House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION COMMITTEE
Thursday 9 July 2009
MR SIMON HOGGART, MR MATTHEW PARRIS, PROFESSOR DAVID
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Public Administration Committee
on Thursday 9 July 2009
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr Gordon Prentice
Mr Charles Walker
Witnesses: Mr Simon Hoggart, The Guardian, Mr Matthew Parris, The Times, Mr David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics, Bangor University, and Ms Marie Clair, Spokesperson, Plain English Campaign, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: Let us make a start. We are delighted to welcome Matthew Parris of The Times, Simon Hoggart of The Guardian, Professor David Crystal, known to all, and Marie Clair of the Plain English Campaign. We are delighted to have you with us. Perhaps I could say, by way of introduction, welcome to our stakeholders. We look forward to our engagement, as we roll out our dialogue on a level playing field, so that, going forward in the public domain, we have a win-win step change that is fit for purpose across the piece.
Professor Crystal: He is speaking outside the box!
Ms Clair: That is £10 in the swear box, I think.
Q2 Chairman: In a sense, we know all this stuff that is floating around us, and we know what Orwell told us back in 1946, that "prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." We have that all around us in official language, and what I really want to ask you is: Does this drivel matter or does it just irritate us?
Professor Crystal: I think one has to ask the question: What is political language for? There are many answers to that question. For most people, language is simply a matter of communicating clearly, intelligibly - so I understand you, you understand me - but when it comes to politics other considerations apply. When somebody is making a political statement, they are not just making a statement as human being to human being; they are making a statement that is representative of an organisation, a political party, so there is a question of identity straight away. Politicians' statements have to conform in some sense or other to the party to which they belong. Even independents have an identity of that sort. Then it is not just a matter of identifying one's language with what other people on one's side use, one also has to bear in mind the question of personal consistency. Politicians are always aware that there are other people in the wings waiting to say "Gotcha!" because what you said this week was not what you said last week. You have to remember that while you are communicating, as well: the need for personal consistency. Thirdly, there is the matter of credibility, because one's words have to live up to one's deeds. There are people in the wings saying, "You said you would do this and you have not done that." These considerations are overreaching considerations. It is a matter of credibility, a matter of personal reputation, almost, that drives a great deal of political language when politicians talk to politicians. Then there is the second question of what happens when you try to re-interpret, almost translate, all that kind of language play - because it is a kind of game that is played when politicians are talking to each other - interpret in a way which the general public will understand. There is a huge translation exercise that has to take place here. Instead of the pressure on the individual politician to talk more abstractly, more opaquely, more generally - after all, you cannot be accused of lying if people have not understood what you have said - if one's language at that level is very general and you have to turn it into language that the public will understand, you have to do an immense translation exercise, or somebody has to, and there are various stages in which that takes place. The parliamentary draftspeople have to interpret that into a legalistic kind of communication which makes sense in standard historical terms, respecting tradition and respecting contemporary language as well, and then another group of people have to turn that into something that is accessible to the general public. There are three stages in political language, and how one integrates all of these into a single coherent mindset I am not entirely sure.
Q3 Chairman: But if politicians and public officials speak and write in the way in which I just characterised it and we all know about, what I am really asking you is, knowing all that, does it matter?
Professor Crystal: It matters if the result is dissatisfaction. In so far as everybody is happily talking the same language and everybody is equally not understanding each other, or is happy to tolerate those levels of lack of transparency, then it does not matter. All groups talk like this. Every group has its jargon. There is no group on this earth that does not have a jargon. It is when that jargon becomes opaque to the outsider, when the people say, "It is not just enough for us to talk to each other, we have to talk to the outside world" and they forget the demands of the audience, that it gets tricky.
Q4 Chairman: If doctors talk to doctors in a language that nobody understands apart from doctors, that does not matter. It matters when they talk to patients.
Professor Crystal: Exactly.
Q5 Chairman: But if they have their private language, it does not matter. We are a committee of public administration. Politics is a public activity. Services are public services. Surely there has to be a "publicness" of language attached to that, and so it is different from the examples that you gave.
Professor Crystal: Yes, there does indeed, and it is not easy to achieve that kind of public accessibility. It is easy enough to criticise. Over and over one sees people pointing to the kinds of clichés that you mentioned when you made your opening remarks a few minutes ago. That is easy to do. It is easy to say, "Look at that and that and that." It is much more difficult to replace it with something that is going to meet the need. That is where the difficulty lies.
Q6 Chairman: Okay. Matthew, does it matter?
Mr Parris: It matters, but more to politicians and public servants than it matters to the public. The public are not fooled by this kind of thing. I think the Plain English Campaign has done a very good job in diminishing the incidents of opaquely technical language in public communications. The number of application forms that one cannot understand, the instructions from local government that one simply cannot understand has fallen. I think that campaign has been quite successful. The new vice is the attempt to talk in a falsely simple language, of which politicians are particularly guilty but so are local authorities - all the time of "vision" and "passion" and "core values" and "level playing fields" and all the rest - which the public immediately recognise as public service speak, in a sense, and immediately cotton on to. Subliminally. I do not think they recognise it consciously, but unconsciously they recognise it and discount it. I would say that politicians and public servants themselves are damaging their own credibility, damaging their own profiles, their own cause, by talking in this language, but I do not think the public are fooled.
Q7 Chairman: Have politicians not just borrowed this language from other bits of life?
Mr Parris: Yes. Politicians are particularly vulnerable to not really knowing very much about anything in particular but wanting to sound more knowledgeable than they actually are, so, like drowning men clutching at straws, they grab at what sound like the vogue expressions, particularly from public relations and professional communications.
Q8 Chairman: I think we recognise the syndrome that you have described. Simon, do you think it matters?
