Committee Convenership

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:55 pm on 17 January 2001.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 4:55, 17 January 2001

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-1555, in the name of Tom McCabe, on convenership of committees, and one amendment to that motion.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour 4:59, 17 January 2001

As members will see, the motion proposes the parties that will fill the convenership and deputy convenership of the Justice 2 Committee, which was created following the restructuring of committees that we concluded prior to the Christmas recess. That restructuring took place after prolonged discussion among the major parties in the Scottish Parliament. Throughout those discussions, the Labour party made it clear that it would expect to chair the Justice 2 Committee. It made that clear on the straightforward principle that the then Justice and Home Affairs Committee was chaired by the largest Opposition party in the Scottish Parliament, and that the largest party in the Parliament should take the chair of the Justice 2 Committee on its creation.

It is worth remembering that, throughout the long negotiations, the Scottish National Party constantly changed its position on the restructuring of the committees of the Parliament. It did not support that restructuring. After the Parliament had accepted the restructuring, members of that party continued to speak against it in the press whenever they had an opportunity.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

No.

It is also worth remembering that, since the start of the Parliament, we have done our best to achieve a fair balance and distribution across the parties. We have done our best to ensure that the parties are as fairly represented as possible. I think that all parties have been happy to be guided by the d'Hondt principles, but I underline the word "guided".

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Can the Minister for Parliament outline those principles? The key principle of d'Hondt—this is the reason why we have the system—is to allocate places fairly, so that no party has a major advantage according to its proportion. Does the minister accept that his proposal will give 53 per cent of the convenerships to a party with 43 per cent of members? That is contrary to the principles of d'Hondt.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

D'Hondt has never been applied in its purest form—and not applying d'Hondt in its purest form has always been to the disadvantage of Labour. Mr Russell fails to mention that the d'Hondt formula, applied in its purest form on an 11-member committee, would give Labour six members on that committee. That was immediately recognised as unfair. Labour immediately conceded that it would accept having five members on an 11-member committee, and would depend on its coalition partners to form a majority on committees.

That underlines the point that we have never applied purely the principles of d'Hondt. Furthermore, in ensuring that d'Hondt was not purely applied, in the interests of fairness, Labour again sacrificed its pick of convenerships in order to move other parties further up that pick.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

There is a bit of amnesia in the chamber. Does the minister agree that, when Mike Russell was the SNP business manager, he accepted that the convenership of the Justice 2 Committee would not go to the SNP as it had the convenership of the Justice 1 Committee? Is not that the case?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I think that Mr Russell accepted the fairness of the situation whereby, given that the major Opposition party was to chair the Justice 1 Committee, the largest party in the Parliament would chair the Justice 2 Committee.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I will give way on one more occasion.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Jamie Stone's point was interesting. An offer was made to the Minister for Parliament to discuss the allocation of convenerships so that exactly what he wished would take place—however, there would be an application of d'Hondt, in fairness.

Can I make this point to the minister—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

My point would be to swap. In other words, can I make the point to the minister that, in—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I pay tribute to the minister for accepting two years ago the fairness of the system whereby the Labour party would not have a majority in every committee. That was a creditable action; what the minister is doing today is a discreditable action.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

What we are doing today is recognising that such proposals need to be examined in the round. We cannot be selective, deciding that principles must be applied on one issue when it has been accepted previously that to apply those principles in their purest form would in fact be unfair on other parties in the Parliament.

If d'Hondt were to be applied in its purest form, Labour would have an in-built majority on committees. If it were applied in its purest form, we would have a more advantageous pick of committee convenerships.

It has been suggested that a negotiation should have taken place between the Labour party and the largest Opposition party about the convenership of the new committee, the Justice 2 Committee. That would have been unfair on the other two parties. I give the commitment that if the four parties in the Parliament are prepared to go back to first principles and initiate again the picking of convenerships, we will seriously consider doing that. That commitment shows the fairness that we are prepared to apply to the convenership of committees.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Convener of the Justice 2 Committee be appointed from the Labour Party and that the Deputy Convener of the Justice 2 Committee be appointed from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 5:05, 17 January 2001

Well, well, well, here we are. Today, just 18 months into the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament, the recommendations of the consultative steering group—the touchstone of the Parliament—have been torn up to facilitate a grubby little backstairs deal between the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat business managers. To remind them of the CSG report, I have brought a copy for them to look at before they finally bin it.

