Monday, July 27, 2015

GCHQ spies on the UK's devolved assemblies

UK MPs are currently challenging GCHQ mass-surveillance in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, on the basis that it violates the Wilson doctrine which outlaws spying on MPs. While the case is still being argued, we've already learned something important: GCHQ has recently decided for itself that it is allowed to spy on Members of the Scottish Parliament and other devolved assemblies:

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 Irish 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.


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?”

Spying on MPs is an attack on democracy which inhibits their ability to represent their constituents and raises real questions about democratic control and oversight of spy agencies. The potential for such spying to be abused is obvious, and its simply not acceptable for an intelligence agency to do it without serious justification. Its certainly not acceptable for them to decide to do it themselves. That sort of decision is one for elected Ministers, not unelected bureaucrats. But if the English government has decided that its fine to spy on the representatives of the Scottish and Welsh people - effectively that Scotland and Wales are hostile foreign powers - then I suspect the Scottish people at least will want to have a vote on that to make it official.