Mr Hoggart: Yes, if only because politicians may fool themselves in the end. It is curious, looking at a Question Time that Alan Johnson had about a year ago, one of the most straight-speaking of all the Cabinet ministers we know, and yet - he can only have been briefed by civil servants: he was fairly new in the job of health secretary - he produced a whole string of terrible phrases, which I think you probably have: "putting on the front foot," "new models of care," "a quality and outcomes framework," "best practice flowing readily to the frontline," "openness on quality of outcomes," "unlocking talent," et cetera. The analogy I would give is that it is a bit like a small child playing with Lego. Each brick in itself is fine. Even phrases like "coterminous stakeholder engagement" have a meaning - it means talking to the people who are affected all the time - but you compress that into a little brick (of three words), you add another brick, and then you put on another brick, and your child suddenly - and we have all seen children do this - suddenly produces something that is not anything at all, it is just a lot of Lego, and it all hangs together but it is absolutely meaningless and has no purpose or function whatsoever. I do think there is a danger of that happening. The classic instance, of course, was when Alan Clarke came back from a drunken wine tasting in the early 1980s, I think he was employment minister at the time, and gave a speech. He was obviously pissed, but if you read his diaries what made it worse was that the whole speech, which he had not read before giving it, was written entirely in jargon written by the civil servants and that made it twice as bad - and of course Clare Short interrupted him and government business was almost cancelled and so on. Clarke was a victim there of the Civil Service trying to do his job for him. Also, finally, it is not a New Labour thing altogether, although I think New Labour have made it worse. Take the classic phrase "care in the community"; two wonderfully warm words. We are all in favour of care and we are all in favour of community. Even then people talk about the "heterosexual community," which is 95% of us and we are all supposed to agree and have interests in common, or the "settled community," which is the 99.9% of us who are not travellers. "Care in the community" sounds wonderful. In fact, as we know, it means poor, mad women exposing themselves in Victoria Gardens. It is a wonderfully glowing phrase. You have the feeling over and over again with politics that, once you have the alliteration or the neat phrase - "train to gain" - "patient pathways" - then you are halfway to solving the problem and you are not.
Q9 Chairman: If we banished all this politician speak, your column will be dead in the water, will it not?
Mr Parris: Of course, yes. I would be out of work.
Q10 Chairman: Let me turn to Marie Clair. What Matthew said is interesting and I think he is right, which is that things like forms and stuff have improved hugely over the years, largely because of the efforts of your campaign, and yet this kind of speak and writing has grown, has it not? This kind of disease. How are we to explain this paradox?
Ms Clair: First of all, on the question that you were asking originally about does it matter, I think it must matter because even within these walls and within the Hansard reports, if you type in "plain English" and "gobbledegook" or "jargon" those words will bring up numerous examples of complaints from the people working here who are having problems themselves with understanding the internal language. Even though we have jargon that is acceptable within peer groups, as Professor Crystal mentions, it does get to a point where it matters to those people because it is getting in the way of them doing their jobs. When that escapes into the public, it becomes unbearable, because the sense of it has been lost completely or is not explained at any time, it is assumed that the public understand any one interpretation. If we look at one word, "sustainability," that is used in so many different councils and local authorities for so many different reasons and every office has its own interpretation, so what is a member of the public meant to make of that word when they see it in any context? What happens when language has all these layers is that there is even more possibility for the Chinese whispers. The campaign has been saying for a long time, "Why do we need all these layers?" Why can we not start off with plain English?" Yes, it is difficult. It is not about simple English, it is not about "cat sat on the mat" and we are not trying to dumb down the intelligence of anyone at all, but there is clearly a need for something that takes the jargon away and makes it more universal and acceptable for people to take on their responsibilities -and that is everybody here as well as the people in the streets. It is those laws and regulations, the legislation that is produced, it is those very useful projects and initiatives that the councils bring together and spend money on which sadly fail because of how informed the public are about them. It sounds great, as you say - "train to gain" or "partnership pathways" sound great - but what does it mean to anyone who can benefit if they cannot fill in the form.
Q11 Chairman: Surely it is even worse than that. Simon was onto this. Surely if people speak and write in this way it means that they are not thinking about what they are saying - or they are trying to deceive, but usually they are not thinking about what they are saying - and that has real world consequences. Orwell made the point - and it was in 1946, but nevertheless - that one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end." Is that right? Is it serious enough that if you start at the verbal end you might do something about the underlying problem of policy and approach?
Ms Clair: Of course it is.
Professor Crystal: If you asked Orwell, "How exactly are you proposing to do this?" then you got an awful lot of waffle by way of reply. Orwell was very opaque when he was pressed on this point, and in the end he came down to suggesting half a dozen what he thought were solutions to the problem. One of them, I recall, was: Never use a passive when an active will do, but when you analyse Orwell's language you find he uses passives all the time. It is easy to think up some simple solutions and say, "We must always do this," but actually language is usually more complicated than any person like Orwell has so far suggested. If it had been as simple as that, of course we would not be sitting here today.
Mr Hoggart: I read of a doctor absolutely driven to the edge of his reason, according to his letter, because of an ad from some medical magazine. It was for the NHS in Leicester which was getting members from "the health economy" - I assume that means doctors, nurses, administrators - "for our first clinical cabinet. The cabinet will drive an integrated approach to strategic change based on the next stage review workstream, raise the quality of our strategic leadership to ensure our commissioning priorities, working culture and determination, passion and commitment" - as opposed to sloth and evasiveness - "a new approach to commissioning clinical engagement" - which I suspect means treating patients. We have all read this a thousand times and me reading it out gets us nowhere, but we could be facing the "cat sat on the mat" problem that Marie mentioned. "The clinical cabinet will try to find ways of treating more people quicker and better" is what they mean, but is that not too simple? There must be some kind of balance about how you set about it. We all know what we want to achieve, we all know grotesque language for describing it which is inaccessible to any one of the patients, but presumably in the middle there is some way in which we can say: This is what we want to do and this is approximately how we intend to do it. We never seem to get that.
Mr Parris: Starting at the verbal end, I think mockery is very important. If we just keep up a constant barrage of mockery so that the culprits begin to realise that it is not clever and that it is not getting them anywhere, we will achieve something.
Q12 Chairman: You and Simon have been doing this for years. We have not cracked it, have we?
Professor Crystal: Mockery is not enough. You need models. You need good models. It is all very well poking fun. It is easy to poke fun - not that I am saying your job is very easy, guys, but given that the examples are so egregious then it is easy to poke fun - but it is much more difficult to say, "Here's a model of good practice." This is one of the things that the Plain English Campaign was extremely good at doing very early on in its history. They did not just shred; they said, "Here is an example of how it should be done." In so far as you are talking about the improvement in the structure of forms and things like that, it is perfectly easy to show. It is much more difficult to show examples of good practice in speech. That is what we need. Would it be possible for all of us here to say, "Here is a politician who gave an absolutely clear and good example of ..." whatever it was? If we cannot achieve that kind of universal agreement, then maybe we are looking for something that is a myth.
Chairman: Okay. I want to bring in some colleagues.
Q13 Kelvin Hopkins: Following on from this, it is more worrying that we now live in a culture now, it seems, of jargon and New Labour speak. Recently we had before us a wonderful minister called Liam Byrne.
Professor Crystal: He was on Today this morning.
Q14 Kelvin Hopkins: We had one of his speeches, made in St Albans, which was apparently a very important political speech, and I did not understand any of it at all. It worried me even more that I do not think he understood it. He was churning out a lot of jargon and disjointed phrases which gave the impression of somebody very intelligent but I do not think anybody on either side understood it. This is worrying. It is a way of apparently impressing people that one is very intelligent and yet not saying anything that is intelligible to anybody. Is this not rather worrying? Politics is a serious business. It affects people's lives.
