Feeling stressed? Not getting enough sleep? Working anti-social hours? If you've identified with all of the above, you could be working in the House of Commons.
 
A little-known study by Ashley Weinberg, a psychology lecturer at Salford University, looked at the health of 64 newly-elected MPs after the 1997 election. It reported that nearly a third were experiencing shortness of breath and dizziness a year on, compared with 9.6 per cent when first selected. The results also showed they had increased signs of tiredness and exhaustion.
 
Their condition is hardly surprising when one considers the pressure MPs work under. They arrive in their offices in the morning to be confronted by a huge pile of mail and e-mails from constituents. They then attend select committees and by mid afternoon the House is in session, which can sometimes go on until the early hours. On top of that, they have to hold weekly surgeries in their constituencies and attend local events, which doesn't leave much time for the family.
 
However, help could now be on the way if recommendations to reform working hours are approved by Parliament. Set up last year, the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, chaired by Robin Cook, has produced a set of proposals that effectively drag working practices in the Commons out of the 19th century.
 
Its recommendations, which are expected to be debated by the modernisation select committee and then put to MPs in July, include: introducing an early-morning start of 11.30 in the chamber on Wednesdays; moving Prime Minister's Question Time (on Wednesday) to midday; giving a year's notice of parliamentary terms to help MPs plan holidays; and increasing the number of Fridays – currently 10 – that MPs can devote exclusively to constituency business. An 11.30am start on Thursday was introduced in 1999 and has proved popular with MPs. Current sitting hours date back to 1945, with the chamber in session from 2.30 to 10.30pm Monday to Wednesday and from 9.30am to 3pm on a Friday. 
 
In a speech to the Hansard Society in May, Cook reiterated the need for changing the working hours in the House. "I want an earlier start to the parliamentary day to rescue key events in Parliament, such as ministerial statements, from their relative obscurity in the late afternoon slot, and the key votes in Parliament from the late evening, when it is too late for even the last bulletins," he said.
 
Cook has also proposed a mechanism to permit the carry-over of a bill from one parliamentary year to the next, to allow more time for Parliament to carry out ­scrutiny. He argues that the current situation – whereby every bill must finish in November – means legislation is rushed through Parliament.
 
These reforms may seem trivial, but they mark an important turning point in the development of Parliament from a gentlemen's club to a modern legislature. Hours were traditionally set to fit around other jobs, especially in the days before MPs were paid. Now, being an MP is a full-time job with ever more demands from constituents and larger workloads, because of the emergence of select committees in the 1970s.
 
But Cook's committee argues that they are not just aiming to help MPs. Paul Tyler, shadow leader of the Liberal Democrats, who sits on the select committee, says the proposals are geared to making MPs more effective for their constituents.
 
"It's a question of making sure every individual can make best use of their time," Tyler explains.
 
He says the committee would like to see its proposals in place by the autumn, which means a Commons debate before the summer recess.
 
Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, agrees that the proposals will result in a more media-responsive and effective MP: "It's about working at better times of the day when you are more compos mentis. I'm not very good at 2am – but I don't think that many people are. It's trying to do the work at a more convenient time so it coincides with other people's work. Also, it fits in better with the media, because, very often, debates happen late at night so the media doesn't report them," says Campbell.
 
The proposals have received ministerial backing. Tessa Jowell, the minister for culture and sport, told PM: "Among the many reasons why I welcome Robin Cook's drive to modernise the House is that we must look and act like a modern institution to be taken seriously by a modern Britain."
 
However, Conservatives are worried that the proposals will lead to shorter hours. While they are content to see Parliament strengthening its role, they will oppose any attempt to shorten hours, Greg Knight, Conservative MP for East Yorkshire, told PM.
 
"My party's view is that we are not against change where it can be shown to improve the scrutiny of Parliament. But we are concerned about the desire to shorten working hours just because some MPs don't want to work in the evenings. There is no evidence that our hours are a deterrent to doing our job," he says.
 
Knight supports the early start on a Wednesday, but he is concerned that one of the committee's recommendations to carry over bills to the next parliamentary year could be a threat to the effectiveness of political opposition.
 
