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Wilson Doctrine

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

I seek leave to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the operation of the Wilson doctrine.

The right of Members of this House to be able to represent their constituents without fear or favour is intrinsic to our democracy. It is the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights and one of the most ancient freedoms of this country. In another era, before the existence of telephones and emails, it meant that MPs and peers, even in times of war, had the right for their written correspondence not to be intercepted or interfered with.

Since 17 November 1966, Members have relied on the words of Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, who said that he had instructed

“that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of the Members of Parliament. That was our decision and that was our policy.”

He added:

“But if there was any development of a kind which required a change in the general policy, I would, at such moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on my own initiative make a statement in the House about it.”—[Official Report, 17 November 1966; Vol. 736, c. 639.]

Despite the slightly opaque wording Wilson then used, that rapidly became known as the Wilson doctrine and it was extended five days later by Lord Longford to Members of the House of Lords. It was subsequently—and erroneously, it turns out—thought that it equally applied to Members of the European Parliament, to Members of the other three legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and to all other forms of digital communication.

Yesterday, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal gave its ruling on a case brought by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is in her place, and others. The judgment states that

“The Wilson Doctrine has no legal effect”

and calls it

“a political statement in a political context, encompassing the ambiguity that is sometimes to be found in political statements”.

That runs contrary to assurances given to Members of both the Commons and the Lords by successive Governments, including the current one, and casts doubt on the protection supposedly afforded by the Wilson doctrine. To all intents and purposes, it means that the Wilson doctrine is dead.

From your own intervention to the tribunal, Mr Speaker, and from the points of order raised by several Members yesterday, it is clear that Members on both sides of the House believe that this ambiguity needs clearing up as a matter of urgency. I note that the Home Secretary stonewalled on the issue when asked about it by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on Monday, and this very morning the Leader of the House gave the most opaque comment I have heard yet on the matter.

Serious questions remain. First, is the Wilson doctrine still in operation in any meaningful sense whatsoever? Secondly, have parliamentarians’ communications been deliberately targeted? Thirdly, if so, has that been on the authority of a Minister, a Secretary of State or anyone else? This is an urgent matter and it needs consideration.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House. The hon. Gentleman asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24, namely the Wilson doctrine. I have listened carefully to his application, and I am satisfied that the matter raised by him is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Has the hon. Gentleman the leave of the House?

Application agreed to.

The hon. Gentleman has indeed obtained the leave of the House. The debate will be held on Monday 19 October as the first item of public business. The debate will last for up to three hours, and will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the hon. Gentleman’s application.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to you for what you have just announced. Given the Leader of the House’s announcement earlier that we will have a statement from the Prime Minister on Monday—such statements sometimes run for an hour or even two hours—and that we will then have this three-hour debate, there will not be much time for the Psychoactive Substances Bill.

No. The Leader of the House says that that is our fault. It is for the Government to make provision for matters of interest to the whole House and to make proper provision for scrutiny of their own legislation.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is of course that the timetabling of business is a matter for the usual channels, not for the Chair. It is important to explain that, not least for those beyond the House who are interested in and listening to our proceedings. What is a matter for the Chair—in general terms, but importantly—is the principle that the opportunity for scrutiny should be protected. It is extremely important, if there is a Second Reading of a Bill, that there is adequate time for it to be debated and, in the context of such a Second Reading debate, for its general principles to be the subject of scrutiny, so I hope that adequate time will be provided for that purpose. It is Thursday and the matters concerned will not be treated of until Monday, so there is certainly plenty of time for consideration of how the different priorities of the House can each and every one of them be met. I think we can leave that there for now. If there are no further points of order, the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.