The debate is not about which party should hold the convenership of the Justice 2 Committee, but about which party should hold the convenership of the 17th committee of the Parliament, and whether the convener of that committee should be selected in exactly the same way as the previous 16 were selected. As Tom McCabe well knows, I was prepared to negotiate on the SNP convenership of the Justice 1 Committee and the Justice 2 Committee—I offered yesterday to do so. I would also have agreed to go back to first principles and have a complete pick of all conveners, if the other parties, too, had agreed.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

Does the member accept that although the SNP may be prepared to negotiate on the membership of the Justice 2 Committee or to go back to first principles, that is a decision not for the SNP and Labour, but for every party in the Parliament?

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

If Mr McCabe will withdraw his motion, the SNP is prepared to negotiate the convenerships of all the committees. I hope that the Liberal Democrats and the Tories will give a similar undertaking.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

No. I will continue, as there are things that I want to say about this grubby little deal, in which Johann Lamont has had a part.

The Scotland Act 1998, the CSG report and the standing orders state clearly that in appointing conveners, the Parliamentary Bureau should have regard to the balance of political parties in the Parliament. That statement was included deliberately.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Sit down, Duncan.

That was intended to avoid the worst excesses of the one-party state that Labour operates in councils the length and breadth of Scotland. The d'Hondt system, which was used to elect the previous 16 conveners, should be used to select the 17th convener. Instead, Labour wants the convenership for itself and, because it can get it, is determined to have it.

What we have seen is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Labour one-party state in councils the length and breadth of Scotland. The carve-up by Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat business managers could hardly have been bettered by the inhabitants of Tammany Hall.

The mechanism that was agreed at the beginning of the Parliament should be applied now. No matter what method of proportionality is applied, the 17th committee of the Parliament should have an SNP convener. Tom McCabe does not agree with that.

As Mike Russell said, Labour has 43 per cent of the members in the Parliament, yet currently holds 50 per cent of the conveners. If the motion is passed, with 43 per cent of the members, Labour will have 53 per cent of the conveners. The SNP has 27 per cent of the members and 25 per cent of the conveners, but after today will have 23 per cent of the conveners. The appointment of a Labour convener is not maintaining the political balance; it is making the situation worse. This is about principle. If we choose to break the principle that conveners should be appointed with due regard to the political balance of the Parliament, there is no going back.

I will talk briefly about the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I will be brief.

The Tories have been bought and sold for a deputy convenership. How cheap their price, but the Tories and Scottish democracy have never gone hand in hand anyway. I understand that Tavish Scott's Liberal Democrat colleagues are outraged by his conduct. No wonder—this shabby little deal goes right to the heart of the Liberal Democrats' commitment to proportional representation and what they fought for in the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

Last week, Henry McLeish said:

"we are a Government."—[Official Report, 11 January 2001; Vol 10, c 165.]

It is not enough to mouth those words—you have to act as if you are fit to govern. After today, it is clear that Labour is not.

I move amendment S1M-1555.1, to leave out from "the Convener" to end and insert:

"the founding principles of the Parliament as established by the Consultative Steering Group must not be undermined; that those principles have as their bedrock the fair representation of the parties in the Parliament, on parliamentary committees and in the role of Convener and Deputy Convener of those committees; and therefore instructs the Parliamentary Bureau to bring forward a proposal to allocate the Convenership and Deputy Convenership of the Justice 2 Committee according to the system that has been successfully applied since the establishment of the Parliament and which has to date commanded all party support."

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 5:10, 17 January 2001

This Parliament has 129 MSPs of which the Conservative and Unionist Party has, since the Ayr by-election, 19 MSPs, or 14.7 per cent of the total.

The wholly democratic principle that we supported and which we continue to support is that the composition of committees should reflect the composition of the Parliament. According to strict proportionality, our entitlement to convener and deputy convener positions amounted to five in total out of 34, or 14.7 per cent. That is what we are offered and it reflects the percentage of Conservative MSPs. We strongly support that wholly democratic outcome.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Many people would be prepared to accept that position. However, does Lord James support the proposal that the Labour party, with 43 per cent of the members of this Parliament, should have 53 per cent of the convenerships? The Labour party would be prepared to accept that proposal, but would the Conservatives? That is the question for Lord James, and I hope that he will answer it. If he supports that proposal, he will have gone against his own argument in the first minute of his speech.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I regret that there has been no meeting of minds between Mike Russell's party and the Labour party on this subject.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

It must be remembered that the SNP has three members on committees of nine, which is one more than its allocation. On each of those committees, Mike Russell's party has one more member than it should on the basis of strict proportionality. It gains in one respect, as it has three more committee places than it should have on the basis of proportionality, but it loses in another.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

On the basis of swings and roundabouts, the SNP gains in one respect and loses in another. For our part, the Conservatives have been given strict proportionality, and we are content. [Interruption.]

