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Wilson doctrine: Emergency debate over spying on MPs' communications

Published 15/10/2015

Wilson doctrine was created to protect MPs’ phones and electronic communications from being spied upon the intelligence services
Wilson doctrine was created to protect MPs’ phones and electronic communications from being spied upon the intelligence services

MPs are to hold an emergency debate on the Wilson doctrine, amid fears the convention designed to prevent politicians' communications being spied upon is "dead".

The Wilson doctrine, named after former prime minister Harold Wilson, protects MPs’ phones and electronic communications.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has ruled the convention has no legal basis.

Shadow Commons leader Chris Bryant led a successful application in the Commons for an emergency debate in response to Wednesday's judgment.

The debate has been allocated up to three hours on Monday, October 19.

Mr Bryant said the judgment had resulted in an "ambiguity" which needed to be cleared up urgently, adding it had also cast doubt on the protections supposedly afforded by the convention.

He told MPs: "To all intents and purposes, it means that the Wilson doctrine is dead."

Earlier, the Labour frontbencher told the Commons: "The right of members of this House to be able to represent their constituents without fear or favour is intrinsic to our democracy.

"It is the cornerstone of the bill of rights and it is one of the most ancient freedoms of this country.

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"In another era, before the existence of telephones and emails it meant that MPs and peers, even in war, had a right for their written correspondence not to be intercepted or be interfered with."

He said that since 1966 politicians had relied on the words of then prime minister Harold Wilson to prevent the tapping of their communications.

Concluding his application, Mr Bryant criticised ministers for failing to offer assurances over the protections MPs have.

He said: "Serious questions remain. Firstly, is the Wilson doctrine still in operation in any meaningful sense whatsoever?

"Secondly, have parliamentarians' communications been deliberately targeted?

"Thirdly, if so has this been on the authority of a minister, a secretary of state, or anyone else?

"This is an urgent matter and it needs consideration."

Commons Speaker John Bercow said he was satisfied the issue raised should be put to a vote.

Labour MPs stood up to vote in favour of the application - in line with what is required under standing order 24 - while Conservative MPs could also be heard shouting their support.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb and former MP George Galloway made the complaint to the IPT.

Lawyers alleged that the politicians' communications are being intercepted by GCHQ as part of the Tempora programme, which monitors and collates on a blanket basis the full range of electronic communications data produced in, or transiting through, the UK and other countries.

On Wedneday, the IPT declared the doctrine applies only to targeted, and not incidental, interception of Parliamentary communications, but that it has no legal effect, save that in practice the Security and Intelligence Agencies must comply with their own guidance.

Its president, Mr Justice Burton said the IPT was satisfied that the doctrine was not enforceable in English law by the claimants or other MPs or peers by way of legitimate expectation.

The Wilson doctrine outlined the policy of no tapping of the phones of MPs or members of the House of Lords, unless there is a major national emergency, and that any changes to the policy will be reported by the prime minister to Parliament.

Spying on Northern Ireland MLAs

In August Amnesty International wrote to all members of the Northern Ireland Assembly warning them that their communications could be under surveillance.

Amnesty NI director Patrick Corrigan said: "The change in GCHQ’s interpretation of the Wilson doctrine illustrates why mass surveillance is so damaging to a free society. If our elected representatives are not safe from the spies, who is?

"For the rules on spying on elected representatives across the UK to change without any sort of public scrutiny or accountability, is outrageous. We need to know from the Northern Ireland Executive, what - if anything - they knew about this change.

"Amnesty International fought through 18 months of litigation at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and a wall of denials to get confirmation that we were also subject to mass surveillance by the UK Government via GCHQ.

"They finally admitted that not only had GCHQ been spying on us, but what’s more that it had acted illegally, breaking its own policy on storing our data and communications.

"As human rights campaigners, this is a matter of very serious concern. We work with victims of government abuses who are understandably afraid that their confidential communications with us might be read by hostile governments.

"Like MPs and MLAs, the people Amnesty talk to rely on and trust that confidentiality, and so GCHQ’s behaviour puts at risk our ability to do our jobs well and safely.

"Our inadequate surveillance laws are failing to keep the spies in check and must be urgently reviewed and reformed. That’s why we’re calling for an independent inquiry into how the UK intelligence agency has been spying on human rights organisations. We hope that elected representatives in Northern Ireland will now join with us in making that call."

In July Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was seeking assurances from David Cameron that Scottish MLAs are not being spied upon. The Scottish First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister calling on him to clarify whether communications from MSPs have been intercepted by the intelligence agencies .

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government had not been consulted on the apparent change and urged Mr Cameron to confirm that the Wilson doctrine remains in place in Scotland.

She wrote: " I am sure you will agree with me that, excepting truly exceptional circumstances involving national security, the confidentiality of communications between parliamentarians and their constituents is of the utmost importance.

"I am sure you will also agree that it is just as important for MSPs as it is for MPs. This principle of confidentiality is what the 'Wilson doctrine' was introduced to protect.

"You will therefore understand my concern at suggestions in the Daily Record and elsewhere - reportedly supported by documentation shown to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - that, while GCHQ had been applying the Wilson doctrine to the communications of MSPs, that is no longer the case."

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