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Society, Politics & Law

What is The Wilson Doctrine? The one minute guide

Updated Monday, 19th October 2015

A very, very quick guide to the Wilson Doctrine.

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Black and white photograph of Harold Wilson sat looking at the camera in a modest office-like setting. White text saying "the Wilson doctrine was outline to Parliament by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson" is on the right side of the picture.
A grainer version of the previous photograph of Harold Wilson, where the image looks like it has a brickwork pattern on it. There is a darker shaded box in the top right-hand corner and white text within it says "it stated that the security service would not intercept the telephone calls of members of Parliament".
Much grainier image of the previous two Harold Wilson images. The image is very disguised now and appears to have a heavily white/grey brickwork pattern on it, with only the bookshelves in the background and Wilson's suit and tie being made out. There is a shaded box in the top right-hand corner that says "in 1997 the doctrine was extended to include all electronic communications" in white writing

In 1966, alarmed at suggestions that security services were listening in to MPs' phone calls, then Prime Minister Harold Wilson pledged in the House of Commons that this would not happen:

I reviewed the practice when we came to office and decided on balance—and the arguments were very fine— [...] that I should give this instruction that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament. That was our decision and that is our policy. 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. I am aware of all the considerations which I had to take into account and I felt that it was right to lay down the policy of no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament.

This promise - The Wilson Doctrine - was subsequently extended to include members of the House of Lords, and in 1997 Tony Blair stated that it applied to all electonic communications (i.e. email as well).

The doctrine doesn't cover members of other elected bodies - so not Members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or European Parliament. And, crucially, it doesn't prevent other agencies from intercepting communications.

Harold Wilson by Allan Warren under CC-BY-SA licence




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