In this post, Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn look at the role of psychological coercion, notably through the imposition of positive affect, in UK Government workfare programmes. There has been little or no debate about the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring, modifying and/or punishing people who claim social security benefits. This silence raises important ethical questions, including about the relationship of psychology to the medical humanities.
Whistle while you work (for nothing): positive affect as coercive strategy
– the case of workfare 
The growth and influence of discourses of positive affect in systems of governance and ‘technologies of the self’ has been widely observed. ‘Strengths based discourse’ is a significant policy imperative in health and welfare reform and underpins ‘the application of behavioural science and psychology to public policy’ via the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or ‘nudge unit’. Positive affect plays an important supporting role in policy preoccupations with how best to manage the intersection of long term conditions and long term unemployment, exemplified in the shift from rest cure, (signified by the sick note), to work cure, (signified by the fit note).
The deployment of positive affect within the active labour market policies pursued by both Labour and the Coalition is legitimated by and reinforces the economic model that UK governments have drawn on over the last thirty years, according to which long-term unemployment is itself a barrier to employment. Unemployment – ‘worklessness’ – is held to be a harmful attribute that people may acquire, linked to ideas of debility and dependency, which makes them less employable. Hence interventions designed to change individuals’ behaviour and tackle their alleged loss of ‘employability’ are posited as a reasonable approach to a macroeconomic problem. Workfare is increasingly central to such policy, combining twin imperatives of this supply-side package, this relentless focus on claimants: to change the behaviour of people whose employment-related behaviour is deemed inadequate and to make life lived on subsistence benefits (even) more punitive and less viable.
So the use of positive affect in the delivery of workfare has far ranging consequences for people who are unemployed, sick, disabled or in ‘in work’ poverty (i.e. deemed not to be working enough hours, or not doing enough to secure ‘better paid work’). This includes mandatory participation in ‘positive psychology’ courses and the use of psychological referral as punishment for non-compliance (regulated and ad-hoc) with the new regimes of welfare conditionality to which people claiming out of work benefits (or in future, universal credit) are subject. In addition to those currently claiming benefits, those who could be at risk of doing so – notably those currently adopting ‘unhealthy behaviours’ – are also regularly subjected to the blandishments of positive thinking. Populations ‘marked out for wearing out’ as Lauren Berlant puts it. Central themes include positive affect as ‘health asset’ and potent form of personal capital – in other words, positive affect as a substitute for income and security: ‘cruel optimism’ indeed.
These developments mean that positive psychology is now as significant a feature of conditionality in the lives of those who are poor as going to church once was, and they share a common evangelical language: ‘something within the spirit of individuals living within deprived communities that needs healed’ (SCDC 2011, 3). Unfortunately, the compulsions of positive affect are not confined to Sundays.
I am shy and have difficulty speaking to people and I will not do play acting in front of a group of people I am very uncomfortable with…. I was told I would be sanctioned if I didn’t take part, so I said I would get up, but I am not speaking…. After that, we had to fill out yet another ‘benefits of being assertive’ sheet.
‘he was determined to change my ‘being’ which was apparently what is preventing me from getting a job …. The main point which was hammered home time and again was that if we believed we could get a job, then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier and he seemed intent on us all having mini epiphanies there and then. ‘
The choice was to accept psych eval, or go straight to MWA… 
The rise of psychological coercion, ‘positive affect as coercive strategy’, and the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring, modifying and/or punishing people who claim social security benefits raises important ethical questions about psychological authority ( being ‘nasty in a nice way’ – as one person on Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) put it). It also invites reflection on the rarity of challenges to the authority of psychology, (Whitehead’s ‘emerging cartel of psychocrats’), given its central role in the legitimising and implementation of workfare . So our first question concerns the relationship between psychology and psychologists and the field of medical humanities – critical or otherwise.
The complex supply chains of the Work Programme, which makes heavy use of the voluntary sector, make this question and the self-scrutiny it ought to provoke more pressing. Such complexity serves to insulate charitable organisations (who advise or provide services for contractors, or who arrange and benefit from placements) from the decision of whether or not to sanction claimants and from accountability for the consequences.