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Order.

I watched the opening part of the debate on the screen in my room. Members who intervene are not heard if they do not wait until their microphone is switched on.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:13, 17 January 2001

Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat could have learned from some of the goings-on here. In my opinion, it is pathetic to say, "I would love to negotiate, but".

Tom McCabe argues that various things would happen if we applied a strict d'Hondt formula. However, we have never gone in for strict d'Hondt—we have gone in for what one might call modified d'Hondt. I am open to correction, but as I understand the position, under a modified d'Hondt formula—that is, if we stick to our present rules—an additional committee convenership would go to the SNP.

I see the problem: some convenerships are considered to be more important than others and the parties might have to do some rejigging. However, on a basic issue of principle, the SNP should end up with an additional committee convenership for the additional committee. We should pursue that point.

Mr McCabe suggested that he would negotiate, but his motion does not allow for negotiation. At least the amendment, however presented—members must bear it in mind that they are voting not on speeches but on the wording of the amendment—gives the parties the opportunity to negotiate a better outcome. For God's sake, we can do that. The Israelites and the Arabs have a serious problem, but our problem is much simpler. If we cannot agree, God help us.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:14, 17 January 2001

The problem is that the system that we have been using has suddenly been changed. We have a duty to explain why we have suddenly changed the system rather than going back to scratch.

Mr McCabe said that we did not use pure d'Hondt, which is correct. The reason we did not use it was that doing so would have been unfair to the minority parties—to the three smaller parties. We certainly would not apply d'Hondt in order to be even fairer, or to give an even greater advantage, to the biggest party. That is the point. For the life of me, I cannot see why the party with 43 per cent of the vote and 50 per cent of the conveners should suddenly, as a result of an extra convenership, go up to having 53 per cent of the conveners. The whole principle of this Parliament is to aim for proportionality.

In the paragraphs that deal with appointment of conveners and deputy conveners, our standing orders state that

"the Parliamentary Bureau shall have regard to the balance of political parties".

The phrase

"have regard to the balance" may be slightly vague, but the one thing that it does not mean is that, if there is an imbalance, our decisions should make that imbalance worse.

I would like a member who speaks after me to try and justify how it can possibly be proper, in the light of our standing orders, to give the extra convenership to the Labour party. We could justify giving it to the Conservatives; we could even justify giving it to the Liberal Democrats, for God's sake; but we cannot justify giving it to the Government party.

If we set this precedent, it will bode very ill for the future of the Parliament. If, on this issue, we are prepared to run roughshod over our rules at such an early stage in our proceedings; if we are prepared to set aside some of the basic principles to which everyone on the consultative steering group signed up, and to which I think everyone who stood for election to the Parliament signed up; and if we are prepared to throw proportionality and fairness out the window, God help us in the future.

I urge members to reconsider. Let us go back and start all over again, and see whether we cannot arrive at a sensible compromise that everyone is prepared to work with.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 5:17, 17 January 2001

The speeches by the SNP, including an allegation about one-party states, remind me of the great line in John Galt's novel, "The Provost", which I will paraphrase: it is often useful to hide the cloven foot of self-interest under the ermine robe of respectability. I should have thought that a good pretend Irvine politician such as Mike Russell would at least have understood that line from the great novelist from Irvine town.

We have heard many cries about principles, but the Minister for Parliament has given a clear and accurate analysis, with specific details of percentages, to show that things do not necessarily work out as might have been expected. We have heard cries about proportionality from members of the Opposition; I did not hear those cries from those people when we, the Liberal Democrats and others were involved in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, working towards the proportional system for the Parliament. At that time, just like today, they wanted to walk away, take their ball with them, and try to renegotiate the contract. It strikes me that we are again having a request for renegotiation from the SNP.

