Since we admit to being slightly obsessed with the "Wilson Doctrine" and phone tapping surveillance of politicians and of the rest of us, we have tracked down a paper copy of Hansard, for 17th November 1966.
The current Prime Minister Tony Blair, like all his predecessors from both ruling parties since 1966, has vaguely re-affirmed that the "Wilson Doctrine" is still current Government policy, in a Ministerial Statement on 30th March 2006.
This still does not really answer the questions about all the new technologies like mobile phones, faxes, email, internet etc.which the word "telephone" implies today. Neither does it clarify the status of the "Wilson Doctrine" vis a vis the members of democratically elected devolved and supra national Parliaments and Assemblies which have come into existence since 1966, like the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament etc.
This 1966 Oral Answers session is not available in the online version of Hansard, so, in the interests of setting the background for the forthcoming political row which is likely to ensue in the New Year, when there could be amendments to the Regulation of investigatory Powers Act, or at least to the Code of Practice, we will try to transcribe the relevant text here, for the benefit of search engine queries, from political researchers and journalists.
It is interesting how they style of Hansard, and of Parliamentary jargon, has changed in the last 40 years, e.g. the use of "my right hon. Friend", which is not quite the way they do it now:
People mentioned in the debate who were consulted by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson in formulating his "Wilson Doctrine":
- Home Secretary: Roy Jenkins in November 1966, previously this was Sir Frank Soskice when Harold Wilson's Labour Government first came into power in 1964.
- Paymaster-General: George Wigg - seen as a political fixer for Harold Wilson and his liaison with the secret intelligence agencies.
- Postmaster-General - the UK telephone system was, in 1966 run by the state monopoly the General Post Office.
This position was held by Anthony Wedgewood Benn (Tony Benn) between 1964 and July 1966. At the time of this debate the position was held by Edward Short, who clamped down on "pirate radio stations" in 1967.
Remember that, 40 years ago MPs were not using the internet, email, mobile phones SMS text messages, or even facsimile machines. They were mostly not even using touch tone land line phones or direct dialing for long distance or overseas calls, like they do now. There was no computerised "itemised phone bill" Communications Traffic Data available either.
Other people in the debate:
Mr. Speaker: The Speaker of the House of Commons at this time, was Dr. Horace King
The MPs who tabled the Questions which Harold Wilson was answering:
- Russell Kerr - Labour MP for Feltham, Middlesex
- Desmond Donnelly - Labour MP for Pembrokeshire.
- Peter M. Jackson - Labour MP for The High Peak, Derbyshire
- Sir Tufton Beamish - Conservative MP for Lewes in Sussex - an archetypical "Tory Knight of the Shire" - hence the form of address "the hon. and gallant Member". Private Eye magazine seem to have been inspired to call one of their satirical stereotypes "Sir Bufton Tufton".
Other significant contributions:
- Tom Driberg - Labour MP for Barking in London - with a scandalous private life, and later allegations that he was a Soviet Spy, asked the question to which Harold Wilson responded with a promise that any change to the "Wilson Doctrine" policy would require a statement by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons.
- Gordon Walker Labour MP for Leyton in Essex - his question brought the clarification from Harold Wilson that not just MP's "official Parliamentary business" telephone conversations but their private ones were also covered by the "Wilson Doctrine".
- Gerry Fitt Republican Labour Party MP for Belfast West (later founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) - asked about Northern Ireland - Harold Wilson seemed to assure him that tapping authorised by the Home Secretary against Northern Ireland Parliament MPs was also included in the "Wilson Doctrine", but not necessarily that authorised by the then local Northern Ireland Government. What about the other Parliaments and Assemblies which have been created since 1966, each with a democratically elected mandate from the UK electorate - surely the "Wilson Doctrine" should also apply to their Members as well ?
Tenth Volume of Session 1966 -67
National Archives reference: ZHC 2 1244
Oral Answers 17th November 1966
The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:
Q13. Mr. RUSSEL KERR: To ask the Prime Minister on how many occasions warrants have been issued for the tapping of hon. Members' private telephones; and if he will give an assurance that no such warrants will be issued.
Q14. Mr. DONNELLY: To ask the Prime Minister whether he will state the criteria upon which he has issued his warrant for the tapping of hon. Members' telephones.
Q15. Mr. PETER M. JACKSON: To ask the Prime Minister if he will bring up to date the statistics of warrants authorising telephone-tapping given to the Committee of Privy Councillors; and whether he
will issue an annual return, showing the number of permissions that there have been given, the number that have been withdrawn, and the number outstanding at the date of making the return.
Q16. Sir T. BEAMISH: To ask the Prime Minister whether he will give an assurance that the issue of warrants giving authority to tap telephone conversations remains under the Home Secretary's sole authority; and in what respects the criteria governing the issue of such warrants have been changed since October 1964.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson): With permission I will now answer Questions Nos. Q13, Q14, Q15 and Q16.
