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House of Commons

Thursday 7 November 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Special Constables

1. Mr. Pawsey : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what impact recent changes to the conditions of special constables have had on recruiting ; and what plans he has further to increase numbers of specials.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : We are taking a series of measures to increase the strength of the special constabulary with the aim of recruiting an additional 10,000 special constables. We launched a national recruiting campaign at the beginning of this year and are shortly introducing a pilot scheme to pay a bounty to specials, as a further boost to recruitment. The latest information, from a sample of forces, suggests that strength increased by up to 6 per cent. in the first half of this year.

Mr. Pawsey : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that exceedingly full and comprehensive reply--the type of reply that we have come to expect from this Minister. Does he agree that more special constables would do a great deal to reduce levels of crime, particularly if they were better trained and more adequately remunerated? Will he redouble his efforts to establish a corps of special constables who would play the same part as the Territorial Army vis-a -vis the regular Army?

Mr. Lloyd : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks, after which perhaps I should be brief in answering his supplementary question. The specials certainly show the kind of public spirit and professionalism of the Territorials. The difference, of course, is that the specials are not preparing for a conflict that we hope will never happen. They are already directly and effectively involved in the fight against crime--which, alas, is all too real--and are performing the role that my hon. Friend wants them to perform.

Work Camps

2. Mr. Speller : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will provide open air work camps for younger offenders serving custodial sentences.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold) : Purposeful work is an important part of the

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regime for young offenders. There are at present opportunities to undertake agricultural and horticultural work in the open air at 23 young offender institutions.

Mr. Speller : Is my right hon. Friend aware that her Department may to some extent be missing the point? There is general disgust at the short non-custodial sentences that are being passed because of the absence of space in prisons of various sorts. In view of the number of military establishments underused and basically secure, should not we use those-- and, if need be, make use of military personnel, too--to enable us to stop the amazing amount of re-offending by those on non-custodial sentences?

Mrs. Rumbold : There are tough and dirty jobs for youngsters who are on probation and in non-custodial care, so I would not necessarily accept my hon. Friend's strictures on that point. I repeat what my right hon. Friend told the House on Tuesday : if the prison population continues to rise, he will consider calling on the assistance of the military and, possibly, calling for the use of military accommodation.

Mr. Fraser : Has it occurred to the Minister that the problem is that there are plenty of young people camped out in the open air, but that they do not have any work?

Mrs. Rumbold : The question refers to young offenders. Those in young offender institutions are occupied satisfactorily, to a certain extent, in open air work.

Mr. Marlow rose --

Mr. Speaker : Mr. Mellor. No, Mr. Marlow.

Mr. Marlow : I am very flattered, Mr. Speaker.

What are we going to do about those young thugs and hooligans who have no respect for authority, no respect for law and order, no respect for property, no respect for elderly people and who terrorise communities? Is it not time that instead of having open air imprisonment we had an open air thrashing or open air stocks to stick them in?

Mrs. Rumbold : I well understand my hon. Friend's outrage at the behaviour of some youngsters today. Had he been in his place on Tuesday, when my right hon. Friend made the opening speech on the Loyal Address, he would have heard him say that the Government would introduce a measure to deal with the young thugs, as my hon. Friend calls them, who indulge in joyriding, a practice which hon. Members in all parts of the House deplore ; those young people will, therefore, be offending.

Mr. Sheerman : Is not it time that the Minister ignored some of the siren voices behind her? She knows that the peak age for offending is 18. The 16 to 18-year-old group is the very group that has been punished by the Government. They have been punished by being stripped of their ability to claim benefit and by the pushing down of the real value of their training allowance. They have been punished in terms of unemployment and homelessness. Is not it about time that we had some more positive policies? Then young people would respect the Government.

Mrs. Rumbold : Is not it time that Opposition Members realised that there is an absolute necessity for young people to grow up with respect for the law, property and persons? There is absolutely no need for young people to

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commit crimes when they have available to them perfectly good training courses that have been provided by the Government and with Government money.

Mr. Shersby : Does my right hon. Friend recall that until the Criminal Justice Act 1988 amended the law, the penalty for taking away a vehicle without consent was up to three years' custodial sentence? That penalty was reduced at the time to six months. Is it my right hon. Friend's intention to restore a custodial sentence of up to two years for that offence?

Mrs. Rumbold : Yes, Sir.

