Protecting constituent communication

Protecting constituent communication

'The Doughnut', where GCHQ is based

Jenny Jones, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, describes work to protect the privacy of parliamentary communications

In July, Caroline Lucas and I took the government to court over concerns that the Wilson Doctrine, a 50-year-old convention protecting the privacy of parliamentarians’ communications, is being violated. The Wilson Doctrine was established in 1966 when then Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised MPs that their phones would not be tapped, and in 1997, Tony Blair extended the doctrine to cover all electronic communications. But Edward Snowden’s revelations about the Tempora mass surveillance programme in 2013 raised the chilling possibility that this vital piece of protection was being breached. 

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) hearing revealed that this is indeed the case – and that the government is quietly disregarding the right of constituents to communicate freely with their parliamentary representatives. Not only are our communications being captured as part of bulk interception operations, but the government has refused to rule out even specifically- targeted surveillance of parliamentarians. At the tribunal, government lawyers argued that in this era of mass surveillance, the doctrine is no longer viable – and has no legal effect. This is potentially a real blow to our democracy. It is vital that parliamentarians’ constituents are able to contact us in the confidence that their communications will remain private – so that asylum seekers fearing deportation, campaigners whose groups have been infiltrated by undercover police, or individuals exposing government or corporate corruption can voice their concerns to us freely. Without this guarantee, politicians’ ability to hold the government to account on behalf of the electorate is dangerously curbed. 

Caroline and I will continue to fight the government on this, with a further court hearing later this year. We’re also calling for the Wilson Doctrine not only to be upheld, but to be extended to MSPs, MEPs and AMs – who, it was revealed at the tribunal, are no longer protected from government surveillance. It’s utterly unacceptable that the government has attempted to sweep aside such a fundamental convention, and I’ll be fighting tooth and nail to save it. 

The IPT is a judicial body, independent of government, which hears complaints about surveillance and normally meets in secret.