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Office of Transport Security

CHAIR —I welcome officers from the Office of Transport Security. Mr Retter, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Retter —No, thank you.

Senator SCULLION —I am thinking carefully about who I should be directing these questions to. It is the Inspector of Transport Security so I may defer to another senator for the moment.

Senator ADAMS —I have two questions on aviation security. Firstly, do the laser beam incidents come under you?

Mr Retter —Yes, they do, and we can provide some information in reference to an earlier question that you asked. I will just defer to Ms Georgee, who is the acting general manager of one of our branches. She can provide you with some information on what we have done thus far in terms of dealing with the laser problem. If you need any more information, we can perhaps provide it as well.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you. I just want to see the process that you have set up since the legislation was passed. We had a spate of laser attacks on pilots for a while. Has the number of attacks increased or decreased? How you are dealing with that?

Ms Georgee —May I just ask you a question, Senator. I think you commenced your question with ‘since the legislation was passed’.

Senator ADAMS —That is correct.

Ms Georgee —Are you referring to the introduction of the Aviation Transport Security Act or the amendments we made last year?

Senator ADAMS —The amendments from last year.

Ms Georgee —Okay. I might just repeat what they are for the sake of the Hansard. Last year in one of the amendment bills to the Aviation Transport Security Act, we put through a provision to make—and I will just describe it in general terms—a clearer arrangement with respect to being able to penalise persons found directing laser beams at aircraft. The particular provision that we amended was not in the Aviation Transport Security Act; it was in fact in the legislation administered by CASA, which is the Civil Aviation Act. That is the particular answer. That is actually an amendment to the existing subsection 24(1) of the Civil Aviation Act. That legislation came into effect on 21 August last year. Again, if I can answer by way of background: the amendments that we made just changed an existing provision to make it clearer that attempted attacks with respect to lasers on aircraft were something that should not be approved of, so we just clarified the operation of the provision.

If you now ask me how many laser light incidents have been reported to the Office of Transport Security, I can give you a breakdown. I have the numbers in front of me and I will just read them to you. They refer to quarters during last year. Quarter one was before the amendment so perhaps I will just start with the third quarter. Quarter three included the amendment. There were 117 laser light incidents reported to the Office of Transport Security during that quarter. The number increased slightly to 135 in quarter four last year. Obviously, we do not have figures for the first quarter of 2008 because that period has not yet concluded. So it is probably fair to say that there does seem to be an increase with respect to the number of laser light incidents. Do you want any further information about this?

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I do. I was just waiting until you finished. Have these people been apprehended or are they getting away with it or where are we going?

Ms Georgee —In general terms, the Australian Federal Police are responsible for dealing with criminal acts, which is what this is. At a very high level answer, I am aware that a number of people were apprehended by the Australian Federal Police or I think in one case the state police. Unfortunately, with respect to many of the persons who perpetrate the incidents, it is not possible to identify the location of the persons sufficiently clearly and in a sufficient time for the Federal Police or the police in general to be able to go to the location of where they are and apprehend them. As you could imagine, what happens generally is that a pilot will report that during take-off or descent a laser light targeted his or her aircraft. That information really needs to be passed quickly to the police to enable them to go to the estimated location. In some cases, that has been possible but it is quite a small proportion with respect to the number of alleged incidents. So, yes, some people have been apprehended. I could get more information or we could direct your questions to the Australian Federal Police about those particular cases. I do not have that now.

Mr Retter —If I could answer too. The issue here is that it is incredibly difficult for some pilots to ascertain precisely where the laser light is coming from. This impedes the law enforcement agencies, be they Commonwealth or jurisdictional police, from reacting into the area at an appropriate time to catch people. I am aware, as I think Ms Georgee alluded to, that there has been certainly one set of circumstances in South Australia where somebody has been apprehended, but I am unaware of whether the prosecution thereafter was successful or not.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you. Are the majority of attacks coming from the major airports or smaller regional ones?

Ms Georgee —In order to answer that question, I should probably take it on notice. It is generally the case that obviously the larger airports are more likely to be attacked simply because there are more planes flying in and out of larger airports. If you want a regional versus major airport breakdown, I would prefer to take that on notice.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you. The last issue on that particular subject relates to damage to pilots. How many pilots have had eye damage and have had to be taken off their duties?

