Granted that the leaked details of Sir Christopher Kelly's report may give only a partial picture of his recommendations on MPs' allowances, they foreshadow straitened times for the honourable members of the future – at least beside the relative ease of recent years. If adopted in full, they could also change the composition and character of the House of Commons in a more fundamental way than at any time since the end of either World War; perhaps even – as some have mooted – since the Reform Act of 1832.
Many MPs, understandably, are openly unhappy with the proposals – and many more, we have no doubt, have chosen to keep quiet, knowing how chill the climate is out there in the real world of the voters. Even with the entirely reasonable five-year transitional period set out by Sir Christopher, which is the life of one Parliament, the new rules will mean considerable belt-tightening for many, and for some a comprehensive re-think of how they have organised their lives. There will be those who decide that the game is no longer worth the candle.
Nor are some of the objections without foundation. For MPs who employ spouses or partners as assistants and office managers, that arrangement makes sense and could be seen to benefit everyone. The MP gets a loyal helper, the family more stability than if they were often separated, and – given that the assistant is likely to work long and irregular hours – the taxpayer gets a good deal, too.
The trouble is that in the way some have employed family members (Derek Conway comes to mind), as in the way others have claimed for large mortgages, and yet others for second homes when they already lived within an easy commute of central London, MPs have given the impression that they were feathering their own nests, and in so doing forfeited the public's trust. It may seem unjust that all will now have to pay for the misjudgements of some – but that number, as transpired from what we know of the findings of Sir Thomas Legg, constituted less the exception than the rule.
On second homes, it could be argued that it is unreasonable to make MPs claim for renting accommodation, when mortgage payments might on occasion represent better value for the taxpayer. But this would turn a blind eye to the opportunities for abuse and the outright profiteering that has been going on. As for a reasonable commuting distance, 60 minutes is what many Londoners endure, and MPs' hours are no longer as consistently anti-social as they were. As for the ban on employing relatives, this is standard for MPs in most other developed countries, where to do otherwise is called nepotism.
Many MPs will regret the passing of the old expenses order. For the swingeing way it is being cut down, however, they have only themselves to blame. Over the years, they ramped up their allowances with impunity. They repeatedly rejected calls to put their own house in order, and even tried to exempt their spending from the Freedom of Information Act.
It will take time for the dust to settle. But when it does, the result need not be a Parliament made up of novices at one end and the super-rich at the other. The remaining combination of pay and allowances will hardly leave MPs on the breadline, and then there are the considerable attractions of the job itself. Today's MPs may not want to admit it, but Sir Christopher could be opening the way – not before time – for a Parliament that is more modern, more accountable, and more attuned to the concerns of voters.