Some of the reaction in the UK political blogosphere and by extremist media pundits, to the electronic bugging of a Member of Parliament's privileged conversations with one of his constituents, rather misses the point about the Wilson Doctrine.
The "MPs are sleazy, so they should all be under surveillance, like the rest of us" attitude is predictable, but wrong.
The BBC's Security Correspondent Gordon Correra, for example, is mentioning on BBC News 24, the line that somehow the Wilson Doctrine should only apply to the targeting of MPs for surveillance for political purposes, and then only by secret government agencies. This narrow interpretation is not how we understand the Wilson Doctrine, after having read almost every very carefully worded Government statement about it over the years.
MPs are not exempt from investigations into any criminal activities which they may be engaged in their private lives, or in breach of election laws.
Some people are calling for the abolition of the Privilege of Members of Parliament to be outside the reach of some of the laws which apply to the rest of us, but they are wrong.
If you destroy the confidentiality of MP's communications with their Constituents, especially those whose lives are being made hell by the Government bureaucracy, then you will suppress the activities of legitimate whistleblowers who expose corruption. incompetence or illegality in the Government machine, to the detriment of society as a whole.
Such whistleblowers need all the protection they can get,, given the powerful technologies and bureaucracies ranged against them - see our updated Hints and Tips for Whistleblowers article.
Here are some thoughts to help stimulate debate on this important issue:
What use is the Parliamentary Privilege to criticise people on the floor of the House of Commons without fear of a libel case being brought against them, if MPs are never told anything in confidence by whistleblowers or complainants ?
Incompetent or corrupt civil servants, or rich and powerful individuals or vested commercial interests, would then be able to more easily suppress investigations and debates into their shady activities.
By neutering this power of MPs you will have helped to achieve the aims of terrorists and totalitarian ideological state enemies, who seek to destroy our democratic freedoms and liberties. You might as well abolish MPs all together and simply appoint Communist party apparatchiki to rubber stamp the Executive branch of Government's diktats.
The Wilson Doctrine should not be abolished, it should be extended, clarified and formalised, as amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
It should also cover Communications Traffic Data snooping (itemised phone bills, phone subscriber details, email and internet logfiles and mobile phone Location Based Services etc.) as well as Interception of Electronic and Postal Communications.
RIPA also regulates the use of Directed and Intrusive Surveillance involving electronic bugging devices and also the use of undercover Confidential Human Informants, so it should be made clear that these are also covered by the Wilson Doctrine, as they can also be abused to snoop on the confidential privileged conversations between an MP and their Constituents.
For this to work procedurally, it will probably be necessary for MPs and other covered by the Wilson Doctrine to register their Constituency Business telephone, faxes, mobile phones, wireless PDAs, email accounts, website feedback forms etc. with the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Rt. Hon. Sir Paul Kennedy, so that he can check that any warrants or certificates for lawful interception and requests for access to retained Communications Traffic Data do not contravene the Wilson Doctrine.
Similarly, a current, up to date list of an MP or other's Constituency Office staff, Home and Office Locations and Personal Vehicles, would need to be available to the Office of the Surveillance Commissioners, headed by the Chief Surveillance Commissioner Rt. Hon. Sir Christoper Rose, so that they can check that Directed or Intrusive Surveillance involving electronic bugs (or "probes"), hidden microphones or video cameras is not being and that undercover Confidential Human Informants is not being conducted inappropriately.
RIPA also now applies to to the seizure of Encryption Keys, or the forced disclosure of encryption protected material, so Constituency Communications or documents or files should also be exempt from RIPA Part III Section 49 disclosure notices as well.
It should be obvious, that any such lists of people and premises etc. must never be allowed to be lost or stolen in an unencrypted format on computers, USB memory devices, or sent via CDs or unencrypted email, or via insecure wireless links etc.
There is room to consider whether there should be an exceptional mechanism for authorising such electronic and other surveillance of MPs' and others' Constituency Communications, if they are strongly suspected of treason. Perhaps that could be on a cross-party political Privy Council basis, or after a formal submission to a Senior Judge, but definitely not just solely in the power of a Government Minister or even of a senior Policeman or Intelligence Officer.
The Wilson Doctrine should be extended to cover not just Members of the House of Commons, and the Peers of the House of Lords, but also to the other equally democratically elected Parliaments and Assemblies, to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, to the UK Members of the European Parliament, and probably to all foreign Members of the European Parliament as well.
In principle, the Constituency Communications of elected Local Authority Councillors should also be protected by the Wilson Doctrine.
That protection should not be limited by geography to to purely local ward issues, but to communications regarding Council wide issues.
If the Local Councilor is also appointed to a wider regional Quango or Non-Departmental Public Body, communications on those relevant issues should also be privileged e.g. in London there are elected Local Councillors from London Boroughs who are appointed to serve on the Metropolitan Police Authority and other London wide budget and policy scrutiny organisations.
The UK Government should also be actively lobbying the European Commission to introduce such formal protections for the Communications of Democratically Elected Politicians and their Constituents, throughout the whole of the European Union.
We forgot to mention that RIPA itself needs updating and extending, for example to cover the interception and surveillance activities of Military units.
It covers Military Police units, who investigate crimes by and against members of the armed forces and their families, but it does not specifically mention Military Combat Units such as the various Signals and Electronic Warfare units, who are perfectly capable of tracking and intercepting , say, mobile phone conversations. Sometimes they will be working with or on behalf of, say GCHQ, and will therefore be covered by warrants and certificates issued by the Foreign Secretary, but they could be running separate military operations, which will not be under the control of the Military Police either.
Neither does RIPA cover such Electronic Interception, Communications Traffic Data analysis, Directed or Intrusive Surveillance or the use of Confidential Human Intelligence informants by the Intelligence Corps, the Special Forces like the SAS, or the Special Reconnaissance Regiment , which is specifically tasked with an anti-terrorist role. There has been a long history of such urban surveillance and recruitment and handling of informants by Military Units in say, Northern Ireland.
Members of Parliament should ensure, that if they do summon up enough backbone to insist of a formal codification of the Wilson Doctrine into law, that they do not forget that these Military Units either already have, or could easily and secretly acquire, the technology to snoop on Members of Parliament and their Constituents, and therefore they should also be included in the statutory system of checks and balances.