Compulsory positive affect and psychological authority are being applied in workfare in three (overlapping) ways:
- to identify psychological barriers to gaining employment
- to punish people for non-compliance
- to inculcate attributes and attitudes said to increase employability
Psychological barriers: lack of motivation
One of the criteria for being sent on Community Work Placements is ‘lack of motivation’, regarded in the policy literature as a significant impediment to gaining employment – although how lack of motivation is defined and identified is vague and random. Eligibility for both out of work and in work benefits is now explicitly contingent not only on certain behaviours, but also on possession of the right affect: conditions placed on who can receive social security are confused with demands on what recipients are and do, and disallowances (questionable on other grounds) are confused with sanctions, both to the detriment of claimants. Failure to be ‘actively seeking work’ accounts for the biggest share of the colossal – and accelerating – increase in sanction rates since 2004.
The consistent failure of Work Programme interventions to improve work outcomes has resulted in a much greater focus on psychological or ‘soft outcomes’ – motivation, confidence, ‘job-seeking behaviour’, ‘a positive change in attitude to work’ – said to ‘move people closer to work’. The pool of forced work options available – the number of different workfare schemes, along with traineeships, apprenticeships, and intermediate labour markets, in combination with bogus self-employment and short-term or part-time minimum wage work (participation in all of which is compelled directly or indirectly by sanctions) – creates a field within which affect becomes a major criterion for measuring one claimant against another. An individual can shuttle between schemes, their work entirely disengaged from pay, which becomes an attribute of mindset: a wage, if ever introduced, will ‘more faithfully replicate the experience of work’.
Efforts to achieve these soft outcomes – the right affect – are evident in the course content of mandatory training programmes run by major workfare contractors like A4e and Ingeus. The A4e Engage Module states: ‘to appreciate the importance of mindset to employers’ : students will learn how to develop the right mindset which will appeal to employers. Other elements of this module are assertiveness, confidence, benefits of work, motivation, enhance your mood.
It’s worth reiterating here what these and other supported job search activities involve. They are mandatory: refusal to participate can and does result in sanctions, plunging people into absolute poverty. Sanctions are a significant factor in the escalating use of food banks. These activities may involve tasks experienced as humiliating and pointless by job seekers. There is no evidence that these interventions increase the likelihood of gaining decent paid work. In perpetuating notions of psychological failure, they shift attention from market failure and the growth of in-work poverty. They contribute to the wider role of psychology in the validation of an increasingly narrow range of attributes – self efficacy, aspiration, optimism, positive thinking, assertiveness – with no reference to the contested nature of these terms or their ideological underpinnings and the processes through which they acquire social value and economic reward.
‘Basically what I’m saying in short is that I feel there is no place in society for a quiet, shy, creative person like me. And now I feel I don’t even deserve to call myself creative, because I don’t even do that anymore, because I am too depressed’ 
There are a number of personal testimonies of people being referred to a psychologist for non-compliant behaviour e.g. asking to record interviews with job centre advisors or raising questions:
‘ I have been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for about 8 weeks. I haven’t sworn or shouted at anyone. I have had 3 advisor interviews already; yesterday my adviser asked me to see their psychologist. I did not consent. I have been told that I shouldn’t look into things too deeply… and that I am asking too many questions…. They were concerned that there might be ‘some undiagnosed mental illness’ which they said they were unqualified to identify’ (email to Boycott Workfare)
Increasing positive affect
In addition to mandatory training informed by positive psychology, claimants are subjected to a wide range of strengths based interventions, including on-line psychometric testing ( ‘failure to comply may result in loss of benefits’). As Cromby and Willis have noted, not only was the Values in Action (VIA) ‘Inventory of Signature Strengths’ test recently imposed on claimants known to have failed validation, every aspect of its use contravened the British Psychological Society’s ethical code.
The messages in the course handout for the A4e (mandatory) ‘Healthy Attitudes for Living’ course take these themes a step further, intended, perhaps, to counter any residual yearnings in the ‘job seeker’ for either justice or security.
