Wilson Doctrine

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The Wilson Doctrine is a ban on the tapping of UK MPs' and Peers' telephones introduced in 1966 and named after Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who established the rule. Since it was established, the development of new forms of communication, such as the mobile phone and email, and election of members to the European Parliament and the new devolved legislatures have led to extensions of the doctrine.

In July 2015, it emerged that the application of the doctrine to Members of the European Parliament and devolved legislatures had been ended.[1]


Introduction[edit]

Following a spate of scandals involving alleged telephone bugging of MPs Mr Wilson gave a pledge to MPs that their phones would not be tapped:

I reviewed the practice when we came to office and decided on balance - and the arguments were very fine - that the balance should be tipped the other way and that I should give this instruction that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament.

—Harold Wilson, House of Commons

However the pledge was qualified in two respects, as the Intelligence and Security Committee made clear in their 2005-06 Annual Report:[2]

But if there was any development of a kind which required a change in the general policy, I would, at such moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on my own initiative make a statement to the House about it.

—Harold Wilson, House of Commons

This meant that the Prime Minister could reverse the doctrine in the interests of national security, but that he did not need to reveal the fact to the House of Commons until he felt it safe to do so. In theory this means that the Wilson Doctrine could already have been reversed, with the Prime Minister having decided it was premature to disclose the fact.[3]

Re-assessment[edit]

Subsequent prime ministers have regularly confirmed that the ban remains in place, but in January 2006, the then Interception of Communications commissioner The Rt Hon. Sir Swinton Thomas asked the government to reconsider the implications of the doctrine on the regulatory framework established under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed he would be considering whether or not the ban should be lifted, in order to comply with the act.

However, in March 2006 - in a written ministerial statement - Tony Blair said that following a period of fresh consultation, he had decided the 'Wilson doctrine' will remain in place.[4]

In February 2007, Sir Swinton Thomas again called for the ban to be removed,[5] saying:

It is fundamental to the constitution of this country that no one is above the law or is seen to be above the law. But in this instance, MPs and peers are anything but equal with the rest of the citizens of this country and are above the law.

In September 2007 Prime Minister Gordon Brown reaffirmed the doctrine as "The Wilson Doctrine applies to all forms of interception that are subject to authorisation by Secretary of State warrant."[6]

Sadiq Khan MP[edit]

In February 2008 it was reported that Sadiq Khan had been bugged whilst talking to a constituent in Woodhill Prison. However since this appeared to have been a face-to-face conversation, even if it was bugged, it may not have been a literal breach of the Wilson Doctrine. An inquiry was launched by Justice Secretary, The Rt Hon. Jack Straw MP.[7]

Further questions about the validity of the Doctrine arose in November 2008 after the home and Parliamentary offices of Damian Green MP were searched by the Metropolitan Police.[8] Other questions in the Lords asked whether communications which had been stored were protected by the same doctrine.[9]

2015 Investigatory Powers Tribunal case[edit]

Following the global surveillance disclosures by Edward Snowden, three parliamentarians took a case in 2015 to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) that the Wilson Doctrine was being broken.[10] GCHQ's QC argued that the Wilson Doctrine "does not have force in law and cannot impose legal restraints on the agencies", so the doctrine only has a political effect, and that excluding politicians from mass surveillance wasn't feasible.[3] The IPT is expected to issue its decision later in 2015.[11]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "First Minister demands urgent assurances". Scottish Legal News. 24 July 2015. Retrieved 27 July 2015. 
  2. ^ Interception of Communications Commissioner. "Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner for 2005-2006" (PDF). HC 315 SE/2007/17. Retrieved 2009-01-12{{inconsistent citations}} 
  3. ^ a b Alexander J Martin (24 July 2015). "The Wilson Doctrine isn't legally binding, MPs CAN be spied on, says QC". The Register. Retrieved 25 July 2015. 
  4. ^ Tony Blair (30 March 2006). "Wilson Doctrine". Hansard. UK Parliament. 30 Mar 2006 : Column 95WS. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Richard Norton-Taylor (2007-02-20). "Watchdog urges end to ban on MP phone taps". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-02-04. 
  6. ^ Gordon Brown (12 September 2007). "Members: Surveillance". Hansard. UK Parliament. 12 Sep 2007 : Column 2103W. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  7. ^ Bell, Thomas (2008-02-04). "Police 'took MP bugging decision'". London: BBC News. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  8. ^ Andrew Mackinlay. "Written Answers for 8 December 2008 Prime Minister Damian Green" (– Scholar search). Hansard. 8 Dec 2008 : Column 12W. Retrieved 2008-12-08{{inconsistent citations}} [dead link]
  9. ^ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer. "Members of the House: Police Access — Question". Theyworkforyou.com. 8 Dec 2008 : Members of the House: Police Access — Question. Retrieved 2008-12-08{{inconsistent citations}} 
  10. ^ Alexander J Martin (23 July 2015). "Galloway and Greens challenge Brit spooks over dragnet snooping". The Register. Retrieved 25 July 2015. 
  11. ^ Ian Cobain and Jamie Grierson (24 July 2015). "MPs can no longer remain exempt from surveillance, lawyers concede". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 July 2015. 

External links[edit]