Professor Crystal: If somebody did that all the time, one would be very worried indeed. I suspect he was on a bad day there. I have heard that example. It was on Today this morning and I could not understand it either. I suspect he will be very embarrassed about that particular example. If somebody spoke like that all the time, I do not think he would be in the job for very much longer.
Mr Parris: I doubt that!
Q15 Chairman: Well, you worked for us. You would understand more about that.
Professor Crystal: But he who is without sin casts the first stone here. All of us have occasions when we wish we had never said what we have said or that we could have said it more clearly. I think, once again, one needs to look at the context and look for good models.
Q16 Kelvin Hopkins: My second point is that I have a feeling that we do not pull people up enough. I had a rigorous grammar school education and when I wrote nonsense I would have "Nonsense" written across it, and "Rewrite," by my English teacher. At home my father would constantly correct my English. When I was in industry, we had rules about no sentence being more than 15 words: "Remember, you are writing for Daily Mirror readers not The Guardian and The Times readers" - with great respect. "Write in a way which can be understood by anybody, in clear English - not oversimplified, but clear English." When I worked at the TUC for five years, if it was not proper English we would have a line put through it by our head of department. We do not pull people up enough. I had my knuckles rapped so many times when I was younger that I learned to write at least simple basic English and not to use jargon. Do we pull people up enough? Making fun of them is one thing, but somebody, a senior civil servant, saying, "Minister, that's rubbish, please rewrite it"-do we not do enough of that?
Mr Parris: I think we mock them quite effectively. I would reinforce Simon's point: it is not just New Labour; the caring Conservatives are guilty of this too. Mr Byrne is a particularly good or bad example: a beacon of bad practice, I suppose one might say. He, in a sense, illustrates exactly what I have been trying to say about the false use of plain English. He does the glottal stop, the estuarial "it needs to be deba-ed" or "the glo-al stop," which is not natural to him but, unconsciously, he is trying to give the impression - and he is not alone in this - of levelling with his audience and quite often using plain and simple language but in fact to confusing effect.
Q17 Kelvin Hopkins: The other rather more sinister aspect of this, I think, is that we are trying to change people's attitudes politically. The use of the word "customer," for example, in the place of "patient," "pupil," or "student" is trying to put across the idea that every relationship is between a buyer and a seller - or "purchaser/provider" in the jargon - and that it is all a commercial relationship. It is all about markets. It is all about buying and selling. It is not about providing public services and social rights. Is this new language not rather more sinister?
Professor Crystal: It can be. It depends what the purpose behind it is. I think you are absolutely right when you say that people need training in improving their awareness of what the issues are. There was a time for some of us who are slightly less young than others when we got this training routinely in school and then there were a couple of generations when this kind of training went out completely: there was no grammar work done in school or anything of that kind. Fortunately, thanks to the National Curriculum this has come back in again. I do quite a lot of work in schools and I have seen sixth formers, for instance, taking a political speech that has been transcribed and re-writing it and re-thinking and going behind the scenes of it and trying to work out what the nuances are of terms like "customer" and so on and so forth. At the moment I think we are rearing a new generation of kids who are much more aware about the issues than the last two generations have been. Unfortunately, the people who grew up in the last two generations are often now in positions of considerable responsibility and so we are seeing more of that kind of unawareness of language variation than I think was present in my day when I went to school and I think is increasingly now happily becoming restored once again.
Mr Parris: It is not necessarily sinister, but I think there is often an ulterior motive. I think the use of "customer" spread under John Major's government and was, I suppose to the extent that there was any conscious or unconscious purpose intended to convey to those who provide public services the idea that those to whom they provide the services were customers rather than just the passive recipients, but you are right that there was an agenda, so to speak, behind the word, a word that has arisen perhaps in the last decade or more, perhaps under John Major again, I cannot remember, is "jobseeker," which means unemployed but it gives a positive impression. In fact the Government could almost boast that there are now more jobseekers than ever before.
Q18 Paul Flynn: Perhaps I can say a word in defence of Liam Byrne. There is a very small group of us, I think, in the friends of Liam Byrne. We did listen, we were rapt when he came to us, we were fascinated trying to extract these nuggets of meaning from this great flow of words we had, but one of the expressions he used and I have heard him use again was "rising horizons". I can understand "retreating horizons" and "advancing horizons" but a "rising horizon" means there is a tsunami on the way, but it does jerk the mind into some activity. There is a sign that there is an inventive mind behind "Liam Byrne speak". If we go ahead and insist that everyone speaks in this plain, sort of utility English, life is going to become very boring, is it not?
Mr Hoggart: There is a difference between plain, utilitarian English and English which can inform and inspire. I was just asking myself a moment ago how Churchill would have broadcast if a civil servant had got to his main speeches during the war. He would have talked about an "ongoing programme of hostile engagement in littoral sectors" for "fight them on the beaches". What Churchill said was an example of an absolutely perfect political speech, admittedly in circumstances which we hope will not arise in our immediate futures, but what I am saying is that you do not have to go back to very tedious, boring, workaday English. You can say what you mean and say it in a way ----
Q19 Paul Flynn: I found myself yesterday in a Westminster Hall debate using the expression "collateral damage." Going back to that, that phrase was invented, I believe, in the Libyan war and Libyan bombing by the Americans, and it was designed to disguise a horrible truth of women and children being blown to pieces by bombs, and you put this nice phrase of "collateral damage". But has not the usage changed, to the effect that we have the same horror now to the expression "collateral damage" as we do to the reality as someone described it before? And does that not mean that these expressions that are meant to be euphemisms suddenly become into the language?
Mr Parris: Absolutely. Another one is "challenge". These days you do not say that you have encountered difficulties or problems or that you have failed; you say that you are being challenged or have encountered challenges, and the result is the public use now of the word "challenge" means difficulties or problems and conveys exactly the meaning that its initial adoption was intended to avoid.
Professor Crystal: All politically correct language is like that.
Q20 Paul Flynn: In my generation sportsmen always talked about "getting a result": "We want tog et a result today" and what they actually meant was a win. A draw is a result. I mean, anything is a result - but that is the way that language changes. Could you perhaps offer some help to the present Speaker? The present Speaker is very courageously trying to improve parliamentary language. He keeps appealing to Members to ask questions that are "pithy" - the word he used - brief questions and there has been a perceptible change in the way that Question Time goes on. The questions are briefer, there are more questions reached. What would you suggest he should do to improve parliamentary communications?