Mr Retter —I am unaware of how many pilots have suffered eye damage. I am aware of one or two pilots being subjected to medical examination at the behest of the airline and/or the pilot following an incident, but I am not aware of any permanent damage to any pilot.

Ms Georgee —I can agree with Mr Retter. That is my understanding as well.

Senator ADAMS —I have another question on something different but it is still related to security. I would like to know how many foreign dignitaries were exempted from screening during APEC.

Senator Conroy —Does that include The Chaser dignitaries?

Senator ADAMS —We will not worry about them. This is going through an airport. I do not think they went through an airport.

Senator Conroy —Goodness knows.

Mr Tongue —Could I clarify that question a bit. There were certain classes of people who were exempted—for example, heads of state. Do you want us to count how many individuals were exempted or just the classes of people?

Senator ADAMS —No, I would like to know just how many individuals went through without being screened.

Mr Retter —Senator, can I just add to that issue? The fact is a number of heads of state arrived and departed on state aircraft—their own national state aircraft—and therefore had no requirement to be exempt from screening because they did not need to be screened in that case. There were only a number of foreign dignitaries, heads of state, prime ministers et cetera who arrived on commercial aircraft where arrangements were made for the screening of those persons or the exemption of those persons in accordance with the policy that existed at the time. We can get you the numbers that apply to commercial aircraft if you want them.

Senator ADAMS —As far as the commercial aircraft, there was a concern, when this amendment was being passed, that people other than the dignitaries, heads of state and those VIPs would try as people accompanying them to go through without being screened. So were there any incidents at APEC of that nature?

Mr Retter —Senator, there were a number of minor issues that occurred during the screening of dignitaries on departure from APEC. In no instance that I am aware of was there anybody who needed to be screened that was not screened. That is due to a large amount of effort by a variety of agencies who were working at Sydney airport as part of the APEC delegation.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you.

Senator SCULLION —I am not sure who to direct this to at the table. I am sure the one who feels they can best answer it will jump in. Perhaps Ms Power may be able to assist me. In looking to the future, this committee and the Australian people, I guess, look pretty much towards the Labor Party policy platform in terms of maritime security, and I will quote chapter 14: ‘Strengthening Australia’s place in the world’. They have declared that security, stability and peace in the nations of the Pacific and our region are the most important aspects of our policy. In fact, on the public record it has been quite clear that we have an emphasis; in fact it has been another one of their No. 1 priorities.

I note with interest in the recent announcement by the newly elected government there have been a raft of budget cuts that have reversed what was announced in the 2007-08 mid-year economic and fiscal outlook. Amongst these cuts to a range of what I would see as worthwhile federal initiatives, I see that you have taken away $7.8 million over the forward estimates period of funds provided to support regional maritime security capacity-building programs.

I am sure many would appreciate the nature of the work carried out by the former coalition government in strengthening regional maritime security arrangements. There were various initiatives, and of course this involves bilateral work with the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and all our maritime security partners. This is how we go about enhancing regional marine security.

In Indonesia I know that we have provided assistance. I know that with our Pacific island neighbours we have done a number of bits of work with those partners. I understand we also established and funded the Philippines port security capacity-building project and established a maritime security division in Papua New Guinea. I confess I am pretty concerned that what I would see as very worthwhile programs that meet, I would have thought, the requirements of the government could be imperilled by what we would see as reckless and ill-considered cuts. Considering nearly 100 per cent—99 point whatever it is per cent—of cargo by weight comes by sea to this country via other ports in our region, it is a very important and serious issue. I wonder if somebody could clarify for us if these initiatives will continue.

Mr Tongue —Senator, I might handle that one. The project that I think you are referring to was a project that we put to the previous government that picked up on some work that we have been doing in the Philippines about developing the capacity of individuals working in the port sector. The current government has reviewed all its priorities and decided not to proceed with that project. We had simply done some development work with our Indonesian counterparts. No contracts have been entered into or any of those sorts of things. The project will simply not now proceed. Having said that, I would note that the government—

Senator SCULLION —Can I clarify that? I do not mean to interrupt your flow. You are saying that the project in Indonesia would not proceed?

