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UK Politicians to Hold ‘Emergency Debate’ After Spy Tribunal Says GCHQ Permitted to Put Them Under Surveillance

Published: October 19, 2015
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Source: Tech Dirt

A long-held “gentleman’s agreement” that GCHQ would not spy on members of Parliament (with an exigent circumstances exception, naturally) was found to be not legally-binding by the UK’s surveillance oversight tribunal.

Today, a panel, headed by Mr Justice Burton, made declarations that the Wilson Doctrine applies only to targeted, and not incidental, interception of Parliamentary communications, but that it has no legal effect, save that in practice the Security and Intelligence Agencies must comply with their own guidance.

The Wilson doctrine, implemented by prime minister Harold Wilson in November 1966, lay down the policy of no tapping of the phones of MPs or members of the House of Lords, unless there is a major national emergency, and that any changes to the policy will be reported by the prime minister to Parliament.

Once the Parliament members discovered they too could be subjected to GCHQ’s “blanket surveillance,” they moved quickly.

MPs are to hold an emergency debate on the Wilson doctrine, amid fears the convention designed to prevent politicians’ communications being spied upon is “dead”.


Shadow Commons leader Chris Bryant led a successful application in the Commons for an emergency debate in response to Wednesday’s judgment.

The debate has been allocated up to three hours on Monday, October 19.

When it’s just the general public and foreign citizens of dozens of nations, politicians generally agree there’s a “debate” to be had over dragnet surveillance. The debate then takes place with minimal input from those affected and tends to include large amounts of terrorist fear-mongering and quibbling over how much exactly national security agencies should be allowed to get away with. (As much as possible, usually. Especially when the fear-mongering side has the floor.)

When it’s those up top discovering they, too, might be subject to the same surveillance they’ve inflicted on the rest of the nation (and foreigners who have been granted no rights whatsoever), they step all over themselves in their haste to “debate” the side of the issue that states they should continue to be excepted from the laws that apply to everyone else.

One MP even portrayed the special Parliament members-only surveillance exceptions to be essential for the continued representation of the public that was never included in the government’s “gentleman’s agreement” with its spy agency.

Mr Bryant said the judgment had resulted in an “ambiguity” which needed to be cleared up urgently, adding it had also cast doubt on the protections supposedly afforded by the convention.

Earlier, the Labour frontbencher told the Commons: “The right of members of this House to be able to represent their constituents without fear or favour is intrinsic to our democracy.”

Right now, though, most of these legislators are only representing themselves. If their constituents can be subjected to both targeted and incidental collections, so should they. If they want the ability to advocate on behalf of the public without fear of someone reading their emails over their shoulder, the first thing they should do is expand this protection to constituents who are not currently under investigation or suspected of terrorist activity. Because as of right now, the only message this “emergency debate” sends is that the public’s representatives wish to continue cloaking themselves in privilege and hypocrisy.

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