‘Sometimes life’s just plain unfair. Bad things happen to the nicest of people. On top of being unfair, life’s unpredictable and uncertain a great deal of the time. And really, that’s just the way life is…. ‘
‘Life’s unfair to pretty much everyone from time to time. If you can accept the cold hard reality of injustice and uncertainty, you’re far more likely to bounce back when life slaps you in the face. You’re also less likely to be anxious about making decisions and taking risks. But remember, you can still strive to play fair yourself ‘
– A4e Healthy Attitudes for Living
The reminder that ‘you can still play fair yourself’ delegates the role of ‘playing fair’ to people in situations of poverty and unpaid labour and of course also tends to pre-empt reflection on structural injustice.
This general conspiracy of optimism, normative cheerfulness and resilience in the face of adversity, is part of a larger problem of the denial of pain, companion to denial of the problem of neoliberal economics. Positive affect as it is now deployed constitutes a more and more arduous and demeaning array of tasks whose insufficient performance is a sanctionable offence. Working on these deficits becomes the full time unpaid labour of millions of people, which, together with mandatory job search activities, ensures that these days, people who are poor have both no money and no time.
In thinking about positive affect as psychological coercion, we have felt that the whole area of workfare is under-theorised. Perhaps partly because a surprising range of people subscribe to the view that both positive affect and work are deeply desirable, cures for many ills and sources of meaning: conferring agency and dignity.
The level of professional silence on these questions is a matter of serious concern: the failure of the British Psychological Society, for example, to engage with the issue of workfare. When a profession gains social value (and lucrative contracts) from instilling the very attributes admired – insisted upon – by neoliberal economics and the Cabinet Office, it must necessarily avert its gaze from those plunged into absolute poverty by sanctions applied for various defects of behaviour, character and attitude. Issues of complicity are very pressing. But a shared analysis of power is a riposte to bogus and restricted agency: join the resistance.
 We draw on personal testimonies from people blogging about their experiences of workfare and on our own experiences with the Boycott Workfare Campaign, of which we are both members. Our views are our own and we do not speak on behalf of Boycott Workfare or, of course, on behalf of the 1.35 million people claiming Job Seekers Allowance.
 Berlant Lauren (2006) Cruel Optimism, Differences 17.5: 21-36; and New Formations (2008) (longer version); (2007) Slow Death, Critical Inquiry 33: 754-780; Howell A & Veronka J (2012) The Politics of Resilience & recovery in mental health care
 Friedli L (2012) What we’ve tried hasn’t worked: the politics of asset based public health, Critical Public Health
 David Webster (2005) Long-term unemployment, the invention of ‘hysteresis’ and the misdiagnosis of structural unemployment in the UK, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 29, 975-95
 McLean, J. 2011. Asset Based Approaches to Health Improvement: Redressing the Balance. Briefing Paper 9 Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health
 Berlant L (2007) Slow Death Critical Inquiry 33:4
 K Day, What?! You’re Telling Me You Lost My Dunce Work? The Joy of the JobCentre Programme blog, 20 August 2013.
 Izzy Koksal, Adventures at A4E, Izzy Koksal blog, 13 April 2012
 Email to Boycott Workfare. MWA is mandatory unpaid work activity
 Whitehead M, Jones R and Pykett J. (2011) Governing irrationality, or a more than rational government? Reflections on the rescientisation of decision making in British public policy. Environment and Planning A 43: 2819-2837.
 Mandatory unpaid labour for up to 30 hours per week, for up to 30 weeks, alongside up to 15 hours per week of supported job search
 David Webster (2013) Written Evidence submitted to Commons Select Committee on Work and Pensions Inquiry into the Role of Job Centre Plus in the Reformed Welfare System
 Ibid.; Webster points out that the definition of employment adopted in 1919 – to be unemployed one must be looking for work – has been contested ever since its inception, and was abolished for much of the 20th century.
 Rahim et al (2012) Evaluation of SVLTU DWP Research Summary (emphasis added)
 Email from Graham Parry (Groundwork London) to Peter Purdie (Head of Estate Services, Homes for Haringey), 17th January 2012 (made available via Freedom of Information request)
 K Day, How Work Programme Makes Me Feel, The Joy of the JobCentre Programme blog, 18 August 2013.
 The Skwawkbox, DWP: Fake Psych ‘Test’ Training Given by Unqualified ‘Experts, The Skwawkbox blog, 4 July 2013.