Campbell argues, however, that the UK lags behind other European parliaments in setting reasonable working hours: "I couldn't find a single other parliament that sat regularly until 10pm. There are parliaments that occasionally have late nights but we are here every night until 10pm."
 
The proposals fail to go far enough for some. Julia Drown, Labour MP for Swindon South, wants 10am starts on Tuesday and Wednesday and earlier finishes on Thursday. "I think this would be much fairer to a minority of MPs with families in London," she says.
 
And Weinberg maintains that support structures need to be put in place to tackle MPs' stress. "They should have employee assistance programmes made available to them and crèche facilities need to be introduced," he says. "The House of Commons needs to be more of an inclusive environment and more family-friendly."
 
"From the survey we found that the main issue for MPs was balancing work and home life, as most were working 55-70 hours a week."
 
Campbell agrees that MPs need help to juggle work and family responsibilities, but believes that reforms of  working practices will help them achieve that goal.
 
"MPs need work-life balance as well as anybody else does. If we can get these sort of changes in place, it will mean that MPs will be healthier and working at a time of day when they are on the ball. It should also mean that MPs in London can get home at a time when their families are not in bed," she says.
 
Campbell believes that this will alleviate stress among MPs, who often feel torn between their workloads in their constituency and in the Commons. "Fridays are very unsatisfactory at the moment as you plan it to be a constituency day. Sometimes it turns out not to be and you have to come back for a private member's bill. You have the choice of either cancelling a whole day of constit­uency engagements or not going up to Parliament. It's the sort of thing that MPs get very stressed about," she admits.
 
That these proposals have come forward at all is progress. Although the work of the modernisation select committee has the full backing of the prime minister, it remains to be seen whether Cook's proposals are approved by Parliament. Until that happens, MPs will continue to work anti-social hours and fail to be in tune with the working hours of their electorate.
 
 
Access all areas?
MPs may have had a tough time reforming some of the working practices of Parliament, but the Palace of Westminster can be surprisingly enlightened at times. Paul Daisley was struck down with a stomach infection that required major surgery in February of last year, so when he was elected to Parliament as the member for Brent East in May 2001, he was confined to a wheelchair and facing months of recuperation.
 
Daisley is full of praise for the way he has been treated: "I've received all the support I could have wished for," he told PM. "This is an old building, with lots of narrow corridors and steep staircases, but they've taken a difficult character and adapted it any way they could. There's always a ramp or a lift to help you get places. To be honest, I was expecting to have to go through the kitchens to get to the chamber – which is what you have to do in many modern buildings – so I was pleasantly surprised."
 
He's also full of praise for the support he's been given by colleagues. The party whips were relaxed about the fact that he wasn't able to swear the oath of allegiance until September, and deputy chief whip Thomas McAvoy told him: "You ring me up and tell me when you want to come in, and I'll try to persuade you not to." No doubt Labour's huge majority helped: previous governments have been known to wheel in patients on hospital trolleys to vote.
 
Above all, though, Daisley is most grateful to the parliamentary staff, and the team in his own office. "It made all the difference – I only had to ask for something and it was there. From the policemen on the door to the people in the Speaker's office, everyone was marvellous."
 
There are a number of MPs with disabilities, including home secretary David Blunkett and Ann Begg, the MP for Aberdeen South, who is a wheelchair user. Special allowances are paid for some disabilities.
 
 
A fair deal for MPs' staff
If MPs' working hours are appalling, the pay and conditions of their staff also leave a lot to be desired.
 
In the past year, this issue has been addressed, starting with a package of measures voted through Parliament last July. The measures included ringfencing money for MPs' staff salaries – £70,000 for staff in London and £60,000 for MPs with staff based outside the capital. MPs are allowed to employ up to three full-time staff.
 
"This meant that at the end of the financial year, staff weren't competing with a new photocopier or fax machine for their pay rise," says Kevin Flack, secretary of the T&G union's parliamentary branch.
 
