Nicola Sturgeon asks whether UK agencies spied on Scottish politicians

Nicola Sturgeon interview

David Cameron is under pressure to justify a secret decision by spy chiefs at GCHQ that authorises eavesdropping on politicians from the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, and other Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland politicians on Friday urged the prime minister to protect the privacy of parliamentarians from the three nations, after it emerged that GCHQ had introduced new internal guidelines to allow the monitoring of communications by members of the legislatures, even though those rules bar the agency from monitoring MPs at Westminster.

In a letter to Cameron, Sturgeon said she accepted spying on MSPs could take place but only in “truly exceptional circumstances involving national security”. In the vast majority of cases “the confidentiality of communications between parliamentarians and their constituents is of the utmost importance”, she told the prime minister.

Labour’s Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish secretary, tabled a series of questions in the Commons asking the prime minister to confirm or deny whether Scottish MSPs, MEPs or Welsh parliamentarians had ever been spied on, and to confirm that GCHQ’s rules had changed.

Andrew Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said he was most concerned about the privacy of his communications with constituents being respected, adding that he would be seeking assurances from the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Sturgeon said there was no justification for treating MSPs any differently from MPs. She also asked the prime minister to confirm or deny that MSPs had ever been spied on by British agencies. She asked him: “Will you give an assurance that, with respect to the Wilson doctrine, MSPs will in future be treated equally to MPs by all of the intelligence agencies?”

Iain Gray, the acting Scottish Labour leader, said: “This is outrageous. It is utterly unacceptable for the communications between devolved representatives across the UK and their constituents to be monitored by GCHQ.

“There needs to be full transparency from the UK government on this. We need to know urgently who decided on this major rule change and when. For the rules on spying on elected representatives across the UK to change without any sort of public scrutiny or accountability is a democratic outrage.”

The presiding officer of the Scottish parliament, Tricia Marwick, Holyrood’s equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Commons, asked Cameron for “urgent clarification” about the end to the Wilson doctrine.

In a letter to No 10, Marwick said she had a duty to safeguard the interests of MSPs and insisted that Holyrood was consulted if there was any changes to GCHQ’s rules. Copying her letter to the presiding officers of the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, she asked Cameron for direct discussions on the issue.

“I feel strongly that all elected members should be treated in the same way, regardless of which parliament or assembly they are elected to, especially with regard to any communication a member has with his or her constituents,” Marwick said. The Welsh Assembly’s presiding officer, Rosemary Butler, has also written to Cameron.

The Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, said: “We pride ourselves on being open and transparent and we would be concerned if there were any infringements to our privacy.

“It’s completely unacceptable that any communications between members elected to the devolved administrations and the people they represent might be monitored in this way. I’d like to hear from the UK government about why this major rule change happened and why the devolved administrations were not consulted about it.”

The GCHQ decision to update a long-held practice known as the Wilson doctrine, a set of rules which prohibited its spies from monitoring communications by MPs, to allow eavesdropping on the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, emerged in a tribunal hearing in London on Thursday.

Davies said: “The new guidelines create two tiers of parliamentarian, which shows a complete lack of understanding by over-zealous officials who fail to recognise the changing political landscape, post-devolution.

“Conspiracy theorists will seek a hidden agenda, but instead of being precious about my own privacy I am more concerned about the contact I have with constituents – often regarding extremely sensitive cases.

“Why should communications with your MP be exempt from eavesdropping, whilst your assembly member is unable to guarantee you the same degree of protection?

“These officials need a reality check and I will be seeking assurances from the cabinet secretary at the earliest opportunity.”

The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party has revealed that it holds all its major internal political discussions far away from the Northern Ireland assembly because it always assumes its conversations are secretly monitored at Stormont.

John Dallat, an SDLP assembly member for East Derry, pointed out that the Belfast parliament is even more likely to be subjected to covert surveillance due to the presence of MI5’s regional headquarters just a couple of miles away in Holywood, County Down.

On GCHQ eavesdropping, Dallat said: “That would not surprise me as I’ve never believed there wasn’t that kind of skulduggery going on at Stormont.

