Skip to main content

Better English Campaign

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 2 May 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.17 p.m.

Whether they are providing assistance to the Better English Campaign and, if so, whether their assistance extends throughout the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are providing initial funding for the Better English Campaign for a period of two years. Because of the territorial limits of my right honourable friend's responsibilities, the campaign is primarily concerned with England. But it has already attracted the support of a number of national organisations and I am sure that it will be happy to work with a variety of partners on activities in different parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Is it the intention to improve spoken English; for example, by reducing casual use of the words "sort of" before almost every verb and vague communication by grunt? As English is now the language most employed in the world and therefore a valuable asset for Britain, will the Government continue to support its articulate use? As regards Scotland, is my noble friend aware that, although estuary English is little known there, firth English tends to be also casual and ungrammatical at times but that those whose first language is Gaelic usually speak English impeccably?

My Lords, I am limited in the number of those I know whose first language is Gaelic, but I shall take my noble friend's word for it. I am sure that those whose first language is Welsh also speak absolutely impeccable English just as a great many of those whose first language is English manage to speak fairly impeccable English. The purpose behind the campaign is quite rightly to promote good spoken and, to some extent, good written English. It is very important that young people should be able to communicate and communicate properly.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that he is right when he says that English is spoken accurately and clearly in Wales? Is he further aware that the Better Welsh Campaign is going well?

My Lords, I regret to say that I did not know about the Better Welsh Campaign, but I am very grateful to the noble Lord for bringing it to the attention of the House. I am sure that all noble Lords will have taken on board what he had to say.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that even if his office extended to being able to provide better English in Scotland or in Wales, it would be a grotesque misuse of public funds in view of the admirable English spoken west of Shrewsbury and north of the Border? Does the Minister further agree that the Better English Campaign, so admirably led by Mr. Trevor McDonald, would do well to concentrate its attention on English in a relatively public role—I am not thinking of radio and television but of railway station announcements and telephonists responding to outside calls whether in hospitals, police stations or, indeed, in government departments? Would it not be a marvellous achievement if someone telephoning the DFEE did not have to ask for the response to be repeated because the initial response sounded both uneducated and unemployable?

My Lords, I apologise if the noble Lord had some problems in ringing my own department. As regards the main part of his question, it is a matter for Mr. Trevor McDonald as to how he develops the Better English Campaign. I am sure he will take note of some of the very helpful suggestions that the noble Lord has put forward. If he cares to know more of what the campaign is proposing I can send him a copy of the original press release which Mr. McDonald issued, giving some idea of the initiatives he intends to pursue.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the campaign will deal not only with unnecessary words but also with unnecessary and undesirable pronunciation such as the glottal stop?

My Lords, the campaign is designed to promote good spoken English. As I made clear earlier, it is for Mr. McDonald to decide on his priorities. Again, I am sure that he will take note of what the noble Lord said.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that for those responsible for this admirable campaign, government literature should offer them a very happy hunting ground?

My Lords, I always find that most government literature is written with the most admirable clarity. I certainly notice that my noble friend Lord Peyton seems to have little difficulty in understanding it, especially when he brings it before this House.

My Lords, is it not a fact that Mr. Trevor McDonald said publicly that he was astounded at reports that some universities had to run remedial training classes in English for undergraduates? Is the Minister aware that many of us who have been connected with universities were by no means astounded—indeed, we were distinctly underwhelmed—since such remedial classes were common in universities throughout the 1980s, even for those with good grade A-levels in English who had been admitted to read for a degree in English? Can the Minister tell the House what steps the Better English Campaign is taking, or will be encouraged to take, to ameliorate this very regrettable situation?

My Lords, the Better English Campaign is just one part of our efforts to raise standards. The raising of those standards has been at the heart of all the reforms we have pursued in terms of the national curriculum, national tests, teacher assessment and performance tables. I could go on. Our aim is to raise the standard of spoken and written English. We shall continue to pursue those reforms, probably with the opposition of the Opposition.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is a handicap to this admirable campaign when the University of Oxford appoints to the Murdoch Chair of Communications a lady who does not believe in the importance of correct English and who is then brought forward by the BBC as an appropriate Reith lecturer?

My Lords, I understand that my noble friend is a great believer in academic freedom. As a result, I believe he will accept that I am not responsible for the decisions of Oxford University.

My Lords, I know that this subject excites a great deal of interest in your Lordships' House, and rightly so. I observe, however, that two more Questions remain. Your Lordships may feel that the time has come to move on.