 Cromby J & Willis MEH (2013) Nudging into subjectification: Governmentality and psychometrics Critical Social Policy
 This delegation resonates with Mel Y Chen’s description of compassion: ‘an affective obligation separated from justice.’
 Nussbaum M (2012) Who is the happy warrior? Philosophy, happiness research, and public policy International Review of Economics, 2012, vol. 59, issue 4, pages 335-361
 There is a wider debate to be had about discourses of positive affect that have their roots in resistance – notably in resistance to the imposition of psychiatric labels and diagnostic categories. It’s an important question: what distinguishes the stories that form part of these traditions (making political meaning out of adversity) from the ‘recovery stories’ appropriated and expropriated by mental health and other institutions? Howell A and Veronka J The Politics of Resilience & recovery in mental health care
My ‘advisor’ said I needed to see a psychologist because I was tearful and anxious after having my JSA cut for 4 weeks despite having a young child to look after by myself. When I said I did not trust anyone who finds it acceptable to starve others as a punishment, he told me that I was paranoid and again, needed to see a psychologist.
Thank you for telling us about your experiences – what happened to you reflects what more and more people are reporting – that normal reactions to workfare, sanctions etc are being labelled ‘mad’ or deranged in some way. People who resist or rebel have similar experiences. I feel it’s incredibly important to keep a record of what is going on and to hold professionals involved to account. You probably know about Boycott Workfare, but if not, they are a really good source of support and information on workfare. There are also more and more local groups fighting back. thanks again for your message.
I suffered 2 years of nonsense at the hands of A4e. This included their mandatory “Inspire” course delivered by “Masters of Nero Linguistic Programming”.
I subsequently wrote:
I have made two complaints to A4greed. The first got kicked up the food chain to Regional Manager level and I am still waiting for a reply (3 months now). I had to remin them about the second and was given a name of a HO wallah who would answer My complant Complaint was before Xmas – no reply yet! So much for their complaints process! Unfortunately you have to exhaust it before ICE will even think of getting off their bums and doing something. I decided to let the situation ride but will resurrect these 2 complaints if I get annoyed with them. Meanwhile I had to attend INSPIRE last week. I have decided to compl;ain (yes again!). This time I will be complaining to JCP with a copy to my MP:_
Dear Sir or Madam,
A4e and Neuro Linguistic Programming
Please treat the following as a formal complaint.
The background to this complaint is as follows: I am mandated on to the Work Programme and have been consigned to A4e Ltd. as a “customer”. I received a letter from A4e dated 15th February, that informed me:
“you have been booked on INSPIRE. This will be held at A4e XXXX ofice commencing 1000 hours on 1st March 2012 and will run until 1500 hours.”
There then followed the standard warning about non-attendance affecting benefits but no further clue as to what “INSPIRE” may be. Prior to this letter there had been no discussion about INSPIRE, no information provided and no agreement to attend obtained from me (I do realise that my agreement is not required!).
I duly attended the offices of A4e and (along with 6 other “customers”) was treated to INSPIRE. This turned out to be a session on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) run by an outside company (i.e. not A4e staff) claiming to be “Master Practitioners in NLP”.
I am sure that you can do your own research in to NLP (something I was unable to do prior to attending “INSPIRE” because of the ambush nature of the mandatory course). Suffice it to say that Neuro Linguistic Programming comprises a number of psychological techniques including hypnosis. Of course opinion is divided as to the efficacy or otherwise of NLP but there is a considerable body of informed opinion that believes that NLP is discredited and even dangerous in that it can encourage dangerous delusions. INSPIRE actually lasted around 3 and a half hours rather than the scheduled 5 and during this time I and the other candidates were effectively a captive audience. Any attempt to leave would have lead to a sanction doubt being raised for non-participation. Any attempt to query the assertions of the presenter was treated with disdain, even contempt. Doubtless any more vigorous display of independent thought would have been met with the “sanction doubt” threat.
Specifically I want you to consider the following points:
1. The nature of the course was not disclosed to me beforehand (indeed no discussion took place) and so I had no chance to research NLP or question the effectiveness (or otherwise) of INSPIRE. In effect INSPIRE was an ambush scenario with the NLP involvement not being disclosed until the session started.
2. I was “mandated” to attend under threat of loss of benefits and was effectively unable to leave the NLP session because of the same ever present threat.