Mr Tongue —No, Senator, because the government has decided that it wants to reprioritise that funding.

Senator SCULLION —So that is the background. Can you tell me whether or not you were able to advise the government that a recent United States Coast Guard audit of marine security in Indonesian ports revealed systemic noncompliance with internationally recognised maritime security standards? In fact, on Friday, 24 August the US ambassador to Indonesia privately informed the Indonesian government of the audit results and advised Indonesia they have 90 days in which to significantly improve maritime security standards. Did you provide that advice to the government?

Mr Tongue —Certainly, Senator, we were aware of the US Coast Guard position. At this stage the US Coast Guard is still, it is our understanding, in discussion with the Indonesian government about their views on maritime security in Indonesia. As far as the decision-making process that was undertaken when various items were being reviewed, I cannot say—

Senator SCULLION —I am not asking you to reflect on those decisions. I was simply asking you if that information had been provided to government. I understand from your answer that that is correct.

Mr Tongue —Yes.

Senator SCULLION —Please continue with your answer, if you can recall my first question, sorry.

Mr Tongue —Basically, Senator, the proposal now will not go ahead but, as I have said, we have not entered into any contracts or created any expectation other than doing some design work and speaking to our Indonesian counterparts.

Senator SCULLION —So can you tell me what we are doing to enhance regional maritime security? What are we actually doing to make it better?

Mr Tongue —There are a range of agencies, Senator, that have a bearing on regional maritime security. The bit that we are most interested in is to do with port and ship security and compliance with what is known as the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. We have been active in the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines and through APEC in trying to assist nations in the region build their capability to comply with the code.

Ultimately, what compliance means is that there is a system of national governance overseeing port and ship security, backed by law, and that on the ground there are practical things like improvements in the security, fencing, lighting, CCTV and all of those sorts of things. We have been active, since the code came into force in 2004, in working in our near region. We have also been chair of the International Maritime Organisation, the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code working group. We have been trying to contribute on an international scale.

Senator SCULLION —There seems to be, particularly in our bilaterals, no doubt about it—despite what they have said—that $7.8 million will be going away with a lot of these, and I particularly cite the Indonesian one but I know there is one in the Philippines and in PNG. These are regional supports. Because that actually degrades the nature of our security and downgrades it, have we got a report that indicates that there has been a downgrading of the risk assessment for Australia?

Mr Tongue —Senator, I think I would answer that one by saying that we have some staff based in the embassy in Jakarta, and in all of these things there is more than one way of skinning a cat. It is still possible for us to work with our Indonesian counterparts, particularly with the assistance of the Americans, the Canadians and the Japanese for example, to continue to improve port security in Indonesia in particular. So whilst the government has decided to reprioritise, which is—

Senator SCULLION —I appreciate that the $7.8 million is less cap. I understand that. My question went to whether you were aware of any report that downgraded the security status of Australian ports. Is this a response?

Mr Tongue —No.

Senator SCULLION —Are you aware that this may be a response to a particular report that has come out that says, ‘We do not really need regional security’?

Mr Retter —Senator, there has been no change to risk assessments pertaining to port security in a range of countries that I am aware of that we would be interested in, including Indonesia. I would couch the project that you are discussing and the moneys that were allocated as an opportunity that might have existed to enhance security capacity in that country. As Mr Tongue has alluded to, there has been a change of priorities and that is the government’s business. I am sure there will be future opportunities where we will engage in a constructive way. We have staff on the ground in Jakarta who work daily with the appropriate government agencies in Indonesia to look to where we can assist them.

Senator SCULLION —You really characterise the Australian bureaucracy. You are always hopeful and you will always work as hard as you can, and that is what makes us such a great nation. But, clearly, the significant part of your answer is that we are not downgrading our security system regionally and our maritime security because of some clearly articulated risk in some particular support that we are relying on. I take that as a no.

Mr Retter —I would say that the security measures that Australia takes with regard to maritime security and particularly with regard to how we address all ships approaching Australia and its borders is appropriate and in line with current security assessments. There has been no change to those security assessments and there is no information that I am aware of that would suggest that we need to do more in terms of our border security and preventive security regimes in Australia to address any threats that might exist.

