Since 1966, security agencies have been banned from tapping the phones or reading the emails of MPs, under a convention called the “Wilson Doctrine” after the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
However, it emerged last week that GCHQ, the UK’s main communications surveillance agency, recently dropped the Scottish Parliament from its interpretation of the ban, freeing it to spy on MSPs calls and emails. The new GCHQ policy also excludes the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, and the European Parliament. MI5 and MI6 don’t appear ever to have recognised devolved legislatures’ right to the protection of the Wilson Doctrine.
The change in policy was revealed by lawyers acting for the Green Party parliamentarians Caroline Lucas and Jenny Jones in their case against GCHQ at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The pair are challenging the legality of GCHQ’s Tempora programme, which applies blanket surveillance to all electronic communications data in the UK.
John has lodged a Scottish Parliament motion asking the Prime Minister to ensure intelligence agencies respect the ban, and to extend it to include the devolved and European parliaments. It says:
That the Parliament requests that the Prime Minister instructs all intelligence-gathering agencies, including GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, to adhere to the spirit of the Wilson Doctrine by prohibiting phone-tapping and electronic surveillance of parliamentarians, including members of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament
Seventeen other MSPs have already added their names to the motion, including Scottish Greens co-convenor Patrick Harvie, SNP chief whip Bill Kidd and Labour leadership candidate Ken Macintosh.
“The Wilson Doctrine is an important safeguard of the freedom and independence of parliament from state power. It helps defend us all against the risk of security agencies blurring the line between protecting the interests of the nation, and protecting the interests of the government.
“David Cameron has promised respect for devolution; that means he has to recognise the right of MSPs, Welsh AMs and Northern Irish MLAs to the same protection as MPs. If he respects democracy in general, he must make sure that protection is a strong as the day it was created in 1966.
“From surveillance cameras on every corner to GCHQ’s massive trawling of emails, phone calls and texts, the people of the UK are some of the most spied on in the world. The present government is determined to go further, with David Cameron proposing a draconian ban on the encryption that keeps our data secure on the internet.
“I applaud Caroline Lucas for taking on the Big Brother culture, and for her success in bringing GCHQ in front of a court to defend its mass surveillance. Her tenacity has already brought to light this Holyrood-shaped hole in our tattered safeguards against abuse of power. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot more as the case goes on.”
John is the convenor of the Cross-Party Group on Human Rights, and a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. He has written to its Convenor, Christine Grahame, to ask that the Home Secretary is called to the Committee to face questioning about the surveillance of MSPs.