Mr Hoggart: He is already shutting people up, is he not, though not quite as often as I would like. There were some questions yesterday at PMQs that went on for an awfully long time. There is another good example too of the way that statistics - a different subject - the same book, the Red Book full of statistics, is interpreted entirely contradictory way by both the Government and the Opposition, an argument which we have had every single week for the past several weeks, and language can have the same effect as well. I would like to hear him say, "I didn't understand that question, would you please repeat it?" but instead, of course, he naturally wants to move on. There is no encouragement yet to phrase stuff more coherently as well as there is already to phrase stuff more concisely.
Mr Parris: He will need to improve his own delivery too. He has in the past very often spoken as though someone were chiselling his words into granite as he spoke. There is a sort of ponderousness there which is equally to be avoided.
Professor Crystal: One also has to ask the question: Why does one ask a question in the first place? For most ordinary people you ask a question in order to get an answer to something you do not know. In parliamentary circles, you already know the answer before you ask the question. Very often the aim of asking the question is to wrong-foot the answerer and therefore it pays you to express your question in an obscure way because then you have a much greater chance of wrong-footing the answerer.
Q21 Paul Flynn: There are people who are trained to come before select committees, by lobbyists and other groups, and I am certain that the general advice is to speak for as long as possible and to be as incomprehensible as possible if you are trying to hide something - which most of them are - and if we dare to interrupt them or tell them that we do not understand what they are saying, we might be pilloried. How can we improve our act with those who are disguising the truth?
Mr Parris: Just keep interrupting. Whenever anybody begins to obfuscate, just keep interrupting.
Q22 Paul Flynn: There should be obstructive rudeness from ourselves.
Mr Parris: Testing it, as a judge might do, just saying, "What do you mean?"
Q23 Paul Flynn: Do you think we suffer from an excess of courtesy?
Mr Hoggart: It rather depends on who you are seeing. Looking at the Treasury Committee facing the bankers who brought the nation to its knees, they were pretty rough, but if you are dealing with people who are explaining their views, then clearly shutting them up is not your priority, is it?
Mr Parris: I think it is important not to feel that pulling people up on the way they are expressing themselves or getting edgy about their phrasing is either pedantic or trivial, but I think that Members of select committees and others should not be ashamed or embarrassed to keep pulling people up on small matters of the way they express themselves even if the issue is larger.
Professor Crystal: That is a very important point, if I may say so. The situation you are encountering at the moment, we are encountering at the moment, has arisen over a long period of time. There were debates of this kind going on in the 19th century and in the 18th century. Obscure language is not a modern 21st century phenomenon. What is modern is our awareness of the nature of the problem and, quite frankly, a desire to do something about it, which is unusual, but it cannot be done all at once. It has to be done drip, drip, drip, as Matthew says. To go back to the "rising horizons" example, it would only take one person to say, "What exactly do you mean by that?" or to make a joke about it from the other side and say, "I expect that's a tsunami then" and there will be a laugh all around and he will never use that again. That kind of focused criticism I think is very valuable.
Q24 Chairman: There are some permanent things to do with political language, evasiveness and so on that have always been true, but surely this new level has come in. I do not want to personalise it with Mr Byrne, but the fact that he came, I think, from the world of management consultancy surely is the clue. One of the great perks that MPs get - and they will not probably get it for very long - is to be able to travel by first class train to their constituency, which means that you can now listen in to conversations by people on the train, and there are an awful lot of management consultants, and they talk in this kind of language and you see it creeping into politics. Is that not something new that has happened? The more we have had the consultancies come in, the more we have had this language develop.
Mr Parris: Like politics, management consultancy is a profession trying to invent reasons for itself, and consequently it has every incentive to develop private languages with an impression of a sort of priesthood. Perhaps there is some community of interest between management consultancy and politics.
Mr Walker: I do not think so.
Q25 Chairman: Discuss.
Professor Crystal: Whatever has been happening in the past, of course, the situation is changing in an unprecedented way in relation to the future because all the pressures on language hitherto have been pressures on traditional speech and traditional writing. Now we have the internet. The internet is changing all the rules because it is making accessible to a much wider public, stuff that previously it would have been very difficult to get hold of and even to become aware of. If you think now that the amount of language that is on the internet is larger than everything in all the libraries of the world combined and the amount of information on the internet is doubling every ten or 12 hours, admittedly often by visual stuff like YouTube rather than textual stuff, but nonetheless we are dealing with a new scenario here. It will be interesting to see what happens. Whereas previously we have been able to criticise stuff that we hear in audio terms and in traditional written language, when the politicians, as it were, become more present in all the networking forums, Twittering away and doing all these things that hitherto you have not been doing very much of, I suspect we are going to have a very different kind of game to play.
Q26 Mr Walker: Do you not think Twittering would diminish politics even more than it has already been diminished, because life is more serious than, "I'm sitting in a restaurant and John Prescott has walked past"?
Professor Crystal: When you start examining what people are tweeting about, you find that such sentences form only part of the subject matter of tweets. One of the things that a Twitter context does is it gives you 140 characters to say what you mean. That is a knife over you to be succinct and to sort yourself out. Waffle is very unusual on Twitter. I know people who will say, "I'm stuck in a lift" and all that sort of thing, yes, they do that, but there are some quite serious succinct observations being made. I think that if Twittering were a part of the routine training of a politician things might improve quite considerably.
Q27 Mr Prentice: If politicians enter cyberspace, is there not a danger that we can leave behind people who are not wired up?
Professor Crystal: Yes.
Q28 Mr Prentice: The people who are not computer literate. We would be criticised for using cyberspeak.
Professor Crystal: It is a new function, you are absolutely right. None of this is to replace what is there before. This is the old argument about is the computer going to replace the book? It is not. Books will carry on being what they are and then the computer will do what it does very well. All I am saying is that there is a new medium here which is not going to go away. It is very much a linguistic medium and the problems of everything we have talked about today are going to turn up writ large on the internet. In other words, you must not ignore it as a dimension to the discussion.
Q29 Paul Flynn: We are going to see Twitter as new literature. In the past poets have confined themselves to the discipline of sonnet form. If someone has to confine themselves to this very narrow limit of Twittering, the words are going to be more concentrated and richer, presumably. Do you see this as a new art form and that literature of the future will be defined perhaps by supreme examples of Twittering?
Mr Parris: It is not quite the new haiku.
Professor Crystal: No, I do not think so. On the other hand, the analogy of the haiku is very interesting and you can express yourself with green emotion and sensitivity and great meaning if you are constrained in that way. After all, we talked a little while ago about what it was like when some of us were at school once upon a time. Did we not all have paraphrases from our teachers: "Reduce this paragraph to 50 words" or something of that kind? You can get 35 or 40 words into a Twitter message, you know. It is not that different.
Q30 Chairman: We could probably get rid of PMQs and have Twitter time.
Professor Crystal: I do not know what is happening in the House but I gave a lecture in Florida the other day and at the end of it the organiser came up to me and said, "Would I like to see my Twitter score?" I said, "What's my Twitter score?" and he said, "It's the number of people who have sent tweets to the internet while you were lecturing." I had 20 tweets. I was very proud of myself.