Senator SCULLION —So you are asserting that ‘there is equally no report, Senator Scullion, that says we should be doing more’. I accept that. The proposal at the moment says that we are by $7.8 million downgrading our security in our region. We are downgrading relationships and the work we are putting into the Philippines. We are downgrading the relationships and the work we are putting into Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. I think it is quite significant, and you are aware of the US Coast Guard and the assessment process they went through. I think you would have to say that is pretty significant. Whilst I acknowledge and recognise it is not part of a security assessment that would say it is high or low, it is simply saying that an audit of your arrangements proved to be faulty. Just to get it right, you are telling me that we have not had a report that says there is a greater risk or a lesser risk. So in fact there is no report at all under which to make a change in our current maritime security arrangements?

Mr Retter —What I am saying is that we are aware of the US Coast Guard’s actions. Nothing in the US Coast Guard’s actions changes an Australian position in terms of the level of risk or threat that might exist from an Australian perspective and that, as such, acknowledges that there are new priorities. We accept that there are other issues in terms of the $7.8 million. Can I just make a point here in terms of the Philippines and other places? There has been no change or degradation to our capacity building and engagement in those areas, contrary to your comments.

Senator SCULLION —Okay. I made an assumption, and I am sorry I did not mean that this was spread across the programs.

Mr Retter —Absolutely no.

Senator SCULLION —So this is only in Indonesia?

Mr Retter —That is correct.

Senator SCULLION —So this is actually in the very place that we have had another country indicate that there is certainly no level of confidence we should have in that country’s maritime security arrangements with ships that leave from Indonesia and come to Australia. There is no reliance at all on that. That is the very area under which we take away the $7.8 million.

Mr Retter —Senator, I would say to you that the conditions that exist in those ports are the same as they were six months ago or 12 months ago. We are aware of the conditions of security at those ports. We take the appropriate measures that we need to from a border and protective security perspective in Australia to address the risks that are pertinent to maritime traffic coming to Australia. Nothing has changed in that regard. There may have been an opportunity to assist in further capacity building in Indonesia due to a change of priorities. That is no longer the case. Really, that is the substance to where we stand in regard to all other international capacity-building projects related to maritime security. There has been no change.

Senator SCULLION —Is there any particular report or information you can provide to the committee upon which you rely to give the statement that there has been no change in the security or the nature of the port over the last six months or before that?

Mr Retter —In that I have access to and see on a regular basis threat assessments and other material that relates to those matters, I think I can speak with confidence that I am unaware of any information that would suggest otherwise.

Senator SCULLION —Are you able to provide the reports that you are referring to to the committee?

Mr Retter —I will have to take some advice on that, Senator. I am not sure. In terms of classified material, I am not sure what the process would be.

Senator SCULLION —Well, obviously there would be a caveat on some of that material, and I am not—

Mr Retter —I am referring to classified intelligence material which, as I state, has not changed substantively in terms of the areas that we are talking about.

Senator SCULLION —So are you asserting that the US Coast Guard—and it is not an insignificant statement for them to make when the ambassador to Indonesia privately informs the Indonesian government of the audit results and they have advised Indonesia they have 90 days in which to significantly improve maritime standards. Now, it may well be that they have been consistently absolutely bloody awful for 12 months. I accept that. But I think the point that I get from all of this is that it would be the last place you would be withdrawing maritime security infrastructure improvements, whether it is a relationship or not. I know today it has been very difficult to see bureaucrats who are doing a fantastic job defending the indefensible. I am not expecting you to do that. I am just asking you to clarify the fact that for the security maritime arrangements in our region we are not relying on any particular report that has said that there is a significant increase—there is a significant decrease in the security assessment. I accept the fact that a report does not exist that increases the security assessment. I know the minister has just left the table. He might return in a moment. I have a question for him because it is not appropriate for the officers to answer.

Whilst he is returning to the table, I will ask: have you made an assessment of the impacts of these cuts, where jobs will be cut potentially, and what impact in terms of each of our regional neighbours will result? I know it is only in Indonesia now. Would you be able to give me an idea—

Mr Retter —In terms of the proposed moneys that would have been used in a port security project, because it was simply at this stage a proposal which had not yet been acted upon, there will be no impact on the ground in that, as Mr Tongue alluded to, there were no contracts signed and no people employed. There will be no impact in terms of current employment levels or workload.