The package also set aside money to improve the security of constituency offices, following the killing of Andrew Pennington, assistant to Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones, in January 2000.
 
Third, it created a centralised computer system for MPs to facilitate better communication. Flack says: "They are all networked and on the same system, which means it is much easier to service them. Before, you had basically 659 different systems, very few of which were networked."
 
An even more important breakthrough in improving staff prospects came with the recommendations of the Speaker's Advisory Panel last summer. The panel outlined pay scales for MPs' staff and established contracts for new starters, where previously staff had been at the mercy of the individual MP. A parliamentary assistant, who is likely to be a graduate, can start on £15,000 in London. This compares with an MP's basic salary of £55,118 per year.
 
"The new contracts are a step forward in terms of the majority of staff, particularly in specifying working hours and holidays. It gives a lot more protection," says Flack, whose union aims to tie staff as closely as possible to civil service grades and conditions.
 
Staff on the new contracts work a 37.5-hour week and are entitled to five weeks' holiday and overtime pay. But there is no legal requirement for MPs to follow the recommended pay bands.
 
"This obviously causes a problem because it's relying on the benevolence of the MPs, particularly on things like incremental rises each year," Flack says.
 
The T&G wants to see the pay bands for MPs' staff enforced by the personnel department, which is responsible for other House of Commons staff such as cleaners, porters and doorkeepers.
 
"At the moment there is no continuity of service if your MP loses their seat or drops dead and you go to work for another MP. All your employment rights start from scratch," Flack argues.
 
He acknowledges that progress has been made with the introduction of staff contracts, but wants ongoing discussion with the Speaker's Advisory Panel to make MPs legally comply with the pay bands.
 
Anne Campbell, who sits on the Speaker's Advisory Panel, argues that legal enforcement is unnecessary, as there is sufficient pressure on MPs to conform to the recommended pay bands.
 
"The fees office does give fairly strongly worded advice. There is no advantage for MPs not paying the proper scales now because the allowance is ring-fenced and they can't use that money for other purposes, such as buying new computer equipment," she says.
 
To further ensure that staff are treated fairly, a personnel advice centre was set up in October last year to advise MPs in their capacity as employers. "We provide them with advice on employment law and factual information for MPs' staff and assistants," explains Tara West, personnel manager for the centre and one of a four-strong team there.
 
Before the centre was set up, there was only one person responsible for dealing with queries on employment law from all 659 MPs.
 
 
The ***-feeding debate
In March this year, female MPs failed to overturn a ban on ***-feeding in the House of Commons chamber, committee rooms and public gallery. But they will be allowed to ***-feed in specially-designated areas in the Commons for the first time. 
 
Under speaker Michael Martin's direction, special ***-feeding rooms are to be set up in the Lady Members' rooms – close to the Upper Committee corridor.
 
The ruling is a blow to a group of predominantly Labour MPs who have campaigned since 1997 to be allowed to nurse infants in the chamber.
 
Julia Drown, MP for Swindon South, says further progress needs to be made. "I welcome the fact that the House of Commons has recognised ***-feeding needs to be better supported. We haven't reached the final goal of allowing mothers to decide what's best for their children but I've confidence that we will get there – sooner rather than later," she says.
 
Drown told PM that the Commons administration committee had voted in favour of lifting the ban and, in polls, three to one MPs were also in favour. She told PM: "I-don't want to waste parliamentary time, but in the face of opposition perhaps we will have to vote on it in the House. There is a minority of people opposing this with no justification at all."
 
But Greg Knight, Conservative MP for East Yorkshire, is adamant that female MPs should be banned from ***-feeding in the House.
 
"I think that would be ridiculous and I will vote against it," he says. "The notion that you can't leave the chamber for five minutes is ridiculous. How do MPs relieve themselves? Having a row of Labour women ***-feeding would be very off-putting."
 
The rooms will be separate from but adjacent to nappy-changing areas with feeding chairs, footstools and baby changers. The measures will cost just under £8,000.
 
 
Further information
For details on the CIPD training course "Work-Life Balance – Building the Business Case", call • 020 8263 3434 or visit