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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, will housing benefit in general be considered in the review? Is the noble Baroness aware that in central London many people receive housing benefit of many hundreds of pounds a week? Does she not believe that it is time to consider a ceiling on the amount of benefit?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we do have a ceiling on housing benefit. Either the rent officer must determine what is a reasonable rent or it must be determined by reference to the local reference rent. The noble Baroness is right that there is a huge disparity in rents between, say, London and the north-west and north-east where 20 to 25 per cent of rented stock is difficult to let. One of the difficulties in finding an adequate response to housing benefit is precisely to take into account those regional variations. But, yes, we need to review housing benefit.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister accept the findings of the National Audit Office that 30 per cent of the cases classified as fraud are wrongly classified?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, yes, that may well be so. As regards housing benefit, there are many mistakes on both sides. As noble Lords will know from press reports and so forth, in a few cases there is systematic abuse of the housing benefit system by landlords who claim for fictitious tenants. The payment of housing benefit is directed to the landlord rather than to the tenant, and when the tenant moves on often the landlord continues to pocket the cheque. Every pound that is spent fraudulently, particularly to landlords, is a pound not available for housing benefit to other needy families.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in too many local authorities an applicant for housing benefit often enters a bureaucratic nightmare? Will the review look at the performance of

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local authorities and ensure that every local authority is encouraged to streamline the process of accepting, receiving and dealing with applications for housing benefit?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. That was one of the serious criticisms of the administration of housing benefit raised by the latest NACAB report entitled Falling Short. We take that on board. The NACAB solution is to transfer housing benefit to the Benefits Agency. We believe that the right solution is to achieve best practice among local authorities. We are sending out guidance and working with local authorities to achieve what my noble friend suggests.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, while the review is welcome, it will clearly be some time after the Green Paper before any legislation is brought forward. Arising from the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, in relation to delays, in advance of the review could we not eliminate one or other of the two forms which are required at present: one goes to the Benefits Agency and the other to local authorities? It does not seem to me to need too much of a review to simplify the form filling which I know from my own constituency experience causes problems.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is an entirely fair point. In the pilot areas for the single work-focus gateway, we are looking at the matter to which the noble Lord referred; namely, that one sort of information comes from the applicant which can then be shared by local authorities and the DSS. If we go down that road, I hope that I shall not be criticised by the noble Lord for sharing information with other authorities which did not originally collect it.

European Elections: Polling Figures

2.51 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of the turn-out in the European elections, they will institute an inquiry into the operation of the closed list system of election.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in another place on Monday, we shall be conducting a review of the electoral arrangements, as we do after every election. That review will cover all aspects of last Thursday's elections.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does the noble Lord accept that one of the arguments advanced by the Government in previous debates was that the use of PR and the closed list should be accepted by the party on these Benches because it would work to our electoral advantage? However, is it not as a result of that attempted spin that

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use of the system has saved the Government and the Liberal Democrat Party from an even more crushing defeat than they would have suffered had first- past-the-post still been in place?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, even at the time of the discussions in your Lordships' House, I marvelled at the selflessness of Her Majesty's Government, and events have proved me to be right.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that this House turned down the closed list system not once but five times? That is an unusual situation but for once this place was right and the Commons got it wrong. When he examines the matter, as I hope he will, will he bear in mind also that the mass abstention of the British people reflects something far deeper than even their distaste for the system of election; that is, their profound distrust and lack of respect and affection for the European Parliament and the other associated institutions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I well remember the largely repetitive discussions we had on a number of occasions. My noble friend is right. The system was turned down five times in this House. But the purpose of the new regimes in Scotland, Wales and in the context of the European parliamentary elections has been to ensure a more proportionate and inclusive result. If one bears in mind what happened in Wales and Scotland, the Conservative Party did benefit. As I said on many occasions, we knew that that was likely to happen. We wanted to have inclusive assemblies in consequence.

Lord McNally: My Lords, is the Minister aware that on these Benches we should welcome a government-funded inquiry into low turn-out at all kinds of elections? I remind the Minister that on the same day as the European elections a parliamentary by-election was held by first-past-the-post with another deplorable turnout. However, will the Minister take note also of the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that, if the European elections had been held by first-past-the-post, there would have been 66 Conservatives going to Strasbourg? God only knows what members of the Flat Earth Party, xenophobes and others would have gone in that bloated and distorted delegation. Instead, is the Minister aware that there will be 13 more Labour MEPs than would have otherwise been the case and 10 Liberal Democrat MEPs, including my noble friends Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne and Lady Ludford? To adopt the cry of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is that not cause for us to rejoice, rejoice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot for the life of me understand why the noble Lord draws a distinction between the Conservative Party and the Flat Earth Party. If first-past-the-post had produced the deplorable consequences which the noble Lord identified, it seems to have been a blessing that we

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did not use first-past-the-post. The truth is that the by-election, which was the result of the death of my colleague Derek Fatchett, had a very poor turn-out. In my opinion, that has nothing to do with first-past-the-post or any other system. In many ways, a large number of people in this country have had rather too much of elections. That is a purely personal view. It may be that we should do away with elections altogether as a significant element of your Lordships' House believes.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, whether that was a prediction for the House of Lords Bill, we shall have to wait and see. Has not the low turn-out shown convincingly, among other things, that the British people prefer to vote for people rather than parties? However, is it not the case that the British people have very wisely elected my noble friends Lord Inglewood, Lord Bethell and Lord Stockton to the European Parliament? I am sure they will serve with distinction.

Have not the Liberal Democrats every reason to be satisfied with PR? After all, if it had been a general election, they would have only one Liberal Democrat MP south of Inverness?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I shall answer the question, if your Lordships wish. By and large, as a party, I agree that the Liberal Democrats are self-satisfied, if I heard the question properly. It is not quite as simple as the noble Lord proposed. It was a vote for an individual in the Leeds by-election and the turn-out was very low. Historically, and lamentably, local election turn-outs are very low in this country. If my recollection is correct, in the United States, which has a democratic system, the turn-out for presidential elections is often less than 50 per cent. There are important questions here about whether the menu--and I put that generally--which we offer to the electorate in different contexts and different sorts of elections is sufficiently interesting and important to them. Recent experience shows that we have not got it entirely right. That is not solely a governmental responsibility. It is a matter of important political consequence.

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