Mr Hoggart: Were they about your lecture, or were they just bored?
Professor Crystal: I am not saying. A mixture of the two, Simon.
Ms Clair: Perhaps I could say from the campaign's point of view, because obviously we are taking this opportunity to voice what we receive from the public: Twitter is great, texting is great, talking in jargon is great as long as it is understood. The real issues, challenges, the problem is simply that there are people out there in real-life situations who are suffering because they do not understand the language. That is what the campaign is concerned about. Those are the things that I receive in my inbox on a daily basis and a lot of those are still about government documents. The 30 years of fighting that we have been doing has made a dent, but it is a very sporadic - is that too jargon a word? All these little bits of action going on all the time through these 30 years, and it is very commendable - there is lots of investment, there is lots of passion and effort going in there - but there is no-one with power, with real influence allowing this to be set as a standard. At whatever level whoever decides, whoever is the expert to make those decisions, we simply want to see people having a better chance at understanding and using the public information that is available to them in whatever form.
Q31 Chairman: I was surprised to discover, reading your literature, that when you had these various awards that you give out - I mean the good awards and the bad awards, whatever you call them - government departments started winning all the good awards, did they not, and so you had to develop some more awards so that they could not win.
Ms Clair: In 1983 when we had the Rayner review in the Thatcher Government they had hundreds, thousands of documents that were either done away with altogether or edited by the campaign with the help of the various civil servant and government offices. That was a huge onslaught and because it was such a big thing they needed to motivate those people. They needed to see it was worthwhile. They had the support from above at that time, they had the resources available to them, and they just needed to galvanise people into getting this job done - because it is not easy. It is not the case of just "sat on the mat" we all know that, but there is a way of achieving it, otherwise we would not have been gainfully employed for the past 30 years and there would not have been successes with these awards that we do give out to other bodies.
Professor Crystal: It is more than just the awards. Marie rather humbly says, "We've made a bit of a dent." They have made a huge hole. The Plain English Campaign, not alone but at the forefront, has formed a climate of opinion. When we ask, "Who is going to do something about this?" what will never work is the top-down academy approach. There is no expert, there is no group of experts that would be given any credibility in any British system. The French might like it, but the British on the whole do not do things that way. Dr Johnson was one of the first to point this out. Top-down decisions on language never work. Going back to the internet, what you have done is form a climate of opinion which makes ordinary people very ready to criticise. You see it on the social networking forums all the time or after a radio programme and you scroll down to the forum of discussion that takes place after the programme, and you are getting people much more ready now to say, "I didn't understand that. What was he talking about? How dare he say this?" and you get that level of discussion taking place which I think is moving the climate forward.
Q32 Julie Morgan: Paul mentioned poetry and poetry in relation to Twittering. Andrew Motion said that poetry makes language arresting, and it seems to me that a lot of the language that is generally used by politicians, by government is used in the sort of way that you want it to be merged into the wallpaper so that nobody notices what it is really at all. I wondered what comments you would have on making language arresting, so that it does reach people and it does mean something to people, but also aware of all the layers that David has mentioned that you are trying to get over when you are communicating.
Ms Clair: We deal with this. Whether it is private or public sector organisations that we work with, we go in there to edit and train with them on plain English and clearer communication, and they need to make people engage - I am using all these key words and I want you to score them at the end - because I think that language is still creative. The campaign recognises that language is something that is very closely related to the culture and the Society that we live in and it does create that culture and community to a large degree, depending on the way that you communicate with people and the language we use. We do not want to get rid of that creativity but we do not feel that there is a place for it in public information. There is a point where there are life and death situations being considered and you do not want arresting language in that situation; you simply want to know the facts in a way that you can read, understand and deal with the situation responsibly.
Mr Parris: I think it so much depends on whether one has anything to say. It is the fate of politicians, and not particularly the fault of politicians, very often to be having to fill time with words when they have not anything much to say. They wish to be memorable and use arresting language at the same time as not conveying anything significant or arresting. The use of these rather florid metaphors, for instance, of "beacons" and "milestones" and "blood on the carpet" and "fatally holed below the waterline" is an attempt to be arresting when what you have to say is rather prosaic.
Mr Hoggart: There is a real problem for politicians, which is that your medium is the speech and it has been for centuries and centuries. The speech is essentially ten minutes or 20 minutes or an hour long, and it makes an argument and has a beginning, a middle and an end and it is packed with stuff. If you take a typical leader's speech at the party conference, every line has been gone over for not hours but days. I remember Margaret Thatcher was saved from the Brighton bomb because she was still up at three o'clock working on her conference speech for the next day. Yet what we remember from those speeches are tiny bits: "back to basics" from one of John Major's, or "British jobs for British people" from Gordon Brown a couple of years ago. "I don't have a reverse gear" and "Scars on my back" is all that anyone remembers from Tony Blair's speeches over those years. It seems to me that you are going to have to take another look at that - or "revisit it" in the jargon - because people are not reading the speeches. They are not even listening to the speeches, as we know. I remember Matthew came out - did you not? - in the House of Commons on the grounds that nobody would notice and you would get away with it, as it were. I am sorry, I did not mean that crudely, but your constituents would not see. Maybe a Twitter or an acknowledgement that there is a fantastic amount of written material and speech material out there, and that, as David has said, the internet contains more than every library in the world put together. You are just going to have to realise you are in competition with all those other sources of information and opinion and just come out with one line. Maybe the Speaker should reduce speeches to one minute and you would just have to stand up and say, "No, you're wrong, because ..." and then sit down again.
Ms Clair: Yes.
Q33 Chairman: Is not a further problem with the same issue - and I found myself saying this to a prime minister - fancy having to make the same speech over and over again? That is hideous. It has the consequence, does it not, that you do reach for the prefabricated words and you just block them altogether? How else would you survive?
Professor Crystal: Indeed.
Q34 Paul Flynn: There is one good example. Peter Bottomley was challenged by John Major and others one time to include extraneous information in parliamentary answers. The information, if I remember, was that Burkina Faso means land of brave warriors, that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on the left hand, and that frogs make love with their eyes shut. In fact in a session of parliamentary answers when he was transport minister he conveyed all these bits of information and no-one noticed or objected. There must be a lesson here on the basis that nobody listens to the first answers. Even the person who is going to ask the supplementary question is listening in his head to what he or she is going to say next. That went through the House without comment as he was sacked a few weeks later by Mrs Thatcher, quite sensibly, which you wrote about. What lessons are there for the new Speaker to take on? All this verbiage that comes around, you can say almost anything, and there is not a soul that is listening - except possibly the sketch writers.
