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Taking issue with blanket surveillance

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caroline lucas, baroness jenny jones, george galloway, wilson doctrine, ‘As parliamentarians who often speak to whistle-blowers, this policy reversal is deeply worrying’.

In a letter published today in the Daily Telegraph, two Green politicians, Caroline Lucas, MP, and Baroness Jenny Jones, who are facing the government in court over an alleged breach of the Wilson Doctrine, urge the government to renew its commitment to the Doctrine which protects those who contact parliamentarians from being subjected to blanket surveillance.

The Wilson Doctrine was brought in by the then prime minister Harold Wilson in 1966 to prevent phone tapping in the Houses of Parliament.

It provided that no Member of Parliament’s telephone shall be tapped, unless there is a major national emergency, and that any changes to this policy will be reported by the Prime Minister to Parliament.

It was extended, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, to cover all electronic communications.

Lucas and Jones have called for parliamentarians’ communications to be protected and for that protection to be extended to the Scottish Parliament, European Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Their letter follows a court hearing last week in which the government’s lawyers argued that the Wilson Doctrine is no longer viable in the era of mass interception – a claim dismissed by Jones and Lucas.

The government’s lawyers also argued that the ruling does not apply to MSPs, MEPs and AMs.

Here is the letter:

SIR – Last week, the Government tried to kill a policy that’s been protecting the privacy of communications between parliamentarians and their constituents for almost half a century.

The Wilson Doctrine, brought in by the then prime minister Harold Wilson in 1966 to prevent phone tapping in the Houses of Parliament, was extended by Tony Blair to cover all electronic communications.

Now, in a case we brought to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal last week, it has been revealed that ministers want to get rid of this protection.

The case comes on the back of revelations by CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, which showed that everyone’s communications were subject to blanket surveillance by GCHQ.

Government lawyers are now arguing that it is the Wilson Doctrine that should be re-examined, rather than the bulk interception regime.

For us, as parliamentarians who often speak to whistle-blowers – from campaigners whose groups have been infiltrated by the police to those exposing corruption in government departments – this policy reversal is deeply worrying.

Our job is to hold the executive to account, and to do that effectively it’s crucial that people feel they can contact us without their communications being monitored.

The Wilson Doctrine must not be undermined; indeed it should cover MSPs, AMs and MEPs too.

People’s privacy is just as sacred now, in the age of the internet, as it was in 1966.

It’s time that the Government stopped attempting to undermine our parliamentary democracy and instead gave people the right to communicate freely with us without fear of being monitored.

Caroline Lucas MP (Green)
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (Green)
London SW1

Lucas, Jones and former Respect MP George Galoway said MPs’ communications with the public are being intercepted as part of the Tempora mass data collection programme exposed by former US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

Galloway filed a separate case against the government, but it has been incorporated with that of Lucas and Jones.

The government’s (secret) Tempora programme, operated primarily by GCHQ, monitors and collates, on a blanket basis, the full range of electronic communications data produced in, or transiting through, the United Kingdom – and numerous other countries.

The communications it intercepts includes emails and other internet traffic as well as telephone calls.

The politicians want an independent judge to sign off any surveillance that does take place.

Speaking today, after the publication of the letter, Jones said: “Last week’s revelations were shocking.

“Rather than rethink the pervasive surveillance regime we have in this country ministers are attempting to undermine a key policy which protects those who contact parliamentarians.

“My job is to hold ministers to account, and they know full well that they are undermining our parliamentary democracy by cutting away a key protection for people who require discretion when contacting me.

“The revelations in court last week were deeply troubling.

“Caroline Lucas and I will be pursuing this case to very end.

“In a democracy there is absolute no excuse for people who contact parliamentarians to be subject to blanket surveillance by the security services.”

And Lucas said: “Last week’s court case saw the Government attempt to hack away at our parliamentary democracy.

“It’s essential that my constituents can contact me in private – yet the Government is undermining their right to do so.

”The Government has tried its very best to sweep Edward Snowden’s revelations under the carpet.

“The court case last week further exposed Ministers’ priorities – proving that they are happy to subject citizens to blank surveillance, even when they are contacting their MP.

“For those of us who believe that a right to privacy is a mark of a free society this latest manoeuvring by the Government is deeply concerning. Baroness Jones and I will be working closely together in the coming months to ensure that the Government is held to account as it attempts to undermine my constituents’ right to contact me in private.”

“There are, of course,” she added, “exceptions to the doctrine – such as when an MP or Peer is suspected of a serious crime – and we’d certainly support judge approved interception in those exceptional circumstances.”

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