Senator SCULLION —Minister, I know you have been following this flow of information closely. Quite clearly we have had a decision from your government, and I look carefully at your policy statement in that regard. Again, in ‘Strengthening Australia’s Place in the World’, which is chapter 14 of your policy platform, it particularly talks about security, stability and peace in our region. It talks about this being the No. 1 priority challenge. I note with some concern that $7.8 million has been taken away from the maritime security arrangements in Indonesia. At the same time we have had a clear concern from a recent United States Coast Guard audit of maritime security in Indonesia. Does this signify that your government is downgrading the priority of building regional security capacity? Perhaps, Minister, if you have information that we are not aware of, or the officers are not aware of, of the change in the security impact of our region, you could share that with the committee.

Senator Conroy —I thought the evidence tendered by the officials was that the systems match the security outlook. I thought that was quite clearly articulated on a number of occasions, so I am not quite sure what the point of your question is when the evidence from the officials was that the security threat and the resourcing match.

Senator SCULLION —Well, that is not as I recall. I asked them a specific question in regard to there being a downgrading. We have taken $7.8 million away. The officer has kindly offered to skin cats and to work harder for less. But, Minister, it is $7.8 million that has been taken away from Indonesia at a time when an independent body—I do not know how independent the United States Coast Guard is—says, ‘You have 90 days, Indonesia. You have to significantly improve your maritime security standards.’ In that environment, where there has clearly been a deconstruction of the current arrangements or the arrangements that had been invested in by the previous Australian government, I just cannot understand how you can assert that that is the status quo. You have taken $7.8 million away from an arrangement that clearly adds to maritime security in our region.

Senator Conroy —I am simply drawing to your attention the evidence that was actually given to you in your earlier, as you described it, flow of information.

Senator SCULLION —In view of the facts that are before us, could you explain why your government is downgrading to the tune of $7.8 million the maritime regional security arrangements we had with our neighbour?

Senator Conroy —We reject that assertion completely, and the evidence that you have received this evening disputes that assertion.

Senator SCULLION —We have taken $7.8 million away from an investment in regional security in Indonesia. I have asked the officers—and they have been very good at supplying as much information as they can—if there is any particular significance or a report of any significance that would reflect that we need to downgrade our investment in this area by $7.8 million, and they have been unable to provide that to me. I am simply relying on the facts that have been given to them in saying that this is clearly a downgrading. You cannot take $7.8 million away from something and say that it remains.

Senator Conroy —That is an assertion.

Senator SCULLION —It is gone—$7.8 million less, Minister.

Senator Conroy —That is an assertion which the government rejects. As the officials have pointed out, the security outlook and the resourcing match.

Senator SCULLION —Minister, that is obviously your view, and perhaps you might pass that on to the minister for an answer on notice. That is your interpretation of the officers’ evidence today.

Senator Conroy —That is the evidence you have received.

Senator SCULLION —That is right. That is your interpretation, but I assure you that anyone else who was listening—me and my colleagues included—would conclude that you cannot take $7.8 million away and say, ‘No, it matches something.’ If it matches it, it means there would have to be a degradation. There would have to be a devaluation of the security assessment. I have asked the officers and they say that there is not a report that says, ‘We have a lesser security requirement to the tune of $7.8 million.’ I have to say that we are very concerned. This is a reckless move that puts regional security not at risk, because that would also be reckless, but it is downgraded in what we believe is an unnecessary manner. I wonder whether you can respond.

Senator Conroy —I think your rhetoric is reckless.

Senator SCULLION —I think I have been very cautious, Minister.

Senator Conroy —I stand by the evidence that you have received from the officials at the table.

Senator SCULLION —Obviously I am not going to get much joy from you, Minister, on this line of questioning. I certainly thank the officers at the table for their information.

CHAIR —Does anyone have any other questions?

Senator McGAURAN —One of the centrepieces of the previous government’s security efforts was the introduction of the Maritime Security Identification Card scheme, with great objection from the then opposition. Does the government stand by that scheme and have no plans to—

Senator Conroy —The government has made no decision to remove that plan.

Senator McGAURAN —You might want to go back to your Hansards. Is the government committed to the scheme?