3. Subsequent research has shown me that NLP is controversial. Opinion is certainly divided with some ludicrously exaggerated claims being made by some of its proponents (most of whom seem to have something to gain). Other experts claim that NLP is little more than “snake oil” being peddled as a universal panacea for the ills of the world.
I consider myself to be a tolerant person and am quite happy for anyone to believe in anything they want to provided that: a) their beliefs do not harm anyone and b) they do not force their beliefs on others. I am not sure that A4e’s compulsory NLP session meets either of these criteria. I think it is inappropriate to mandate people on to a course which advocates and uses NLP techniques without first checking with potential particpants that they want to attend – and giving them the option not to do so.
4. I am making this complaint to the JCP rather than to A4e because I fear punitive actions in retribution should I complain through A4e’s processes.
1. Neurologica (Dr. Steven Novella) – Neurolinguistic Programming and other Nonsense “…the assumptions of NLP, namely that our cognition, behavior and emotions can be ‘programmed’ by mimicking the more superficial aspects of those with desirable attributes (for example posture and mannerism) are wrong.
The last thirty years of research have simply shown that NLP is bunk.”
2. NLP has now been identified as one of a top 10 most discredited interventions according to a published research survey by Norcross et al (2008)
John C. Norcross, Thomas P. Hogan, Gerald P. Koocher (2008) Clinician’s Guide to Evidence-based Practices. Oxford University Press, USA
Good report, and explains why my work programme adviser talked about life being unfair the other day. As a psychology graduate myself I think it would have been good to raise the point that reward is considered to be more effective than punishment.
An excellent discourse on the NLP trick of ‘Positive affect’ or as I like to call it ‘positive affectations’ 😉
“ Behind the glorification of “work” and the tireless talk of “blessings of work” I find the same thought as behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual. At bottom, one now feels when confronted with work-and what is invariably meant is relentless industry from early till late-that such work is the best policy, that it keeps everybody in harness and powerfully obstructs the development of reason, of covetousness, of the desire for independence. For it uses up a tremendous amount of nervous energy and takes it away from reflection, brooding, dreaming, worry, love, and hatred; it always sets a small goal before one’s eyes and permits easy and regular satisfaction. In that way a society in which the members continually work hard will have more security: and security is now adored as the supreme goddess. And now-horrors!-it is precisely the “worker” who has become dangerous. “Dangerous individuals are swarming all around.” And behind them, the danger of dangers: the individual.” Nietzsche, F. (1956/1908) Live dangerously. In W., Kaufmann (ed.), Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (pp. 100-112). New York, Meridian Books.
Thanks for this excellent critique and deconstruction of the psychological coercion – actually, psychological pseudo-science – behind workfare.
Thank you to everyone for your comments and for sharing your experiences. We hope the debate here will contribute to the wider fight back against workfare and also help to hold psychology to account.
Reblogged this on Launchpad: By and for mental health service users and commented:
Note to Government: don’t let petty considerations like morals or ethics get in the way of manipulating and coercing the very public whom you’re meant to serve.
Thank you very much for the re-blog. And for your note to Government. Pity they aren’t currently listening…. really pleased to have the debate on Launchpad, so thanks again.
Not a problem, Lynne: it’s dear to our hearts and much of the work we do (some of which ties with the Centre fro medical Humanities). It’s many moons since you last visited us (so many that we’re in different -better- premises, but still in Newcastle, but it’d be grand to see you again. Plus (with Angela and Charles and co, plus many others) we’re organising some public events/lectures/discussions for the 2nd/3rd quarter of next year, on MH,wellbeing, policy,language used,debates to be had etc. Interested?, .
really, really interested! You can reach me via email@example.com
Really I do not like to go off at a tangent after reading this article – I am never really sure whether or not I am on or off track with a subject but i will do my best.
My experience of A4E was not good at all in 2010 before much more heat was applied with regards to sanctions to many on JSA. I was receiving JSA until 18th January 2010, the day I applied for ESA after being informed after 4 weeks in hospital that I needed a heart transplant. I did receive ESA but at some point I was invited by ATOS to go for a medical which I assume was for a work related activity check.