If we were to apply the d'Hondt principles in the technical way that SNP members have described, the great misfortune for many MSPs—never mind committees—would be that one of our members might not still be here. If we had applied the d'Hondt principles at the time of the Ayr by-election, when Labour lost the seat to the Conservatives, David Mundell would have had to lose his list seat and be replaced by a Labour politician. However, we did not apply the principles. [Interruption.] I can predict what Mike Russell is about to say, so I ask him to stop calling out.

We are dealing with a unique circumstance. Unfortunately, we have had a pretend debate from the SNP, which is trying to claim that what has happened will set the pattern for the future. SNP members have reacted with hilarity to our comments from the start, largely because they have failed to reconcile this issue among themselves. The other groups in the Parliament—those who aspire to government and those of us who are in government—have at least had the maturity to try and arrive at a conclusion.

I will end with a quotation from Macbeth that has just occurred to me—I will cut it in case I am out of order otherwise.

"it is a tale . . . full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

That is what we have heard from the SNP.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 5:20, 17 January 2001

I would like to point out that despite what has been said in some speeches this afternoon, all the parties in the Parliament are minority parties. The business managers' logic rides roughshod over that. We operate in the Parliament on a clear principle: currently our situation is that no minority party has a majority share of any structure of the Parliament. If we go down the road that is proposed, we ignore that principle. Tricia Marwick's amendment states that

"the founding principles of the Parliament as established by the Consultative Steering Group must not be undermined".

I believe that we are now starting to undermine those principles.

There have been a number of comments about self-interest. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's speeches are usually impeccable, but I have never heard a speech that was more about self-interest. If the motion is accepted, a majority of the conveners group will come from one party. That will be a nail in the coffin of any chance of the committees being given more decision-making powers by the Parliamentary Bureau. The Parliament has a structural problem: too much power is in the hands of the bureau and the party managers. Back benchers and committee conveners do not have enough say in how the Parliament is run.

This is an important debate in which many members want to speak, but we have half an hour for it. The fundamental principles of proportional representation in the Parliament are being changed. That is wrong and we should not proceed on that path.

I do want to take all of my three minutes, as I know that many other members want to speak. Tom McCabe said that he was willing to take the issue further; I commend him for that. As my colleague Donald Gorrie pointed out, if we pass the motion, we cannot undo that.

I call on Tom McCabe to withdraw the motion, so that we can rethink. Please do that—before the end of the debate.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I am happy to say that we have called everybody who wanted to speak. I call Michael Russell to wind up.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 5:23, 17 January 2001

I will react very briefly to a point just made by Mr Rumbles. I have never signed up, as a business manager or an ex-business manager, to the paranoia that those in the Parliament sometimes feel about the business managers. If Mr McCabe's motion is passed today, I might take up that point of view, because it will be passed by brute strength. It will be passed not by argument or negotiation or according to the founding principles of the Parliament, but because Mr McCabe wants it to pass and is strong-arming his party and, unfortunately, sections of the Liberal Democrats, into passing it.

I am glad that Mr McLeish has now arrived because I was about to quote him, and it is better to do that to his face. The foreword to the consultative steering group report, in his name as the chair of the CSG, states that

"the establishment of the Scottish Parliament offers the opportunity to put in place a new sort of democracy in Scotland, closer to the Scottish people and more in tune with Scottish needs."

According to Mr McCabe, that is done; the job is over. No, Mr McCabe, the job is still under way—as he himself has said, devolution is a process. If his motion is passed today, it will breach that promise and the detail of the CSG, and it will even breach the Scotland Act 1998—schedule 6 refers to the need to represent the balance of parties in the Parliament in the committee structure.

I remind members that the Labour party has 43 per cent of the seats. It will end up with 53 per cent of the convenerships. That is unfair. Mr McCabe can express it in any way he wishes. Mr Scott can make his usual elegant justifications, no doubt making angels dance on the head of a pin. I am sorry about his involvement, and I am doubly sorry about Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's involvement. However, I have to say that they are not the villains of the piece. Indeed, even Mr McCabe is not the villain of the piece—although perhaps I am being too kind. Last week, Mr McCabe was not a conspicuous success in his role as the thinker of the Scottish Government; he has now returned to the role of the hired muscle of the Scottish Government.

In reality, it is the First Minister who can stop this; it is the organ grinder who can say that enough is enough. If Mr McLeish insists on this course of action—if he allows it to happen—he will be walking away directly from the work that he did as chair of the CSG. That would be a great pity.