Senator Conroy —The government has made no decision whatsoever or suggestion that we do not support the program. I am not sure what you are referring to.

Senator McGAURAN —The Maritime Security Identification Card. Go back to the time when that was introduced. The rhetoric and objection to it—

Senator Conroy —I think you are adding two and two and getting seven, Senator McGauran.

Senator McGAURAN —You did not like some of your mates having security checks done on them down at the waterfront.

CHAIR —Senator McGauran, I think senators—

Senator Conroy —I think you should retract that statement. I think it has been indicated that we actually supported the agreement.

CHAIR —It was a tripartite agreement.

Senator McGAURAN —I was part of the debate. I have a very good recollection.

Senator Conroy —My understanding is that we voted for it.

CHAIR —You were part of the agreement. It is all done and agreed to and everyone was off and running. It has been operational now for nearly 18 months.

Senator McGAURAN —There was a lot being operational—

Senator Conroy —Given that we only have one to go, I was wondering what the thoughts of the committee are. Did they want to deal with the one remaining agency and then we can wrap up for the evening? It is an offer or suggestion—rather than having the break that was scheduled.

CHAIR —Minister, the committee should discuss it.

Senator Conroy —I am offering the suggestion.

CHAIR —But I am also mindful that there are Hansard staff and secretarial staff who have been sitting around here listening to the carry-on for a while. It is great that we are organised here! Senator McGauran, please carry on. We will be breaking at 6.30 for tea.

Senator McGAURAN —That was a poor attempt to cut me off.

Senator Conroy —You said you had only one question. I was not trying to cut you off. Are we going to keep going, then? I think he has just said we are not. I think the shadow minister is suggesting that we could perhaps wrap it up in a short period.

Senator SCULLION —At least so that these people can go home we will get through this question. It does not matter what the time is. Even if it is a bit after, everyone can then go home and then we only have to have the people who are not at the table in any event.

Senator Conroy —The Inspector of Transport Security is all that is left, according to my program.

CHAIR —I am very mindful that when we have agendas set we stick to them. I think I have been a stickler for sticking to agendas. It should be a collective decision of the committee, but I have heard on so many occasions in the last two days someone saying, ‘I have one question,’ and then we are still sitting here half an hour later.

Senator SCULLION —I encourage my colleagues and me to try to get this over with straightaway.

CHAIR —I do not want to shut down debate.

Senator Conroy —You did say one question.

CHAIR —Senator McGauran.

Senator McGAURAN —As part of the security arrangements for the regional airports there was a trial of CCTV systems at four regional airports—Dubbo, Gladstone, Moorabbin and Geraldton. So what is the result of that trial? Has there been any budget allocation?

Mr Tongue —That trial was part of a package of measures of seven separate initiatives. The trial has now concluded. We have looked at the results of the trial. What has emerged in the whole CCTV area is another stream of work around a voluntary code of practice for the implementation of CCTV systems. That work initially emerged out of some work we did with the states and territories on surface transport security, but we are now rolling that into aviation. So we have taken what we have learnt from the four smaller airports and we are including that. We are also linking that with work that the Customs Service is doing on CCTV, where Sir John Wheeler made a set of recommendations about the Customs Service becoming the lead Commonwealth agency on CCTV. So we are sweeping all that up together and taking it forward with the aviation industry.

Senator McGAURAN —So it is a relative success. Also, you undertook a trial of the most advanced technologies to detect explosives, liquids, aerosols and gels. What is the result of that trial?

Mr Retter —That trial is still under way and the results of that trial have not been concluded. We are not in a position yet to determine precisely what the best technologies will be in the Australian context, but we would hope that by the end of this calendar year we will have some pretty definitive advice for owners and operators of airports, who manage the day-to-day operations of our aviation security regimes, as to what the best technologies are to address these new threats.

CHAIR —Senator Scullion, did you have any more questions?

Senator SCULLION —The only question I have is to the Inspector of Transport Security.

Senator Conroy —How many questions do you have?

Senator SCULLION —It is just one issue, but I will try to put as much of it on notice as I can.

Senator Conroy —Could I suggest we try to squeeze it in?

CHAIR —We will squeeze it in. If there is only one question, that is fine. I thank very much the officers of the Office of Transport Security.

 [6.30 pm]