I attended the medical but heard nothing from the DWP decision makers but it was near to the time when I had left heart ventrical reconstruction surgery (heart transplant decision reversed) to make an enlarged heart smaller. I was in hospital after this for an unusually long time (18 days) but I did need resucitating twice.
On arriving home and hardly unable to stand let alone walk, I opened my brown envelope and found I had “constructively” been awarded 9 points for my ESA claim. I also opened an unexpected A4E letter dated before my DWP brown envelope letter informing me that if I did not attend the A4E office at the specified date and time, my current benefit claim would be suspended (sanctioned).
Luckily for me within my pile of letters was a letter from a very kind hospital doctor and whilst the letter contained sad news from a personal health point of view, I knew the information therein could not be ignored by any DWP Decision Maker which to my mind put the whole process of ATOS medicals in doubt. More so I felt A4E to be simply a commercial organisation with all the cards in their hands for win win win by them no matter what. It is a dire place in which claimants of any benefit (except child benefit of course) are in in the UK – it is neither about health anymore nor the availability of jobs for people on JSA – it is all about squashing and demoralising people no matter what it takes.
Thank you – I don’t think your testimony is a tangent – I think it illustrates exactly your point ‘it is all about squashing and demoralising people no matter what it takes’. I’m sorry we have a system that is designed to punish people when we are ill, disabled, vulnerable and I’m sorry that you were treated like this. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to our blog. However long it takes, this government and those who aid and abet them, will be held to account.
Thank you for this powerful piece of work.
It is enraging that any unlucky people in our society are being subjected to indignity after indignity. It is doubly enraging that the social sciences are increasingly the means of making this possible.
As you said in your last comment “However long it takes, this government and those who aid and abet them, will be held to account.”
The messages in the course handout for the A4e (mandatory) ‘Healthy Attitudes for Living’ course take these themes a step further, intended, perhaps, to counter any residual yearnings in the ‘job seeker’ for either justice or security.
I am not being flippant – I am truly convinced that future historians will study documents like these to understand how the fascist state began in Britain. I know people throw around the word “fascist”, but I am beginning to see this as absolutely real and happening right now – I imagine in the same way that people in Italy, Spain and Germany did, watching the rolling horror of what is happening in their country without having a clue how to stop it.
This is one of the most important pieces I;ve read on this. I’d actually seen some of the blog pieces already, but when you put them together and start analysing them, a really sick, horrifying picture emerges of a policy of “psychologising” of any dissent or intelligent criticism. Thank you.
Yes it is quite a frightening prospect especially if the reality embeds itself within you but in many it will not / does not and i think modern media is responsible for much of this with its anesthetic properties.
It may seem bit jokey to say so but the film The Running Man illustrates how durable and insulated mentally people become and the states portrayed are arrived at very very slowly so as to make the end result almost unnoticeable in the passage of time.
No matter how frightening, it is good to be aware from the perspective of personal survival.
MJT, have you heard of the term “GASLIGHTING” – a component of a larger menace called Gang Stalking?
Yes, the silence of the British Psychological Society is alarming.
If you look in Wikipeadia, you will find the British Psychological society “cannot campaign on issues which are seen as party political”. This is because it is a registered charity!
MADHOUSE OF THE POLITICS
With the British Psychological Society rendered a toothless tiger, what is the antidote to the toxic babble rampant in Jobcentres these days – the latter fast becoming the madhouse of the politics!
Reblogged this on patricktsudlow and commented:
The present UK Government is attacking those less able to protect themselves, whilst giving tax-breaks to large corporation. We are back in Edwardian England, not the 21st century.
I think the whole sector is riddled with all this pop pyschology rubbish. Certainly that has informed my experience with Salvation Army Employment Plus even though they haven’t put me on any of these bizarre courses (in fact i’ve had barely any contact with them (other than to be bullied by an advisor who refused point blank to listen to me explain my own anxiety issues because i wasn’t accompanied by a nurse). Even so the advisors are all versed in the buzzwords and jargon of the industry. Sof ro example, when I asked what help was available I was told that it was ‘my journey’ and that they weren’t there to take it for me only ‘signpost’ me (they didn’t even do that).
If you ask for help then you are being lazy and not engaging. if you don’t ask, then guess what…
Honestly, it’s a sham.
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