Mr Hoggart: Not even us. The best sessions I ever go to in the Commons are not necessarily on Prime Minister's Question Time, which are great for us but achieve absolutely nothing as far as I can see. They do not usually make it past the Six O'clock News. It is rare for a carefully crafted sound bite which has the sweat of a hundred aides all over it to make it to the Ten O'clock News bulletin. But it is when the House is going through line by line on a bill which will affect everybody's lives. I was quite impressed by the discussion on the Finance Bill the other day in the report stage because at least people were talking about real things that mattered in a real kind of way. There is not a heck of a lot of that going about at the moment, is there?
Q35 Julie Morgan: You have talked about the arresting phrases. What about "broken society"? What is your view of that. It seems to me to be an overused phrase.
Mr Parris: Here we stray, in a sense, into politics. It is a good griping, arresting phrase. The question is what is the speaker - probably David Cameron in this case - trying to convey. If he really means he thinks society is broken, that is extremely interesting. If he does not really mean that but is simply trying to exaggerate the effect of what in practice is perhaps a less ambitious remark, then this is another example of grasping for apparently arresting speech to say something that, on examination, is saying rather less.
Professor Crystal: The trouble with arresting speech is that the other side can home in on it very, very quickly and twist it into something even more arresting. It would only take somebody to say, "It's an unbroken society" or something of that kind and take the metaphor and extend it in new directions and of course you are then hoist with your own petard.
Mr Hoggart: A classic example is the "hug a hoodie". Cameron never said that. He just said we should be more understanding of feral young men, if you like, and this became "hug a hoodie," which I suspect did him a great deal of harm.
Q36 Mr Prentice: It is not just politicians who are the guilty men and guilty women; it is political commentators as well, is it not? Every time I read Steve Richards in The Independent he is talking about the "narrative" and it just makes me scream. After the Prime Minister delivered his speech on Building Britain's Future, Matthew Taylor, who pronounces on these things, talked about "lacking a core narrative" and the General Secretary of the Fabian Society talked about this document having "an underlying strategy but it lacks narrative and it lacks animation". These people kind of mediate, do they not? Their job is to explain what we, the politicians, are trying to say, but in that explanation they obscure things. What on earth does narrative mean, Simon?
Mr Hoggart: Used as a quality that an event or speech ought to have, then it is jargon, but it is quite a good way of looking at the way the press handles many stories and narrative simply means a story, but narrative, if you like ----
Q37 Mr Prentice: Why not say story, then?
Mr Hoggart: Indeed. The story of the end of the Major administration was that it was absolutely hopeless, it was heading for the rocks, everything they did was wrong, it was packed with scandal, and because that was the narrative, if you like the story that everybody had focused on and agreed on, then everything you read in the papers was that the Major government was utterly hopeless and beyond redemption, and I think contributed to the landslide in 1997. That, if you like, is the narrative. The narrative now is that Gordon Brown is absolutely hopeless and beyond redemption. That, I think, does have a meaning, but if you say, as in the examples you quoted, "We must have a narrative to go with our policy," then that is indeed jargon. That is attempting to manipulate the public. The public has already been manipulated by the press, to a large extent.
Q38 Mr Prentice: My broader point is that people like you, who are paid to interpret what we are saying, do not often do a very good job.
Mr Hoggart: I am not paid to interpret what you are saying; I am paid to take the piss.
Professor Crystal: He is absolutely right, though.
Q39 Mr Prentice: I know I am.
Professor Crystal: Because it is not possible to have any piece of written language or spoken language for that matter without some kind of agenda behind it. That is what it is all about. Narrative does not just mean story. Narrative means a story with an agenda. There is always something which is driving the notion of narrative. Yes, you guys have your agendas; that is, to take the piss or whatever it might be. Everybody has an agenda. It is perfectly proper for people to point out that every domain of human existence has its jargon, has its hidden agenda and so on and so forth; however, it is not enough to say, "Ya boo sucks! You do it as well," because you guys are in a rather different position of power.
Q40 Mr Prentice: What about when politicians use simple words but give those simple words new meaning? In the Prime Minister's relaunch document, Building Britain's Future he talked about "entitlement" and I thought that an entitlement would confer a right to something which would be enforceable, but that is really not what entitlement means in the context of that document. What is the Plain English Campaign doing to alert people to the fact that politicians may be using words and giving them a different meaning?
Ms Clair: This is exactly the point that we have to defend often about plain English. It is not dumbing down, it is not simple, it is not about using a short word. Sometimes really to understand and get clarity and honesty behind a meaning, you may need to use more words, but what is essential is that the audience at which you are aiming that message will understand and that the language is appropriate for them. If "entitlement" is a word that is understood in one context amongst one group, that is fine, but we are really concerned when this is used on a much wider basis that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. It is not about complicated words.
Q41 Mr Prentice: Matthew at the beginning said the public are not fooled, and perhaps it is the stock in trade of politicians to fool the public. If politicians are using words routinely like "entitlement" and "guarantee" then they have their agenda. They want people to think that people have new rights which they can exercise, but that is not the case.
Mr Parris: I do not think we need to worry about it too much because I think people see through it very quickly. I think someone who uses "entitlement" in a context in which he does not mean "entitlement" is simply being foolish because the question: "How am I to get my entitlement?" will come quite fast and there will not be an answer. I do not think we need to worry about that.
Mr Hoggart: The equivalent is the ad "You deserve it" - which I think is for hairspray. How the hell do they know? I am lazy and slovenly, what do I deserve?
Chairman: Yes, "Because you deserve it."
Q42 Mr Walker: I cannot recite word for word Churchill's speeches, nor Obama's, nor Tony Blair's.
Professor Crystal: "Yes, we can."
Q43 Mr Walker: But I remember that they had passion, that they could move a room. I remember the clause 4 debate at the Labour Party Conference. John Prescott, a man widely dismissed as being inarticulate, gave the most incredible passionate speech that moved the room. So it is not necessarily what you say; it is how you say it. There was a ripple of laughter when somebody said the one-minute speech, and you, Marie Clair, said that would be a good thing. I could think of no better way of showing disrespect to people on many occasions than by talking about the sacrifices being made in Afghanistan and Iraq by families and young men by giving it a one-minute speech. I am not quite sure where you gentlemen are coming from. I agree with you that many politicians have little to say but there are a few politicians who have a great deal to say and they say it very well. Do you not accept that?
Ms Clair: I certainly accept that, because, as we said earlier on about the arresting situation, there is a difference between language that is creative, that is emotive, that is passionate - and I am passionate about plain English, but the fact is that plain English needs to be used when it is simply about getting information across in a way that is easily understood. If you are rousing people to feel something, you are not necessarily going to do it in 140 letters, but if people understand what is at the end of that passionate speech, then you have achieved your aim.