The House will know that, since the publication of the Report of the "Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to Inquire into the the Interception of Communications" in October, 1957, it has been the established practice not to give information on this subject.
Nevertheless, on this one occasion, because these Questions may be thought to touch upon the rights and privileges of this House, I feel it right to inform the House that there is no tapping of the telephones of hon. Members, nor has there been since this Government came into office.
The House will I know, understand that the fact that I have felt it right to answer these Questions today in no way detracts from the normal practice whereby my right hon, Friend the Home Secretary and myself are unable to answer Questions relating to these matters.
Mr. Russell Kerr : May I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply ? However, is he aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House believe, rightly or wrongly, that their telephones have been tapped ? While the whole House would acquit my right hon. Friend of any knowledge or complicity in such a perversion of the nation's security arrangements, will he consult with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Paymaster-General -- [Laughter.] --to make sure that some of our security people, are not undertaking free enterprise of a rather smelly kind on this issue?
The Prime Minister : On the issue of the belief of certain hon. Members that their telephones are being tapped, I would point out that my postbag and that of many other right hon. and hon. Members suggest that a very high proportion of the electorate generally are under the delusion that their telephones are being tapped.This delusion spreads to hon. Members and I should say that I used to suffer from it myself at one time.
As for the general position, I hope that my statement will be an answer to some of the scurrilous comment in the Press during the last three or four days about the attitude of the Government to this question and will also answer, I hope, some questions put by some hon. Members on Monday and the usual Pavlovian titter which occurred when the name of my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General was mentioned -- not least because the only connection that he has had with this question is when I sought his advice on reviewing the practice about tapping Members' telephones when we came into office. He therefore shares such responsibility as I can take for the present arrangements.
Mr. Donnelly : Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is an extremely serious matter and that the three questions arise? The first is the criteria on which any telephones belonging to anyone are ever tapped. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there has been absolutely no change in the circumstances listed in the Report of the Privy Councillors ?
The second point concerns who is entitled to authorise such tappings. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that these people are known and identifiable, because it is a very important matter ?
Thirdly, when the matter goes outside national security and the whole question of detection of crime, will my right hon. Friend give instructions that any extraneous information which may be discovered as a result of tapping will not go beyond the security authorities to anyone who is not a member of the security services ?
The Prime Minister : My answer referred to the tapping of telephones of telephones of hon. Members
As regards any other person or group of persons, the position
is exactly as stated by the then Prime Minister to the House after the publication of the Privy Councillors Report and I have nothing to add to or subtract from what was said the. Authority for tapping rest with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as the report made clear.
So far as the special case of Members of Parliament is concerned, as I have said, following the discussion I had shortly after we took office, with the then Home Secretary, the policy has been laid down in the terms which I have stated today.
Mr. Jackson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members believe that both authorised and unauthorised tapping is increasing? Is he further aware that paragraph 130 of the Report of the Privy Councillors stated that
"...there can be no certainty that the unauthorised tapping of telephones does not occur and it might even be done without the commission of a trespass on private or Crown property"?
and that paragraph 131 states ----
Mr. Speaker : Order. Questions even on telephone tapping must be concise.
The Prime Minister : The position regarding unauthorised tapping -- and this also relates to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr) -- is as follows: any tapping that, in accordance with the rules of the Report, becomes necessary by any Crown servant concerned with the things covered in the Report, can only be done with the individual authority of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary under very strict conditions.
If the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) relates to a practice which one understands has developed in other countries, and is causing concern here -- tapping by private persons to steal industrial secrets, for example -- that is a separate matter and does not come within the remit of Question and Answer in this House.
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M.Jackson) did not get his question over. Would he like to put it now?
Mr. Jackson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that paragraph 131 of the Report states that Parliament might consider
whether legislation should be passed to make unauthorised telephone tapping illegal?
The Prime Minister : That is an entirely different matter from the subject raised in the Questions on the Order Paper today. It has, however, been raised with at Question Time with the Postmaster-General on past occasions.
Sir T. Beamish : May I press the the right hon. Gentleman on this point ? Since the tapping and taping of private telephone conversations without the knowledge of the Post Office and without authority is much easier than many people imagine ---- and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not suffering from delusions and would gladly give him confidential evidence -- will the Prime Minister consider the question in paragraph 131 that unauthorised tapping of private telephone conversations might be made an offence?
The Prime Minister : I would be glad to consider any evidence the hon. and gallant Gentleman sends me. I know that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General would also want to consider it to see whether there was a case fully made out for dealing with "private enterprise" telephone tapping of the kind that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has in mind. I hop, however that the answer I have given to him and other questions will put into perspective some of the monstrous accusations made in certain newspapers over the past four days about the Government's attitude towards tapping of Members' telephones.
Mr. Lubbock : Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the reasons for the widespread delusion which he has mentioned is the grossly unsatisfactory state of the telephone system as a whole ? To give one example, when I tried to telephone someone yesterday I burst in on another private conversation between two individuals on three consecutive occasions. WIll the Prime Minister therefore ask his right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General to get a move on with improving the telephone system so that these allegations are not made?
