Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language - Public Administration Committee Contents

3 Making official language clearer

28.  The examples included in this report indicate that the language used by many in government could be much clearer than it is. As the former Permanent Secretary Ian Watmore said: "I doubt that any document resident in Whitehall would totally pass the plain English test".[30] In fact, government is probably not the worst offender when it comes to the misuse of language. Nonetheless, given the intrinsically public nature of government communications, it is important to encourage efforts to make official language as clear as possible. We now consider what might be done to improve both political and administrative language.

Political language: mockery and models

29.  Political language will not be changed through legislation or by command. In contrast to administrative language, political language puts greater emphasis on using language to persuade rather than simply to explain. This characteristic makes it difficult to establish useful models of linguistic clarity in advance; it is easier to identify bad political language after the fact than to set out in advance how to formulate good political language. George Orwell's attempt to prescribe rules for effective language usage in his "Politics and the English Language" essay came under fire from David 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.[31]

Orwell's checklist of language rules might be too prescriptive, but elsewhere he does suggest one rule of thumb that is excellent advice for those crafting political (and other types of) language: "What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about".[32]

30.  Matthew Parris took a different tack by suggesting that the best way to deal with bad political language was to make fun of it:

…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.[33]

31.  The mockery tactic is used effectively by political sketchwriters and journalists, who perform a public service by skewering the most egregious linguistic excesses. As well as mocking bad political language, however, David Crystal thought good language should be encouraged and celebrated:

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?[34]

32.  Mockery, as practised by sketchwriters and other political observers, serves a useful purpose by reducing our tolerance for the misuse of language. More generally, "good" political language should be encouraged, and the use of language that distorts or disguises meaning should be exposed and condemned.

Administrative language: improving clarity

33.  The benefits of improving administrative language go beyond merely getting rid of irritating phrases and buzzwords. Good government, as we have concluded in numerous past reports, involves being responsive to the public.[35] Making the language used by government clearer and more accessible should therefore help people to feel that government does understand, and is able to respond to, their needs. As the Parliamentary Ombudsman has stated in her Principles of Good Administration: "Public bodies should communicate effectively, using clear language that people can understand and that is appropriate to them and their circumstances".[36]

34.  Making official information and forms more understandable would also have benefits for government, by increasing the likelihood that people would comply with requests for accurate information. In some cases, there are significant financial implications involved: HM Revenue and Customs estimates that unintentional errors made by taxpayers when completing their self-assessment forms result in around £300 million in underpaid tax each year (although it makes no estimate of the extent of errors leading to overpaid tax).[37] Clearer and more user-friendly forms also mean government bodies can avoid the cost and inconvenience of having to go back to people if information provided is incomplete, a point made by the University of Reading's Simplification Centre:

...error-prone forms have to be returned and corrected, and needless enquiries are made to government helplines. These costs are rarely addressed in reviews of potential savings, but we believe they are considerable.[38]

35.  There are many sources of help for government departments seeking to improve the language skills of their staff. The National School of Government works with government departments to promote clearer communication, as do organisations such as the Plain English Campaign and the Plain Language Commission. Government bodies have also produced their own staff guidance on language use; good examples include the Charity Commission's "Stop, Think, Write" guidelines[39] and the Office for Disability Issues' guidance on "The Importance of Accessible Information".[40] Both publications emphasise the need to be sensitive to the intended audience's needs, and to tailor language accordingly. As David Crystal suggested, encouraging good language use through sharing guidance on good communication and model examples is as important as highlighting cases of bad language.[41]

36.  The NAO has monitored the accessibility of government forms and information over the years, especially for government departments that have many dealings with the public such as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue and Customs.[42] Its most recent report on how well DWP communicates with its "customers" concluded that the Department had managed to improve its communications, particularly in making forms easier to use and providing more readily accessible information.[43] The Plain English Campaign echoed this conclusion, saying that parts of government had succeeded in making administrative communications clearer and easier to understand.[44] Both the NAO and the Plain English Campaign do, however, note that government bodies need to maintain efforts to improve how they communicate with the public, including by regularly reviewing forms and leaflets and redrafting those that are too long or complex.[45]


37.  At present, there is no obvious mechanism for people themselves to highlight cases of bad official language. We believe this is a gap that needs to be filled. One way of doing so would be to encourage people to complain about serious cases of bad official language directly to the body concerned; and if that fails, to the relevant Ombudsman (e.g. the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, or the Local Government Ombudsman).

38.  In our view, using confusing or unclear language that is so bad that it results in people not getting the benefits or services to which they are entitled, or which prevents them from understanding their rights or the choices available to them, amounts to "maladaministration". This would provide the grounds for making a complaint to the relevant Ombudsman if the public authority involved does not take adequate steps to rectify its poor communication. The Parliamentary Ombudsman agreed with this view. She told us that she could envisage circumstances in which the poor use of language could be considered maladministration,[46] and further observed that:

I think if it got to the point that it was actually incomprehensible, then it would be in contravention of my principles about providing information that's clear, accurate and not misleading.[47]

39.  We believe that the use of inaccurate, confusing or misleading official language which results in tangible harm, such as preventing individuals from receiving benefits or public services, should be regarded as maladministration. People should be encouraged to complain about cases of bad official language directly to the body concerned, and government needs to take such complaints of maladministration seriously. Failure to do so would provide grounds for people to complain to the relevant Ombudsman about poor official language.

