Dominic Lawson: Once again, MPs insult our intelligence

The days are over when the Commons could be run as a private club for members

Tuesday 05 February 2008 01:00 GMT

At times Members of Parliament talk and behave as if they are living in a parallel universe, which co-exists with the one in which the rest of us live – and yet which is not subject to the laws which govern our own lives.

Yesterday's Commons statement by the Justice Secretary Jack Straw – and the Parliamentary interventions that followed – was a sublime example. The statement followed the revelation of the bugging of two conversations in Woodhill prison between an alleged fundraiser for terrorists, Babar Ahmed, and his local MP, childhood friend and ex-lawyer, Sadiq Khan.

There is an issue here of some importance: given that Mr Ahmed is in prison fighting extradition proceedings from the US, there is an interesting argument about whether his defence might be prejudiced by the handing over to the American authorities of information gained in such a manner. Yet the Members of Parliament show no interest in this: they are, instead, only furious that Mr Khan, one of their number – and a man at no risk of extradition – has been bugged, in clear contravention, they claim, of the "Wilson Doctrine".

This refers to the statement by the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, to the Commons in November 1966. It followed a series of speculative stories in the press about the bugging of MPs by the security and intelligence services. Wilson reassured MPs that: "I felt that it was right to lay down the policy of no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament."

It is, with the benefit of hindsight, amusing – if you like black humour – that one of the MPs who rose to demand such an assurance from Mr Wilson was Tom Driberg. The Queen, on the recommendation of Harold Wilson, made Driberg a peer in 1975; but in 1999 the release of the Mitrokhin archive revealed to the public that Driberg had been an active KGB agent. It is obvious why Driberg should have been anxious about being bugged. It is not obvious why, as a Member of the Commons (or indeed, later as a Member of the House of Lords) he should have been afforded special protection from investigation.

As a matter of fact, I cannot quite believe that he was. In response to Driberg's very self-interested question, Wilson declared that: "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."

What this characteristically clever Wilson get-out actually means is that any MP could be bugged and no one would know that the general policy had been abandoned until the Prime Minister (or, indeed, a later one) thought it was safe to tell the House of Commons.

Just for example, does anyone really believe that Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness were suddenly made exempt from bugging during the period in which they were Members of the House of Commons? It would be inconceivable – and yet that is what MPs seem to want to believe, in their strange parallel universe.

They also consider it an outrage that the apparent bugging of Mr Khan's conversations with his constituent took place without a specific authorisation by the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister. Jack Straw's statement was slightly obscure on the actual course of events, but he seemed to imply that the detectives operating within the prison planted the listening devices without any specific judicial or political consent at all.

It's a bit late for the MPs to huff and puff about this now: it was pointed out at the time of the passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill in 2000, that it allowed for police and prison cells to be bugged without the police or the Prison Service having to pass through any of the statutory controls involving a member of the judiciary, still less a Home Secretary.

I suspect that the continuing decisions on whether to bug Babar Ahmed's conversations with visitors were being taken by a detective with a rank no higher than sergeant. It seems most unlikely that when Mr Khan turned up, that this sergeant suddenly thought: "Oi,oi! Doesn't this infringe the Wilson Doctrine?" It is even less likely given that Mr Khan had been visiting Babar Ahmed at HMP Woodhill before he became an MP. I certainly wouldn't blame a detective for believing that if it was alright to bug the prison conversations that took place between the two men before Mr Khan became an MP, then it could not suddenly be out of the question to continue with the surveillance.

There is no suggestion that Mr Khan himself is under any form of investigation. Yet just suppose that a Labour MP were to be suspected of involvement with Al-Qa'ida. It seems invidious that the police or security services should have to ask one of that man's Parliamentary colleagues – who might even be a friend – if they could have permission to put him under surveillance. Yet that is what MPs demand as their right.

I am bound to agree with Sir Swinton Thomas, the former Interception of Communications Commissioner, who denounced the principle of the Wilson Doctrine in these terms: "The doctrine means that MPs and peers can engage in serious crime or terrorism without running the risk of being investigated in the same way as any other member of the public. It is fundamental to the constitution of this country that no one is above the law or seen to be above the law."

Just before Straw stood to make his statement, the Speaker of the Commons addressed the chamber about the issue of MPs' expenses. On the surface the two statements were entirely unconnected. In fact there is an exact congruence between the case of Sadiq Khan and that of the Tory MP Derek Conway – in which a Commons committee thought that a suspension of ten days was an appropriate punishment for a misuse of funds which would have led to instant dismissal in any other business. In both cases it is clear that the House of Commons thinks that the normal rules do not apply to its own members.

The argument for this exceptionalism is clear – and centuries old. All MPs are, by definition, "Honourable Members". That is why it is impermissible to accuse another member of dishonesty in the chamber. An "Honourable Member" could not possibly be a liar; ergo, such a claim can not be uttered. It's a splendid way to run a club – it's the way the City of London used to work before insider dealing was made a crime.

Unfortunately for the Parliamentary romantics, the days are over when the House of Commons could be run as a private club for members: the trouble is that most of the members don't seem to have realised.

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