The Neill committee on standards in public life presented its seventh report to Parliament last week, focusing on the work of the House of Lords.
Its comments on the relationship between lobbying and the peerage have been welcomed by senior public affairs figures as a significant step in the right direction, but some feel it failed to deal with the most important issue - the existence of lobbying peers - and left too much to the judgement of individual peers.
Lord Neill made five recommendations in relation to the work of lobbying peers. The first and most controversial stated that Lords should continue to be allowed to hold parliamentary consultancies. Neill reached this conclusion having taken into account the claim that an outright ban would draw a line between lobbying in support of special interests and the promotion and protection of the wider public interest. He concluded that the balance of argument is against a total ban, in part because drafting a ban would be difficult and in part because there are so few lobbying lords at present.
Lobbying peers are indeed less than a dozen in number, even though they include such high-profile industry players as DLA Upstream's Tim Clement-Jones, Flagship Group's Dick Newby, Shandwick International's Tom McNally and Chime Communication's Lord Bell - who, in any case, has a broader role as the chairman of a listed company and does not directly lobby.
But the argument that there are very few of them is contextual rather than normative -there being few at the moment provides no guarantee that they will always be, especially if the conflict between being both a legislator and one who seeks to influence legislators is legitimised by a respected figure such as Lord Neill.
Michael Burrell, chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), gave evidence to the committee earlier this year.
While he welcomes the general thrust of Neill's work, he feels more could have been done to push home the point that being both lobbyist and legislator is incompatible.
'Neill allowed the conflict to continue because there are only ten of them, but that's ten too many as far as we're concerned. We are disappointed he declined to endorse a ban on people wearing two incompatible hats,' he says. The APPC's code of conduct insists that members may not have peers on the payroll.
On the baseline issue of lobbying peers, Neill let down the strict approach taken by the APPC. On a raft of other issues his work has been well received.
In particular, the committee advised that registering an interest in a lobbying firm ought to include any firm that lobbies - such as management consultants, law firms and accountants - not just firms dedicated to public affairs.
When this takes effect, the number of apparently lobbying lords will shoot up. Despite this, the trade associations support this attempt to eliminate the discrimination against straight public affairs companies.
Simon Nayyar, chairman of the PRCA public affairs committee, is proud to have been one of the earliest to 'bang that particular drum'.
While both the PRCA and the APPC endorse the steps Neill has taken in the direction of greater transparency, Burrell feels too much is still left to interpretation. Neill recommends that when a lord has an advisory contract with an outside interest, a copy of that contract should be deposited with the registrar of lords' interests. Specifically, he says the details of how much a peer is paid for his (they are all men at the moment) services should be made available to the public.
The recommendation's wording is crucial, since it states, 'a member of the House of Lords who has an agreement for a consultancy or any similar arrangement should deposit a copy of that agreement with the registrar of Lords interests'. The point can be made that it may not be the peer who has a consultancy agreement with the client, but the company for which the peer works. It is easy to imagine that a peer may advise clients but not declare the arrangement because the contract is with the company and not the peer. Burrell says: 'You can drive a coach and horses through the spirit of what Neill is trying to achieve by the letter of the way he has worded it.'
The report was never going to satisfy all interested parties, but its suggestion that 'agreements (contracts for lobbying services) and details as to remuneration derived from (them should) be made available for public inspection,' has split onlookers down the middle. While the professional bodies are broadly supportive of this step on the road to total transparency, some peers with financial or professional interests in lobbying firms are doubtful of its value. 'The requirement to declare an interest is absolute. The extent of it, and the amount you are paid for it, is utterly irrelevant,' says one.
In sum, the report takes key steps in the general direction of openness. But it does not go far enough. Martin LeJeune a Fishburn Hedges director, and APPC management committee member who once served as assistant secretary to the Neill committee, fears its members may have been seduced by the gentlemanly behaviour of most peers. 'The committee draws a distinction between professional politicians in the Commons and gentleman amateurs in the Lords. This may have been the case years ago, but it is not the case now,' he says.
Neill's report should, perhaps, have reflected this.