Professor Crystal: I think you are absolutely right, Charles. It is only the bad news that gets the publicity. It is only the bad occasions. It is only the people saying, "I didn't understand that." Far more frequently than that are the occasions when people do understand. This morning, as you may not be aware, I had five minutes on Today with Matthew and while we were waiting for our turn (because Today always treats language as being a little end of term kind of affair) we were listening to Ed Miliband talking. It does not matter about what; the point was, I understood every word. There was five minutes of stuff there and it was absolutely clear, no problem at all about it. I suspect that if one listened and listened and listened, and genuinely listened in an objective way, you would find that probably, I do not know what the percentage would be, the majority of stuff would be clear enough, no problem. That never gets the publicity at all.
Mr Parris: It was Churchill himself who said, "I'm sorry to have made such a long speech but I didn't have time to write a shorter one."
Q44 Mr Walker: And he said, "If you can't say it in 20 minutes, go away and write a book about it." There is an art here to making a speech clearly, and many people go on too long, but do you think the art of speech-making has been downgraded by the fact that the media is simply not interested in reporting much of what is said in the House of Commons? Mr Hoggart, you said that you are here to take the piss, and quite frankly that is what most political journalists do now: they are not really interested in serious politics. Politics has become a branch of the entertainments industry - and we are as much responsible for that as you are.
Mr Hoggart: No, I think we are probably more responsible. There is a Sherlock Holmes' short story - I think it is the Cardboard Box - in which Dr Watson is saying how bored he is in August in London, nothing is happening, and he says, "Parliament was not sitting, so there was little to read in the newspapers." It is inconceivable that a news editor would think that, because all the more space for David Beckham's injured foot or whatever and Jordan's marriage break-up. When I came to work here for the first time in 1973, there was a Times room - and Matthew will know this - which had 16 people in who produced a record of virtually every speech that was made in the Commons the previous day. Obviously it was not like Hansard, it was not verbatim, but: "Sir Patrick Cormack said that he disagreed with the proposal on the grounds that ..." and every speech would be mentioned. That is long ago gone. More recently, the papers felt, like you, that we should have more coverage of what was being said in Parliament, and so most of the broad sheets (as we then were) put in an extra parliamentary correspondent who would do the same and produce half a page, perhaps, of what had been said. They soon discovered from the page traffic reports which they do constantly, all the time, that nobody was reading it at all, and they were taken out. I am afraid that one of the reasons why we sketch writers are preserved for the time being at least - and I do not know for how much longer - is that people do read it, and they read it more often than they read the far more important articles about some subtle shift in defence policy.
Q45 Mr Walker: As opposed to wide-screen TVs. Professor Crystal, you were talking about the internet, and you were talking about chat rooms and threads. Why is it that most people in chat rooms and threads that I come across - and maybe I am just unlucky - are just so miserable and violent and vicious? Why are they so malcontented? Why do they wish such terrible things on their fellow mankind? I do not think ordinary, nice, happy people go on to the internet.
Professor Crystal: Yes, they do. You really have to cast your net very, very wide and you do get a lot of what you say but you also get the opposite. I have never done the analysis of positive versus negative attitudes on the internet, but if one did I think one would find a representative selection of all sorts of attitudes. There are some forums which are extremely positive and you would be delighted to be part of them. But the thing about the internet is that, unless the site is moderated, it does allow you to say what you want. An awful lot of people, for whatever reason, do have axes to grind about all sorts of things and, suddenly, they find a medium where you can say whatever you like and in whatever language you like pretty well - although there are a few filters for this and that - and so they make use of it. It is probably a novelty of the medium. I suspect this will slow down as time goes by and people get used to it and realise that sounding off is not going to do much more than, say, cursing when you bang your head against a cupboard door or something like that.
Mr Parris: Information technology can, I think, be bent to your Committee's and to the Plain English Campaign's purpose. A couple of years ago, with a BBC analyst over at Millbank called Paul Twin we made a couple of 15-minute programmes for Radio 4 about very much the subject that your Committee is covering. If the Committee would like, I will see that they are sent over. All Mr Twin needed to do was to assemble the archive of parliamentary speeches and questions and then do a word search. For instance, for "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" I think we found about 430 instances. Of "level playing field," "fatally holed below the waterline," "dead in the water," it is a very good tool for tracking the incidence, the rise and the fall, of particularly unfortunate expressions.
Q46 David Heyes: I would like to try to get a feel from you as to what we ought to be doing about this, what the politicians ought to be doing about it, what recommendations this Committee might make that parliamentarians might act on. I have a pretty clear idea from you of the things you would do: it is a continuation of ridicule - or focused criticism, as you may prefer to call it; a continuation of an effective Plain English Campaign; a continuation of academic work. All that will go on and maybe be stepped up, but what should we be doing? It seems to me this is just one aspect of the loss of faith in politics and politicians that is the most important task of Parliament at the moment to do something about that, to try to rebuild that lost trust, and sorting out the language we use and our accessibility is an important feature. What should we be doing? It is difficult to see how we might legislate. It would not be popular to introduce fines for inappropriate language. We could maybe set up a quango. What else ought we to be doing as politicians?
Mr Hoggart: It is a matter of care, really. On Mr Hopkins's point, it is much harder to write crisply. It takes longer to write a short speech, as Churchill said. Tabloid journalism is far more difficult than what we do because you have to get often a very complicated thing and express it in very few words which will be understood by every single reader. Just take a little bit more time. It is much more important with ministers, who very, very often have speeches prepared for them by civil servants. Ministers are fantastically busy. All Members of Parliament, I know, are fantastically busy. When given a speech, the idea of taking out half an hour from your incredibly busy day and saying, "No, I hate that phrase. That means nothing. What are we really trying to say here?" must be very, very difficult for a minister to do, but if he or she did have time to say, "This is what we are trying to convey to our colleagues in Parliament and to the Public," that would be a wonderful thing.
Professor Crystal: I would say that one thing you can do is focus on the point I was making some time ago about the need for good models. Every now and then I guess most of you will encounter somebody saying something or writing something, and everybody saying, "That was good." We have talked about Churchill, we have talked about Barack Obama, and there will be local examples, where you say, "That was good." What happens to that piece of good English? It is just part of Hansard now and maybe it might get into the press. As you say, it might get the occasional mention, but then it is forgotten forever. Why should there not be a little archive of good practice built up in some way which is party neutral, when people say these are good examples of not necessarily plain English but effective English in the context in which the language is going to be used.
Q47 Mr Walker: It is not what you say, it is how you say it.
Professor Crystal: It is the way that you say it.
Q48 Mr Walker: Passion. John Prescott, clause 4. "John Smith believes because that is what John Smith believes" was total rubbish but the man was totally believable and he had passion and emotion. That is the difference. That is what moves room, not the bloody content. It is how you say it.