Legislative language: making it plain

40.  One variety of official language that has received attention over the years is the language used in drafting legislation. In 1975, Sir David (subsequently Lord) Renton's official report on The Preparation of Legislation considered the language of legislative drafting as part of its wider examination of the legislative process. The report highlighted examples of convoluted drafting in statutes, observing that: "the legislative output of Parliament is often incomprehensible even to those who are most familiar with the subject matter of the legislation".[48] Some twenty years on, the Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons took up several of the concerns of the Renton report and successfully recommended that bills be accompanied (and demystified) by readily understandable explanatory notes.[49] Explanatory notes are now an established mechanism for making the meaning of legislation clearer to a non-specialist audience. There have been other innovations to improve the accessibility of legislation: the Mental Incapacity Bill (now the Mental Capacity Act 2005) was published with a guide in easy read format to make it accessible to people with learning difficulties.[50]

41.  Less successfully, the Modernisation Committee also urged that "legislation should, so far as possible, be readily understandable and in plain English".[51] That Committee did acknowledge in 2006 that some progress had been made in making the language of bills more comprehensible.[52] Yet there is still the occasional example of confusing and arcane legislative language, as this extract from the (now-repealed) Regulatory Reform Act 2001, attempting to explain the Act's purpose, illustrates:

…to enable provision to be made for the purpose of reforming legislation which has the effect of imposing burdens affecting persons in the carrying on of any activity and to enable codes of practice to be made with respect to the enforcement of restrictions, requirements or conditions.[53]

42.  One of the most significant plain language projects in British government is the tax law rewrite project started in 1995. The aim of this project is to rewrite the UK's primary direct taxation statutes in order to make the legislation clearer and easier to use, without changing the law. It has resulted in several acts being revised, the most recent revision being the Corporation Tax Act 2009. The Government set out the benefits of the project as follows:

Rewriting the legislation involves unpacking dense wording, replacing archaic expressions with more modern ones, splitting provisions into more sections and subsections, grouping related issues together, improving layout and introducing various aids to navigation. Inevitably, this results in legislation that is significantly longer but legislation that is much clearer and easier to use. The changes introduced by the project have already resulted in tangible benefits to users, including administrative savings from the rewrite of income tax estimated at £70 million a year. Further savings of around £25 million a year are predicted from the rewrite of corporation tax.[54]

43.  Other countries have gone further. As well as revising tax law, as the UK has done, both Australia and Canada have reviewed and rewritten other types of legislation, including legislation on explosives, employment insurance, off-shore mining and care for older people.[55] Canada has also been a pioneer at drafting laws in plain language; Alberta's Financial Services Act 1990, for instance, was written in plain language (in addition to imposing a duty to use plain language in some financial documents).[56]

44.  Making legislative language clearer and simpler needs to be balanced against the interests of ensuring that legislation is as precise and certain in its meaning as necessary. Supporting material such as explanatory notes can help make legislation more accessible to the non-specialist reader. Government could, however, explore to a greater extent initiatives to make the statute book clearer and more readily understandable, such as rewriting existing legislation (along the lines of the successful tax law rewrite project) and giving serious consideration, on a case by case basis, to drafting laws in clearer, simpler language.

30   Oral evidence taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee on 13 October 2008, Third Report of Session 2008-09, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, HC 51-II, Q 25 Back

31   Q 11 Back

32   Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" Back

33   Q 11 Back

34   Q 46 Back

35   See, for example, Public Administration Select Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2007-08, User Involvement in Public Services, HC 410; Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, Good Government, HC 97-I, paras 41, 64 Back

36   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Principles of Good Administration, February 2009 Back

37   National Audit Office, Helping Individuals Understand and Complete Their Tax Forms, Session 2006-07, HC 452, 27 April 2007, p 6 Back

38   Ev 23 Back

39   Charity Commission, Stop, Think, Write: A Guide to Communication and Writing, July 2007 Back

40   Office for Disability Issues, The Importance of Accessible Information: An Introduction for Senior Civil Servants, November 2008 Back

41   Q 46 Back

42   See, for example, National Audit Office reports cited previously on Difficult Forms, Communicating with Customers and Helping Individuals Understand and Complete Their Tax Forms; and also Using Leaflets to Communicate with the Public about Services and Entitlements, Session 2005-06, HC 797, 25 January 2006 Back

43   National Audit Office, Communicating with Customers, p 5 Back

44   Q 31; see also  Back

45   National Audit Office, Difficult Forms, p 8; Using Leaflets to Communicate with the Public about Services and Entitlements, pp 10-11; see also Qq 30, 53 Back

46   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 5 November 2009, Session 2008-09, HC 1079-i, Q 29 Back

47   Ibid, Q 28 Back

48   Sir David Renton, The Preparation of Legislation, Cmnd 6053, May 1975, p 27 Back

49   Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 1997-98, The Legislative Process, HC 190, paras 36-37 Back

50   Department for Constitutional Affairs, A Guide to the Draft Mental Incapacity Bill: What Does It Mean for Me?, June 2003 Back

51   Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 1997-98, The Legislative Process, HC 190, para 14 Back

52   Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 2005-06, The Legislative Process, HC 1097, para 36 Back

53   Regulatory Reform Act 2001 (now repealed); see also Ev 15 Back

54   HM Revenue and Customs, Tax Law Rewrite Report and Plans 2008-09, 2008 Back

55   Michèle M Asprey, Plain Language for Lawyers, 3rd edition (Federation Press, Sydney, 2003), chapter 4 Back

56   Government of Alberta, Financial Consumers Act 1990 Back

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