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What is the Wilson doctrine? The story behind MPs' protection from snooping

The Wilson doctrine, at the centre of a case before the investigatory powers tribunal this week, is the name given to the convention that the UK's intelligence agencies will not eavesdrop on elected members of parliament or members of the House of Lords. It is named after the former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, who told MPs in 1966 that he had given instructions that "that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of members of parliament".

In 1997, Tony Blair extended the convention to cover other forms of electronic surveillance such as email. Subsequently, Blair appeared to extend the Wilson doctrine still further when he said it "extends to all forms of warranted interception of communications".

There is a caveat, however: when Wilson made his statement, he added that if the policy needed to be changed, he would - "at such moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country" - make a new statement to Mps.

This means that the communications of MPs and peers could at times be intercepted, but be unaware that the Wilson doctrine had been abandoned because the prime minister of the day had decided, for reasons of national security, not to announce the change of policy.

The investigatory powers tribunal, which is hearing the complaint brought by a group of parliamentarians, has indicated that it will need to decide whether the doctrine has any force in law.

Sinn Fein MPs have been bugged in recent years: in 1999, party members found a listening device in a car that was used to transport Gerry Adams, while in 2003, transcripts of bugged telephone conversations between Martin McGuinness and senior British political figures appeared in a biography of the MP. The first operation was said to be justified because the target was a member of the IRA who used the same car; the latter on the grounds that McGuinness has never taken his seat in the Commons and sworn allegiance to the Queen.

Sadiq Khan, the former shadow justice secretary who is currently bidding to be Labour's candidate in the London mayoral elections, was bugged while visiting an inmate at a top security prison in 2005 and 2006. The listening device was hidden in a table in the visiting area and was operated by police on behalf of MI5.

The government's chief surveillance commissioner concluded that the Wilson doctrine did not appear to have been broken, because Khan had visited the inmate as an old childhood friend rather than as his MP. The commissioner also pointed out that the bugging operation was authorised by a senior police officer, and not a "warranted interception" as described in Blair's statement to MPs.

Others members of parliament who have suspected that their phones were bugged include Alan Clark, the Conservative minister, historian and diarist, and Mike Hancock, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, whose Russian assistant fought a successful battle against deportation on national security grounds.

[Source: By Ian Cobain, The Guardian, London, 23Jul15]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 30Jul15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.