Professor Crystal: It is both.
Q49 Chairman: We should ask Simon about that, because you have had fun with John Prescott over the years.
Mr Hoggart: John Prescott did not use much jargon at all. He used good demotic English; it is just that he got his words jumbled up. He was talking about the firefighters' strike and the FBU became "the FBI", and he talked about the leader "Mr Andy Christ," for example. But he spoke in a very jargon-free way, John Prescott. I notice now that he is a blogger principally, rather than a Member of Parliament. I do not think that was a problem at all, really.
Q50 David Heyes: I would be interested to hear what Matthew and Barry have to say in response to my question. What should we be doing as politicians about this?
Mr Parris: As I said earlier on, not to feel ashamed to be sticklers and to harp on about questions of phraseology and vocabulary. I think it should become a fashionable thing to do.
Q51 Mr Prentice: Should we be comfortable about using words like "subsidy"? I cannot remember the last time I heard a Member of Parliament talk about subsidising".
Mr Parris: No, it is investing now.
Q52 Mr Prentice: It is investing. Maybe we ought just to be more honest with people If we are talking about the East Coast Mainline, we could say to people, "We cannot run a railway without subsidising it," instead of wrapping it up in all this talk about investment.
Mr Hoggart: That came from the bookies, did it not? A £10 investment can win you £100.
Professor Crystal: Have you ever gone in for word clouds yet? Have any of you done word clouds? You take a huge chunk of language and you put it through a computer and the computer spews out a cloud of the words, with the most frequent occurring words most prominent and in a nice big colour, and the next most frequently occurring words not so big, and you get this cloud. If you did that - I am not quite sure how often - day by day or perhaps week by week, then suddenly "subsidy" would be high and then maybe "investment" would be high, and you would see the coming and going of vocabulary. Maybe if you had that on a screen at the back of the House all the time, it would alert the people to the way things are going.
Chairman: Perhaps you could help us. Perhaps we could produce a glossary, so that whenever one of these words was used people could turn up and see what it meant.
Q53 David Heyes: Is that part of what Plain English ----
Ms Clair: Funnily enough, that is one of the methods we use. The recommendations that Chrissie Maher told me to bring to this meeting are no different from what we have been doing over the past 30 years with all sizes of organisation, and that is to get the understanding from people at the top, not necessarily to get them re-writing everything they do in plain English or speaking in plain English when it is not appropriate, but the reality is if those people understand the purpose of clearer communications then those people, the foot soldiers, the ones who are on the frontline who have that job of communicating the message with the public in a way that they understand, they will have the wherewithal, the resources and the proper understanding of what the senior officers mean. You start off with getting everyone at the top understanding what is happening, buying into it - you can tick that one in the box as well - and then you set up a programme, as we do, with training, you review the documents, you look at the material you have, you identify by whatever means where the danger words or dangers areas, the hotspots, are, and you deal with those. You come to some agreement because, yes, not everyone is going to say this is the only way to do something, but that is why it is important to test the solution that you come to with the right audience. A lot of the time, the work that we do, particularly to acquire a crystal mark on a document for any organisation is to test it with the audience that is intended and that sample will give you their honest feedback and you will know whether you have got it right or not. That way there is no excuse for them not understanding.
Q54 Mr Prentice: There is a lot of talk about parliamentary jargon just being impenetrable. Do you get a lot of people talking to you about just how difficult they find it to understand what is happening in Parliament?
Ms Clair: Yes.
Q55 Mr Prentice: Would you like to see us get rid of all this "Honourable Member" stuff and "Right Honourable Member" stuff and talk to each other by name? Would that help?
Ms Clair: From the public responses that we get, they do not want to do away with tradition. There is an understanding that communication is as much a part of our culture and heritage and what makes us the people we are. Some of those traditions are part of what we do, but it is when it comes to public information that is needed to be acted upon, it is fine if you are going to talk in that way and you are happy to do so within your various meetings and hearings and such like, whether it is in the courts or anywhere else, but at some point that will need to be translated for other people to deal with.
Q56 Mr Prentice: Could I ask our two sketch writers if they would advise the Speaker to modernise and update our parliamentary language and traditions, just to remove that barrier of understanding that there is?
Mr Parris: No, I would not. I think the slightly ceremonious parliamentary language, particularly the rule that one speaks always in the third person rather than the second person does not impede meaning or understanding at all. It does give a slightly ceremonious patina to the whole thing, but it does not impede understanding. I also think, from the point of view of keeping tempers in the House, that once people start saying "you" it can quite quickly turn into something like a fist-fight. That just is a slightly calming influence.
Mr Hoggart: We saw that with Cameron shouting at Brown recently, "You're hopeless." Even Michael Martin paid attention to that. I think Matthew is absolutely right. It has to be "my Right Honourable and gallant friend."
Q57 Kelvin Hopkins: For the first time ever I think I disagree with my colleague Gordon here and agree very strongly with what Matthew and you have just been saying about this third person usage. I may say that I think the debate this morning has been too much about speaking. I think often the speeches we do understand, especially speeches from non-government ministers. The Government is maybe trying to obfuscate and make less clear, in a sense, because they are trying to hide things, whereas everyone else is speaking quite clearly. I must say I enjoy listening to speeches. It is government publications, government statements, and written speeches by ministers where the problem arises. When they are trying to describe something about PFI, for example, PFI is a way of ripping off the public purse, to pour vast sums of money into corporate pockets. That is what PFI is about and yet that does not come across. It is portrayed as something benign. I might say that and nobody would disagree with me. They might say, "I think I would phrase it rather differently", but that is the truth. Speeches, I think, should not be the target. It is publications. It is written statements. It is government statements by ministers.
Mr Parris: Perhaps in its conclusions and recommendations the Committee should suggest that PFI should be replaced with RPP (ripping off the public purse).
Kelvin Hopkins: Absolutely.
Q58 Chairman: A member of the public has sent us in a very nice submission on PFI. I think it is a she and she translates the language in great detail - not quite in the robust way that Kelvin has given us but something pretty close. Perhaps I could just give you this thought at the end. As you think about this and have this discussion, you can see a terrible danger looming, can you not, which is that if after all this mockery and the rest of it politicians finally do get the message and therefore they work out that a sort of plain speaking is much better than the other stuff, what you get then is a sort of faux authenticity develop which in turn will have to be mocked by you and so we shall go around in circles.
Mr Parris: Yes. We are already.
Q59 Chairman: A bleak conclusion.
Ms Clair: But that is for the internal. Our concern really is about public information and what people understand.
Chairman: Yes, of course. Thank you stakeholders. I think we have had a meaningful interaction. Thank you very much indeed for all your time this morning.