Welcome to the Parliamentary Diary online almanac.
As publishers of the Parliamentary Diary and Parliamentary Book for the last 40 years, we are constantly asked for information about the history of Parliament and the British Constitution. This website has been produced in response to these requests.
You will find serious background information on this great institution, biographies of all our past leaders, history about the buildings that make up the Palace of Westminster as well as a great deal of general information - information to satisfy the most ardent of researchers.
I trust that you will find much to interest you in the following pages and would welcome any suggestions for improvements to the site.
Parliamentary Information Office
PARLIAMENT - History
Parliament and Government
Parliament and government both play a part in forming the laws of the United Kingdom. They are separate institutions that work closely together, so it’s easy to mix up exactly what each one is responsible for!
The government runs the country. It has responsibility for developing and implementing policy and for drafting laws. It is also known as the Executive.
Parliament is the highest legislative authority in the UK. It has responsibility for checking the work of government and examining, debating and approving new laws. It is also known as the Legislature.
Forming a government
The political party that wins the most seats in a general election forms the new government, led by their party leader — who becomes Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appoints ministers, including the Cabinet, who often work in a government department, and run and develop public services and policies.
Ministers and MPs
Government ministers are chosen from MPs and Lords in Parliament. Your MP may be a member of the party forming the current Government (ie, Labour) but it doesn't necessarily mean they are working 'in government'. Ministers must regularly respond to oral and written questions from MPs and Lords.
Scrutiny of the Government
Parliament checks the work of the government on behalf of UK citizens through investigative select committees and by asking government ministers questions. The House of Commons also has to approve proposals for government taxes and spending.
The government needs to retain the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons. If the House votes to indicate that it has no confidence in the government, either by defeating the government on a confidence motion or by defeating a policy that the government has indicated is a 'matter of confidence' then the government would call a General Election.
Each year the government informs Parliament of its plans for new legislation in the Queen's Speech. New legislation is introduced as Bills and must be debated and approved by Parliament before it can become an Act of Parliament — the government needs the support of the majority of the House of Commons to function.
Where Parliament now stands has been a centre of authority for over a thousand years. Once the home of the royal family, and still officially a royal palace, the buildings that now make up the modern Houses of Parliament have developed through design, accident and attack.
A royal palace
The first known royal palace to occupy Parliament’s site was Edward the Confessor’s (c1065). Parliament officially remains a royal palace and is still referred to as the ‘Palace of Westminster’. The site was used as a royal residence until Henry VIII moved the royal family out in 1512 following a fire.
Westminster Hall is the oldest part of Parliament. The walls were built in 1097 and the hall is one Europe’s largest medieval halls with an unsupported roof. It was extensively rebuilt during the 14th century.
Once used as a law court, the hall has held several notable trials, including that of Sir William Wallace (1305), the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (1606) and King Charles I (1649).
Today, the hall is often used for important State occasions such as the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the lying-in-State of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, both in 2002.
The 1834 fire and rebuilding
The Palace almost completely burnt down in a fire on 16 October 1834, which destroyed everything except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel and the Jewel Tower.
The Houses of Parliament, as we know them today, were rebuilt after the fire. The process, which incorporated Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen’s Chapel, took just over 30 years. The rebuilding was completely finished by 1870.
Architect Charles Barry won an open competition for a new design with his gothic vision. Barry was assisted by Augustus Welby Pugin, especially in the details, fittings and furniture.
The bombing of 1941
During the Second World War, on 10 May 1941, a bombing raid destroyed the House of Commons chamber. Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed a new, five-floor block (with two floors occupied by the chamber). It was used for the first time on 26 October 1950.