Policing, Cumbria

3. Mr. Campbell-Savours : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received from Cumbria county council on the question of policing in the county.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker) : I am considering the police authority's application for an additional 24 police posts for 1992-93.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Has the Home Secretary noted the dramatic 52 per cent. increase in crime in west Cumbria, which is reflected in vandalism, violence, intimidation of the elderly, intimidation of shopkeepers, ram-raiding and burglary? Does he regard those figures as appalling? When he talks about appointing 1,000 police officers nationally, does he understand that that means only 1.5 additional police officers per constituency, which does not begin to meet the problem? We need 30 police officers immediately. The people of Workington demand those appointments.

Mr. Baker : The hon. Gentleman will recall that since we have been in office, there has been an increase in the strength of the Cumbrian police of 110 uniformed officers and 144 civilians, making a total increase of 254. There were eight extra police officers this year, seven of them on patrol duties. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, because I have seen the reports of the increase in vandalism and hooliganism in Workington. I assure the hon. Gentleman that since we have been in office we have increased expenditure for the Cumbrian police authority by 80 per cent.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : It is not enough.

Mr. Baker : When Labour were in office they cut police expenditure by 2 per cent.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Do something.

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Favell : My right hon. Friend may have read reports in the newspapers today that the European Commission wants to abolish newspaper boys and girls in Cumbria and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Are the police likely to be involved in that?

Mr. Baker : Not as far as I know.

Mr. Hattersley : Is the problem to which the Home Secretary referred special to Cumbria or is it a general one? Can he tell us of one chief officer of police in Britain who believes that he has sufficient police officers to perform the duties imposed upon him?

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Mr. Baker : About eight or 10 chief constables are not asking for an increase in police forces for next year-- [Interruption.] --and I shall be glad to send the right hon. Gentleman a list. If he is so proud of police numbers, he should recall that when he was a member of the Labour Cabinet he cut police expenditure and left our police 8,000 under establishment. He is the guilty one.

Mr. Paice : I am sure that the public in Cumbria and elsewhere realise that no other Government would allocate these extra resources for the police. When my right hon. Friend is considering Cumbria's representations, will he also consider the position of Cambridgeshire, where the number of police per thousand population is the lowest in the country?

Mr. Baker : I shall certainly consider that. As I said, I have secured increased expenditure next year for another 1,000 uniformed police officers, in addition to the further 600 this year. Since 1979, there has been an increase of 15,000 uniformed officers, whereas their numbers were cut under the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).

Mr. Campbell-Savours : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker : Mr. Speaker : No point of order arises from this.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I wish to raise the matter on Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker : On the Adjournment. Yes, all right.

Child Molesters

4. Mr. Cryer : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on sentencing policy towards sex offenders who have molested children.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : This is a serious issue. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 endorses the severity with which the courts view these offences and strengthens their powers to protect the public from offenders. Courts will be able to impose on a sexual offender who poses a serious risk to the public a longer custodial sentence than would be justified solely by the seriousness of the offence. The courts will be able to order longer and more intensive supervision and treatment for sex offenders.

Mr. Cryer : What does the Minister say to my constituents who, following abuse by their father for many years, summoned up enough courage to give evidence in court after he attacked the 10-year-old granddaughter of the family? After they had gone through the ordeal of giving evidence, their father, who was found guilty of eight serious charges with nine being left on the file, was put on probation and allocated to a hostel not two miles from where his last victim lives and where he can be seen by the family as they pass through the town centre. Does the Minister realise that that is deeply upsetting to the family, who have been devastated by the experience? Some form of custody--whether in hospital or in prison is a moot point--is required to give peace of mind to the people who gave evidence and who displayed much courage and fortitude in so doing.

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Mr. Patten : I entirely understand the strong feelings of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and I sympathise with them. He will appreciate that I am not aware of the details of the case. The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the placement of this convicted person in a nearby hostel, so if he will give me the details of the case I shall have it investigated by Her Majesty's inspectorate of probation.

Rev. Martin Smyth : The Minister has shown concern about sentencing patterns, but does his concern extend beyond that to cases where the prosecution service has not been prepared to prosecute an accused person? Does not that leave others open to molestation as well?

Mr. Patten : The Crown prosecution service always faces the difficult task of obtaining adequate evidence to secure a conviction in court. However, it should be some consolation to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that in the past five years the average sentence for rape has increased by 70 per cent. The Criminal Justice Act will allow for much longer supervision of sex offenders after they are released from gaol. My opinion is that sex offending cannot be cured, but it can and should be better supervised and controlled.