The Prime Minister : That is a separate question, which has been raised many times with the Postmaster-General. I notice that the level of the supplementary questions is very different
[The Prime Minister ]
from the dramatic build-up given to this subject by some of the Conservative Press over the past three days.
Mr. Driberg : Is my right hon. Friend aware that at least two of his answers have implied quite clearly that there was tapping of hon. Members' telephones before the present Government came to power in 1964? Would he say anything more about that?
The Prime Minister : I hold no responsibility for what was done in this matter before the present Government came into power, but it is fair to point out that the Privy Councillors' Report itself said that Members of Parliament should not be treated differently from members of the public. It is always a difficult problem. As Mr. Macmillan once said: there can only be complete security with a police State, and perhaps not even then, and there is always a difficult balance between the requirements of democracy in a free society and the requirements of security.
With my right hon. Friends, I reviewed the practice when we came to office and decided on balance -- and the arguments were very fine -- that the balance should be tipped the other way and 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 to 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.
That is the "Wilson Doctrine" - no tapping of MPs telephones, and any change in this policy requiring a statement to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister,which has been endorsed by every Prime Minister since then.
Mr. Frederic Harris :Can the Prime Minister tell me why any Labour Members should imagine that their conversation on the telephone are interesting enough for them to be tapped ?
The Prime Minister : I do not think that this matter, which raises very deep concern about the privileges and rights of hon. Members, is in any sense a party question. My decision that hon. Mem-
bers' telephones should not be tapped was, of course, unrelated to the tapping of telephones of hon. Members of any particular party; and I am sure that the attitude of the previous Government was also completely unrelated to the party affiliation of any hon. Members concerned.
Mr. Gordon Walker : I am very glad to hear the Prime Minister's decision that no hon. Members' telephones should be tapped, but would he agree that in principle, there is a distinction between the privilege of a Member concerned in some proceedings in Parliament, and the similarity of all Members with ordinary citizens in all other respects, and that it is important that this principle should be maintained and asserted?
The Prime Minister : I certainly agree about that and I do not myself believe that this involves a question of privilege, as we understand it in the narrow sense in this House,. My original Answer was drafted to make that clear. Someone has to take the decision one side or the other of this very, very difficult balance. With my concept of responsibilities to the House, I feel that, although the arguments are finely argued in the Report of the Privy Councillors, it has been right to alter the practice and to say that there should be no tapping whatsoever.
This is an important aspect of the "Wilson Doctrine", it does not just apply to "official Parliamentary business" telephones, but it also applies to the private conversations of any Member of Parliament, on any telephone, as well.
Sir Ian Orr-Ewing : Is the Prime Minister aware that during the nine years which have elapsed since the Privy Councillors' Report was published, unauthorised tapping of telephones has become much easier and that, therefore, the recommendation of the Privy Councillors in paragraph 131 has now become urgent? As it is easy to make an unauthorised tapping of a telephone cable, will the Government five serious consideration to making it illegal?
The Prime Minister : I agree about the seriousness, particularly if tapping comes to be developed in this country on the scale which it has developed in other countries for use by one industrial company against another industrial company. This matter has been raised in the House before and it will be further considered. My answers have related not to unauthorised, but to authorised tapping, and I have stated the practice which we are following.
Mr. Fitt : Would the Prime Minister agree to extend the assurances which he has given to the House to cover Members of Parliament in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that it is very well known that the Government of Northern Ireland indulges in tapping for party political purposes?
The Prime Minister : If my hon. Friend wants to send me any evidence which he has on that subject ----
Mr. Fitt : Will my right hon. Friend ask Captain O'Neill next time he sees him?
The Prime Minister : -- it will be studied with very great care. I can assure him that the answers which I have given this afternoon have related to all questions and practices connected with authorised tapping under the coverage of the White Paper and for which my right hon. Friend and I are responsible.
This does seem to imply that Northern Ireland MPs, who had their own Northern Ireland Parliament at that time, are also covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" ban on telephone tapping.
Surely this should mean that the current Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament , the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly and, at least the UK Members of the European Parliament, should also be covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" ?
Mr. Chichester-Clarke : Is the Prime Minister aware that the question of the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) was the gross terminological inexactitude which he knows it to be and which he has never been able to substantiate in this House and which should not have been made?
By convention, you are not allowed to claim that anybody is lying in Parliament hence the cumbersome "terminological inexactitude".
The Prime Minister : I asked for evidence but this afternoon I was dealing with areas within the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend.
So the Northern Ireland Parliament is covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" with respect to tapping authorised by the Home Secretary, but not necessarily to tapping authorised by the then local Northern Ireland Government.
Mr. Fitt : On a point of order. Is the Prime Minister aware that telephone tapping was admitted in the Northern Ireland Parliament?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member must know that that was not a point of order.