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Wilson Doctrine

Published Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Wilson Doctrine is a convention that MPs' communications should not be intercepted by the intelligence services. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal gave judgement on 14 October 2015 clarifying the Doctrine's status and effect and the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, published in November 2015, introduced proposals to place the existing arrangements on a statutory footing. This Briefing Paper sets out the background.

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The convention that MPs’ communications should not be intercepted by police or security services is known as the ‘Wilson Doctrine’. It is named after the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson who announced the policy in 1966. According to the Times on 18 November 1966, some MPs were concerned that the security services were tapping their telephones. In November 1966, in response to a number of parliamentary questions, Harold Wilson made a statement in the House of Commons saying that MPs phones would not be tapped.

Successive Governments have confirmed that the doctrine remains in place.

There have been a number of controversies concerning the doctrine in recent years. The most recent one centres on the Snowden leaks concerning the way in which GCHQ has been collecting metadata – the ‘who, when, where and how’ of a communication.

In response to a question about this in July 2014 the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that the doctrine did not absolutely exclude the use of surveillance powers against parliamentarians, but it did set certain rules which have to be followed.

In October 2015 the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) gave judgment in a case brought by Caroline Lucas MP arising from the Snowden leaks, on the status, meaning and effect of the Wilson Doctrine. It concluded

  • The Wilson doctrine applies to targeted, but not incidental, interception of parliamentarians’ communications
  • It was never absolute
  • It has no legal effect; but in practice the Agencies must comply with the Draft Code and with their own guidance
  • The doctrine as now constituted is as explained by the Home Secretary in July 2014.

Successive Interception of Communications Commissioners have recommended that the forty year convention which has banned the interception of MPs’ communications should be lifted, on the grounds that legislation governing interception has been introduced since 1966.

The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, published in November 2015, would place the existing arrangements on a statutory footing, and extend them to members of the devolved administrations and to MEPs.



Commons Briefing papers SN04258

Authors: Pat Strickland; Joanna Dawson

Topics: Intelligence services, Parliament, Privacy

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