“Because of that our party would have our serious political discussions far away from Stormont. It seems the British state just doesn’t understand that there is any other way to do business apart from the underhand way.

“As well as GCHQ, the security service, MI5, was let into this place by the back during the St Andrews Agreement talks in 2006. It’s my understanding that over 1,000 MI5 operatives are either based or are trained at their regional HQ in Holywood. They are totally unaccountable as to what they do in terms of our assembly.

“Over here therefore elected members of the devolved parliament are doubly at risk of being spied on compared to those in Edinburgh or Cardiff.”

Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats said: “We need to know who is responsible for abandoning the Wilson doctrine guidance and, more importantly, their reasons for doing so. It is completely outrageous that it is considered acceptable to spy on elected politicians in devolved legislatures.”

Simon Thomas, a Plaid Cymru assembly member and former MP, said: “National assembly members should be treated with the same respect as MPs. We deal with often sensitive and private information on behalf of our constituents and have a similar parliamentary privilege to raise such issues in our respective parliaments.

“Most of the daily issues that face constituents today relate to health, education and social services which are devolved. There are no grounds to removing the Wilson doctrine from devolved elected members other than the constant urge of the security services to extend their own reach and privilege.

“It is particularly sensitive in Northern Ireland and an affront to Welsh democracy. The party of Wales [Plaid] has tabled questions to the first minister today to ask him to raise this issue with the prime minister urgently.”

Anthony Slaughter, deputy leader of the Wales Green party, said: “It’s extremely worrying if the Wilson protocol is being breached. Communications between the public and their elected representatives must be free from surveillance and interception in order to maintain trust and openness.

“People must feel that they are able to talk freely with their government representatives and there is no rational justification for removing this protection from the devolved assemblies.”

The doctrine was written in 1966, when Harold Wilson was Labour prime minister, long before the devolved legislatures were set up in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

In December 1997, Tony Blair, then prime minister, said it extended to electronic communications including emails. But the policy was never formally extended to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly set up in 1999, leading to suspicions GCHQ could be spying on them.

Papers filed to the investigatory powers tribunal showed that GCHQ updated its interpretation of the Wilson doctrine to explicitly exclude Holyrood and Cardiff after the Green MP Caroline Lucas, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the former Respect MP George Galloway launched a legal challenge against all the intelligence agencies, the Home Office and Foreign Office.

The tribunal heard that despite the Wilson doctrine, spies with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ had been unlawfully operating under eight different policies on surveillance over the last year, which had failed to adequately protect MPs from spying.

The hearing was told MI5 had its own rules, separate from GCHQ, and that MI6 was authorised by the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, to intercept MPs communications without the prime minister’s approval.

But faced with the challenge from Lucas, Jones and Galloway, the agencies rewrote their guidelines, apparently leading GCHQ to formally introduce a distinction in March to the Wilson doctrine to authorise surveillance of members of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly.

The revelation that GCHQ treats MSPs differently from MPs threatens to ignite fresh suspicions that British spies were active during the Scottish independence referendum campaign, and will treat nationalist politicians as a special case.

Margo MacDonald, the late independent nationalist MSP, said she believed the pro-independence movement had been infiltrated by MI5 before the referendum. In September 2013, she wrote to the head of MI5 asking for assurances that was not taking place. No evidence of any spying or surveillance ever came to light.

Questions will be asked not just Of Cameron, but of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Wilson doctrine does not state that MPs’ communications will never be intercepted, but that it would not happen; and that if any government reversed that policy, the prime minister of the day would tell the Commons - once national security considerations allowed.

Government lawyers are now saying that the doctrine has effectively been killed off by the sort of surveillance operations that are authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa). That piece of legislation is 15 years old this month. MPs are likely to demand why they were not told years ago that the doctrine had been abandoned, and may suspect that successive prime ministers kept them in the dark in order to prevent the public from learning about GCHQ’s bulk interception practices.

Powered by article was written by Severin Carrell, Steven Morris and Ian Cobain, for on Friday 24th July 2015 13.59 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010