Mr. Dickens : Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the views that I have expressed in the House, which at times have been received with ridicule and dismay, have become law subsequently? If the Home Office really wants to stop the abuse of children and the rape of women, it must pass a law allowing the castration of the perpetrators, not for a first offence, in case there is a mistake, but for a second offence--unless people are unfit to plead. That is the way to stop it and that sanction would hardly ever have to be used because it would be the ultimate deterrent for men.

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend's suggestion is not the present intention of Her Majesty's Government. We intend to reinforce the courts,as we have done in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, by sustaining their powers to sentence convicted sex offenders to life imprisonment. The reforms introduced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will mean two things : first, convicted sex offenders will, rightly, spend much longer in prison ; and, secondly, they will be supervised when they are released.

Racist Attacks

5. Mr. Cohen : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has received urging him to take new action to combat racist attacks.

Mr. Kenneth Baker : In the new year I will publish a progress report on the work of the police service and other agencies in tackling the problem of racially motivated attacks. I make it clear that there should be no place for racially motivated attacks in our country.

Mr. Cohen : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it has been calculated that there is one racial attack every 30 minutes and that the savagery of such attacks has increased? With racism on the increase in Europe and in this country because of high unemployment, is not there a danger that there could be yet more racial assaults in Britain? Have not calls for action by organisations such as the Society for Black Lawyers been met by Government

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intransigence? Is not it time to have a specific crime of racial harassment, as I proposed in my 1985 Racial Harassment Bill?

Mr. Baker : I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's latter point. I recognise that there has been an increase in racially motivated attacks-- there was a rise in 1990. As the hon. Gentleman knows from a debate on London which he attended, last year nearly 3,000 attacks were reported in London--an increase of 8 per cent. The clear-up rate is about 30 per cent. I assure the House that, in all the speeches that I have made at police meetings and conferences this year, I have repeatedly stressed to the police that I want them to give this type of crime high priority.

Mr. Janman : Clearly the tributary of the River Tiber that runs through Leyton is already foaming. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best and most subtle way to prevent such attacks is to ensure that the British people know that they have a Government who are taking the steps necessary to keep firm control of immigration and particularly to prevent people from abusing our immigration rules by entering this country under the bogus concept of being political refugees? I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the steps that he has taken to do just that.

Mr. Baker : We have followed a policy of keeping tight control of immigration. As my hon. Friend knows, I shall introduce the Asylum Bill to deal with that problem. Over the years, successive Governments of all complexions have worked to improve race relations and Britain probably has the best record in Europe for harmonious race relations.


6. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received concerning the access to advice of asylum seekers.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : Following my right hon. Friend's statement about asylum on 2 July, we have received about 100 letters from hon. Members and about 750 from members of the public and interested organisations. Most have included comments on the availability of advice for asylum seekers.

Mr. Corbyn : Will the Minister concede that the proposal in the Asylum Bill removes the right of people seeking political asylum to have access to green form advice? Is he aware that that proposal has been met with horror by advice agencies, legal aid practices and members of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service? Should not he announce that he will withdraw those parts of the Bill and give people seeking political asylum the same rights to legal advice as anyone else would have, rather than introduce this appalling system under which they will not have the same equality before the law?

Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken. There are no such proposals in the Bill and we never suggested that there should be. We have said that immigration and asylum cases are unique in that the Government and the United Nations fund a free, professional legal advice and representation service in the shape of UKIAS and the Government fund free solicitors' advice through the green form. With the extension of appeal rights to all asylum seekers, it is not unreasonable

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to propose--as the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary propose--that this anomalous double provision should end and that increased resources for advice should be concentrated on UKIAS, especially as the service has a better record of winning cases than solicitors and is more cost effective.

Mr. Nicholls : It is clear to solicitors and to many other people that our present asylum procedures are being abused. That should stop. Does my hon. Friend agree that it does the cause of racial integration no good at all that our procedures should be abused? Does he reject the comments that we have heard from the Opposition which have much more to do with their courting votes than with human rights?

Mr. Lloyd : Of course asylum procedures should not be abused. Those who are making asylum claims should have access to free professional legal advice, as they want it. We propose to deal with abuses and to ensure that asylum seekers have the free legal advice that they need.

Mr. Darling : Does the Minister accept that UKIAS is not capable of providing the same level of professional advice as can presently be provided under the legal aid system? Does he accept that individuals should have the right to choose representation which represents the best value for money and that there is no saving to the Treasury under his proposals? Will he explain why he wrote to UKIAS on 7 October threatening that unless it accepted the Government's proposals he would withdraw its funding or curtail it completely?

