attempts to do the job of a senator would be obstructionist.

Why, then, are we here? Obviously, no one wants to stand in the way of Canada’s seniors accessing supports. Why can’t we bring these needed measures forward in a way that ensures Parliament is able to do its job?

We’re told that senators shouldn’t stand in the way of a bill unanimously passed in the other place, but I would note that the decision to skip committee study and second reading in the other place was not one that the opposition parties were comfortable with. They all lamented the speed at which the legislation was being rammed through but conceded they would not want to risk negatively impacting vulnerable seniors reliant on the GIS.

Surely, the government would have been told from the beginning of drafting this legislation that there was a technical issue, which they say requires March 4 to be a hard deadline to have this bill passed. Yet, it was only received in this chamber on February 21.

Colleagues, it is exactly this rushing, this lack of scrutiny that resulted in a significant drafting error in the 2021 Budget Implementation Act. I don’t agree with the characterization that this is merely a typographical error. The problem is that the section in the BIA dealing with exempting the one-time payment to seniors from the calculation of income does not refer to the correct act. Instead of referring to the Old Age Security Act, which is the exact same bill and the exact same section that Bill C-12 deals with, the BIA refers to unrelated amendments to the Public Service Employment Act. Where, then, is the legal authority to exempt these payments?

When we raised these questions, it was met in a way that I personally felt was dismissive of our concerns. We have been told many times not to worry about this. Minister Khera, in a letter to Senator Griffin and copied to several other senators, states, “This renumbering matter has not resulted in any material impacts on benefits and services for seniors.”

That means then that the department is, very strictly speaking, operating outside of the confines of the law. Again, I have to wonder, what clear legislative authority do they have to exempt the one-time payment from GIS calculation? If we are turning a wilful blind eye to a significant drafting error based on the argument that we all know what the intent was — rather than what the actual law says — what precedent are we setting, honourable senators?

If the BIA had gone through the proper rigorous legislative review, it would have caught this error and corrected it then. Now we have Bill C-12, a bill whose sole purpose is to enumerate payments that will not be counted as income for the purposes of calculating OAS.

We could absolutely amend this bill to fix the error and ensure that our officials are operating within the strict confines of the law.

Now we are being told not to do that because, if we do, we will jeopardize the payments to tens of thousands of seniors. We are being told to look the other way and wait for future legislative measures. If Bill C-12 had been introduced earlier and with enough time to also have it properly reviewed, maybe there would be more willingness to let the Senate do its job as a revising body. I am dismayed at how often we are forced to abandon our duties as senators in the name of expediency.

There are those who will point to the Miscellaneous Statute Law Amendment Act as a better vehicle to address these concerns. But this is not a matter of a missing comma or adjusting the name of an entity that now operates under a modernized name. This is a significant revision.

Minister Khera, in that same letter, promised to “put it in another legislative vehicle to resolve this in a timely fashion,” but we’ve seen that adhering to a timely schedule is not a strong suit for this government.

But do you know what can be done in a timely fashion? Fixing this issue now. Colleagues, I’m not convinced that March 4 has to be a hard stop. I believe that the work expands to the time allotted. I find it incredible that our system would be so antiquated that a few days to do the right thing would be as catastrophic as has been portrayed. Former senior public servants in this chamber might concur that departments are able to quickly adapt to the will of Parliament.

When I became a lawyer in the 1970s and was called to the bar, I pledged to champion the rule of law. My oath included a commitment not to pervert the law or favour or prejudice anyone, but in all things I shall conduct myself honestly and with integrity and civility. When I joined the Senate in 2009, I swore another oath with a firm commitment to doing my duty to provide sober second thought. It’s with both these oaths in mind that I believe I now have a solemn duty to prepare an amendment to fix this legislative law. I believe if sober second thought — to review legislation sent to us and look for flaws and potential improvements — is to mean anything, we have a solemn duty to fix this now.

Senator Cordy told us this afternoon, in answer to my question, that this chamber is partly responsible for this problem because even though we only got the bill nine days ago, we could have fixed this flaw. Well, let’s take Senator Cordy up on this challenge to fix it here. In that spirit, let’s fix it now.

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