Let me make Mr McCabe an offer. At the end of his speech, he offered what I hope was an olive branch of reconciliation. He said that if the SNP were prepared to accept a renegotiation of the pick of the committees, we would be able to preserve the balance. I hope that that offer was genuine. I ask Mr McCabe to withdraw the motion on the basis that that was acceptable. Will he allow us to go and discuss the matter, or will he force the motion through the Parliament—as he can—with the help of the Tories and some of the Liberal Democrats? In so doing, Mr McCabe will get what he wants, but will destroy the principles of the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 5:26, 17 January 2001

So much for new politics and for the thought that we would be able to develop the Scottish Parliament in a decent and honourable manner.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Some of the language that has been used by the SNP has been pretty shameful. [Interruption.]

Tricia Marwick used the phrase:

"act as if you are fit to govern."

So much for a parliamentary debate and discussing issues about Parliament in a mature and reasoned way. Such phrases are used because an election is on the horizon. An awful lot of what the SNP members are doing today is just the way in which they behave. It is all about electioneering—that is what is happening day in, day out.

Let us deal with the arguments of principle. I should be happy to negotiate with Mr Russell. At least Mr Russell can negotiate and one feels that one is making some progress when talking to him. The truth is that when we had the discussions on committee restructuring, every time there was a decent attempt to advance involving all parties and parliamentary groups, progress came to a grinding halt when matters went back to the SNP group. Let us not hear any more about the principle.

It is interesting to read the SNP amendment, because there were two amendments. The first SNP amendment said that the SNP wanted both the convenership and the deputy convenership of the committee. Where does d'Hondt fit into that? I do not see much sign of a principle there.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton established what was important—

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On a point of order. [Interruption.]

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, could you explain to Parliament how Mr Scott is able to claim that two SNP amendments were submitted to the parliamentary authorities—over which you have jurisdiction?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

It is a very serious issue for a Government minister to make such allegations about information that is passed to your office, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

Further to the point of order, Presiding Officer. Will you take it upon yourself to establish whether the SNP submitted more than one amendment?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I can look into the matter afterwards, but I cannot give a ruling now. I have seen only the amendment that is in the business bulletin. [Interruption.] Order.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Further to the point of order, Presiding Officer. In the light of the fact that such details cannot be substantiated, will you invite Mr Scott to withdraw the ridiculous remark that he has just made to Parliament?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

No. It is up to Mr Scott to justify his comments.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I should be happy to give way to the leader of the Scottish National Party, if he can confirm that this is his amendment:

"to allocate the Convenership and Vice Convenership of the Justice 2 Committee to the Scottish National Party".

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The amendment that is included in today's business bulletin is the amendment that was lodged by the Scottish National Party.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Will you confirm that when you were selecting amendments for the debate, you saw one SNP amendment?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I have already said that. Mr Scott, can you wind up?

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

This is a debate about the structure and membership of committees that should be taken in the round. If, as the Minister for Parliament has stated, all the business managers—and not, as Tricia Marwick wanted, just the SNP and Labour business managers—can negotiate over committee convenerships, there can be negotiations if members of the Parliament so desire.

Parliament has always sought to refine d'Hondt to ensure, for example, that Labour would not have six members on 11-person committees. Similarly, refining d'Hondt ensures that there are places for Tommy Sheridan, Robin Harper and Dennis Canavan on committees. Apparently, the SNP would go back on that, because if the pure d'Hondt argument—

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Mr Russell says no from a sedentary position. Heaven knows what we are to believe after today.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The place that is occupied on one of the committees by, I think, Robin Harper was an SNP place that we gave up to him, so Tavish Scott's remark was ungracious.

While I am on my feet, will Tavish Scott withdraw the motion, to allow negotiations to continue? He has not yet answered that question. It is the key point.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

We must now conclude. I ask Mr Scott to wind up.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I accept Mr Russell's remark about the SNP giving up a place. All parties had to give and take in the process. Those should be the terms of the negotiations. It is a point that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton also made. [Interruption.]

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Mr Sheridan, I have asked Tavish Scott to wind up. We must finish the debate.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I encourage Parliament to endorse the Parliamentary Bureau motion on the basis that that would be consistent with the interpretation of the bureau's handling of these matters. I reiterate that, as the Minister for Parliament set out, if negotiations can take place among all the business managers, negotiations can happen.