Mr. Lloyd : What I said to UKIAS--I have had two meetings with the organisation and written to it--is that the availability of green form aid is finally a matter for the Government and Parliament, not for UKIAS. I also said that as we are increasing UKIAS's funding and its ability to represent and advise, if it was unwilling to advise those seeking advice on asylum, it called into question whether the funding for advice, not representation, should go to UKIAS. There is an alternative. We could fund all advice through the green form, but that would not be especially helpful to asylum seekers, as UKIAS has a better record of success in giving advice and making

representations to adjudicators and tribunals.

Mr. Lawrence : What proportion of asylum seekers come into this country on visitors' permits and then decide that they are in fear of persecution just as their permits come to an end? Is not it easy to give those people advice?

Mr. Lloyd : Yes. About three quarters of asylum claimants are already in the country, many of them legitimately as students or visitors and some of them illegitimately, as they have entered the country illegally. Each case needs to be considered on its merits. There can be reasons why people make a claim for asylum after they have been here for some time and we consider all cases properly. We believe that every asylum seeker, whether in-country or arriving at the ports, should have access to good free legal advice.

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Free Television Licences

7. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will now introduce free television licences for pensioners ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : As I have made clear to the hon. Member on the many previous occasions on which he has asked this question, we have no plans to introduce free or concessionary television licences for all pensioners. That would be a crude and non-selective instrument of social policy costing £470 million a year. It would benefit many pensioners who can well afford the fee and would mean that other licence holders would have to pay £116 for their colour licence.

Mr. Skinner : This Tory Government are a hard-hearted bunch. Have not we reached a pathetic state of affairs when, as a result of the 1988 decision, 75-year-old widows in warden accommodation cannot have a free television licence, yet others who are younger might receive it because they qualified before 1988? Now, with all their claptrap about citizens charters, the Government have had the BBC send to every Member of Parliament letters carrying the Tory party propaganda that they cannot allow pensioners to have a free television licence. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Lloyd : Not merely does the hon. Gentleman ask the same question each time ; he asks the same supplementary. The only difference this time is that arrangements have been made for the BBC to collect the licence fee, but the rules are precisely the same as they were when they were collected by the Government. The hon. Gentleman ought to bear it in mind that the rules are very clear. It is possible for local authorities to organise their elderly people's accommodation provision in such a way as to gain the concessionary licence. The benefit should be given to those who are most in need of it. We have concentrated the money that the hon. Gentleman would give to pensioners, whether they need it or not, into the income support rates of those who are worst off. That is the correct, fair and just way to do it.

Mr. Hind : Does my hon. Friend accept, however, that among pensioners, particularly those who took up residence in sheltered accommodation after 1988, there is a real fear of injustice, in that some of them have to pay the full licence and some of them do not? I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that problem, together with the BBC licence as a whole. Pensioners are aware that they do not have to pay for ITV or any other channels but that they are called upon to pay for BBC television programmes. My hon. Friend should look at the licence as a whole.

Mr. Lloyd : We are going to look at the whole question of BBC financing and the licence fee in the run-up to the renewal of the charter.

Mr. Salmond : Will the Minister reconsider the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? Is the Minister aware that Members of Parliament, and anybody else with two homes, need only one television licence to cover both homes, the assumption being that they are not watching television simultaneously in both homes. Will the Minister therefore announce a concession :

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that all old age pensioners should be given the right to watch television without having to pay for a television licence?

Mr. Lloyd : I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman correctly states the law. No doubt a BBC inspection van will be visiting him.

Television Franchises

8. Mr. Simon Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the recent allocation of regional television franchises by the Independent Television Commission.

Mr. Kenneth Baker : The commission was carrying out the responsibilities laid on it by Parliament in the Broadcasting Act 1990. The decisions on channel 3, and other licences, are a matter for the commission.

Mr. Coombs : In view of the widespread and sometimes ill-founded criticism of the recent franchise round and despite the uniform excellence of the successful tenders, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless consider the possibility of providing a review system so as either to show up ways in which it could be improved in future or to demonstrate that an extremely good job has been done by the Independent Television Commission?

Mr. Baker : I think that a good job has been done by the ITC, but I am prepared to consider any representations that are made to me about the future determination of licences. The situation will change in the 1990s and beyond. There will be a greater proliferation of services, well beyond these licences, and at least one other channel, channel 5.

Mr. Maclennan : Does the Home Secretary share the view of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) in her letter to the outgoing chairman of TV-am? Does he feel like offering a similar apology?

