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The Wilson Doctrine

Statement made on 4 November 2015

Statement UIN HCWS291


On 17 November 1966, Harold Wilson made a statement to the House regarding the interception of the telephone calls of Members of Parliament. He said that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament. If there was a development that required a change in the general policy then the Prime Minister would, at a moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on his own initiative, make a statement in the House about it. Together with a number of clarifications to that statement made by my predecessors over the years, this has become known as the Wilson Doctrine.

One of the clarifications extended the Doctrine to Members of the Other Place. Another extended it to electronic surveillance that is authorised under a warrant signed by a Secretary of State.

I, and my predecessors, have confirmed on numerous occasions that the Wilson Doctrine continues to apply. This remains the case.

With the publication of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill today, and also prompted in part by a recent judgment of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and the debate in this House on 19 October, I wanted to explain this Government’s position on the Wilson Doctrine.

First, the interception of communications of any person, including Members of Parliament is governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). This, and the Code of Practice issued under it, set out a series of robust safeguards for any instance of interception. There is independent oversight from the Interception of Communications Commissioner. This is the current legal framework for the interception of communications.

Second, I do not believe the Wilson Doctrine was, or is, an absolute bar to the targeted interception of the communications of Members of Parliament or an exemption from the legal regime governing interception. The Home Secretary has made that position clear in the House on a number of occasions. The Doctrine recognised that there could be instances where interception might be necessary.

Third, some have assumed that the Wilson Doctrine requires the Prime Minister of the day to approve any proposed instance of the targeted interception of a Member of Parliament. I do not believe the Doctrine itself requires this. It simply indicates that in certain circumstances the Prime Minister would make a statement to the House at a time of his choosing when national security allows. However, it is the policy of this Government that if there was any proposal to target a Member’s communications then I would be consulted by the relevant Secretary of State.

Fourth, I can confirm that, in future, as a matter of policy the Prime Minister will be consulted should there ever be a proposal to target any UK Parliamentarian under a warrant issued by a Secretary of State, notwithstanding the general policy set out in the Doctrine. This applies to Members of this House, Members of the Other Place, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and UK members of the European Parliament. It applies to all activity authorised by a warrant issued by a Secretary of State: any instance of targeted interception and, electronic surveillance and equipment interference, when undertaken by the Security and Intelligence Agencies. This is in addition to the rigorous safeguards already in the legislation itself. This means that, going forwards, the safeguards for all Parliamentarians will be the same, with one exception: the Prime Minister will play no role should there ever be any proposal to conduct any such activity by Police Scotland, where these warrants are authorised by the Scottish Government. It would be up to the Scottish Government how they wish to handle any such case, should it ever arise. Updated Interception and Equipment Interference Codes of Practice which make this policy clear have been laid in Parliament today.

Fifth, the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, published today, will update the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and provides for even greater safeguards. The Bill will establish Judicial Commissioners to review warrants and also puts the Prime Minister’s role on a statutory basis. This will provide for further scrutiny by an independent judge on top of Secretary of State authorisation. The independent judicial scrutiny, alongside the role of the Prime Minister, will establish a tripartite process should there ever be a proposal to target a Parliamentarian: the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Judicial Commissioner.

Finally, I want to clarify today the safeguards for any targeted requests for communications data of Parliamentarians. These are set out in the Acquisition and Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice. Whilst there is no role for Secretaries of State or the Prime Minister in approving these requests the Code requires that special consideration must be given by the public authority requesting the data.

Harold Wilson made his statement almost fifty years ago when there was no legislation on interception or independent oversight. The world has moved on since then. My statement today sets out how this Government continues to apply the Doctrine in the twenty first century.

Statement from

Prime Minister