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Wilson Doctrine

Published Monday, June 12, 2017

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. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 placed arrangements on a statutory footing and extended them to members of the devolved administrations and MEPs. 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 then 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 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 on Interception 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 Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which received Royal Assent on 29 November 2016, placed arrangements on a statutory footing and extended them to members of the devolved administrations and MEPs. Once the relevant provisions commence, the interception of MPs’ communications and interference with their equipment will require the approval of the Secretary of State, a Judicial Commissioner, and the Prime Minister.

 

 

Commons Briefing papers SN04258

Authors: Pat Strickland; Joanna Dawson; Samantha Godec

Topics: Intelligence services, Parliament, Privacy

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