Mr. Baker : When there are 40 bids for 16 licences, some companies will lose out. The system has resulted in new blood coming into the television industry. Some of the companies that have been displaced have, in their time, displaced others. The opportunity that they now have is to become independent production companies, an opportunity that they did not have in the last round of licence decisions.

Dame Janet Fookes : Can my right hon. Friend answer a riddle for me? How is it that Television South West passed the quality threshold, offered by far the most money but still lost?

Mr. Baker : That is a riddle for the ITC, not me, to answer. The ITC made the determination and it would be inappropriate for me to comment upon the matter, especially as I believe that it is now sub judice, because the company has applied for judicial review.

Mr. Corbett : Does the Home Secretary, in common with his right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister, now feel too painfully aware that the franchise round has ended in farce, with some companies losing their licences for offering too much and others failing because they offered too little? Will the right hon. Gentleman now acknowledge that a system based on the highest bid was always likely to undermine the quality and variety of British television?

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What message has he for the 2,000 television staff who lost their jobs in the run-up to the franchise round, and the similar number who will now be put out of work?

Mr. Baker : I do not agree at all. New blood has come into the industry, and many of the companies now have the opportunity to become independent production companies. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's assertion that the franchise round has been unsuccessful. On the contrary, we have always sought to increase viewer choise. We introduced Independent Television ; the Labour party was against it. We have introduced new opportunities for television, and we will introduce a new channel--Channel 5. We believe in more viewer choice and more competition. That will improve quality, and the Labour party has always resisted that.

Mr. John Greenway : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Broadcasting Act 1990 placed on the ITC the requirement to ensure that all bids were sustainable and stable for the whole 10 years of the franchise? Is not the ITC's judgment that that is the case both with the existing franchisees who have retained their licences and with some of the newer companies? At the press conference at which the ITC announced the licences Mr. Simon Albery, who ran the campaign for quality television, said to me, "Quality has won".

Mr. Baker : I am sure that that will prove the case. Whenever there has been a change within television in this country there has always been the accusation that quality would suffer. That has not happened. Over the past 30 years, as choice and competition have worked their way through, variety and quality have improved.

Political Asylum

10. Mr. Roger King : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the present level of those seeking political asylum ; and what were the comparable figures in 1989.

Mr. Kenneth Baker : Between January and September this year the average monthly total of those seeking political refugee status in this country has been about 3,800. The monthly average in 1989 was 950. These figures exclude dependants.

Mr. King : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread concern at the large number of people seeking political asylum? Is he further aware that in a city such as Birmingham, where problems arise over bringing families into the United Kingdom, there is widespread disgust and dismay at the high number of bogus asylum applications? Is he also aware that he has the united resolve of Conservative Members for the speedy passage of his Bill?

Mr. Baker : I thank my hon. Friend. I said that the average number was 3,800. The actual figure for applications in October was 4,400 and the number is likely to reach between 45,000 and 50,000 this year, whereas we used to receive 2,000 or 3,000 applications. This is a serious and important problem which has to be tackled. That is why we shall introduce the Asylum Bill, which will be debated next week. I am surprised that the Labour party has decided to oppose it.

Mr. Madden : Is the Home Secretary aware of the legal opinion that to restrict access to legal advice and

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representation in asylum and immigration matters may be a breach of the law? Will he instruct his Ministers to stop trying to bribe and blackmail the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service, which does not wish to collude in the Government's plans to pander to Essex man by restricting the longstanding traditional rights of people fleeing violence and persecution to seek refuge in this country?

Mr. Baker : This country has a long tradition of accepting genuine political refugees, but there is no doubt that the fact that three quarters of all applications are made by people who have been living in this country for weeks, months and, in some cases, years, is tantamount to an abuse of the system. What we must do is to distinguish between bogus and genuine refugees. That is what we will do, and we will do it fairly. Not only that- -we intend to increase and extend the right of access to an appellate system, which does not exist at the moment.

Mr. Ashby : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest injustice to genuine asylum seekers is to be found in the enormously long delays that occur in the processing of applications? What steps has my right hon. Friend taken to reduce those delays?

Mr. Baker : In May of this year, we were pressed by Amnesty International and other refugee groups to speed up the process of determination, and the Bill before the House, which will be debated next week, sets out a scheme that will allow determination to be decided within a period of three months. That applies not only to a decision but to appearing under an appellate process. That will speed up the existing time, which can be anything up to two to three years. It is important that we decide the matter quickly because, if we do so, the bogus applicants can be returned to the countries from which they came.

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