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Government Policy: Plain English

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that all government papers and publications which set out government policy are written in plain English.

My Lords, the Consultation Principles published in 2012 by the Cabinet Office state that consultation should be clear and precise, using plain English and avoiding acronyms. These principles are actively promoted by the Civil Service Policy Profession but Ministers are ultimately responsible for the clarity of government publications.

My Lords, I am very pleased that my noble friend is answering this Question. He was first a Minister in 1979—and I am delighted that he is still a Minister today—so he will remember that in the past Governments used to set out government policy in plain English in short and succinct White Papers, whereas now you go into the Printed Paper Office and your heart sinks when you see a heavy and thick document because you know that, the thicker it is, the more impenetrable it will be. Therefore, I ask my noble friend to urge his ministerial colleagues to revert to the practice of publishing government policy in short White Papers written in clear and simple English.

I am grateful to my noble friend. There have been a number of discontinuities in my service as a Minister over the years. I share his alarm when one goes into the Printed Paper Office and picks up a huge tome, particularly if a Minister will have to answer a debate on it. When I was a civil servant, I was guided by Sir Ernest Gowers, whom many will remember. He wrote The Complete Plain Words and he had three principles: first, use no more words than are necessary; secondly, use words that are familiar; and, thirdly, avoid vague and abstract words and use words that are precise and concrete. I commend Sir Ernest Gowers to all Ministers and all civil servants when they produce White Papers, and I heartily endorse the exhortation from my noble friend.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the clarity of his response. The Plain English Campaign advises, as he has mentioned, “Keep your sentences short”, “Prefer active verbs” and “Avoid nominalisations”. I am sure we would all aspire to that. What training is given to civil servants and Ministers to ensure that they avoid gobbledegook in government documents?

Like the noble Baroness, I too follow the progress of the Plain English Campaign. A winner this year was an NHS trust, the George Eliot Hospital, which was commended for its publications. So far as advice to government Ministers is concerned, the Government Digital Service runs workshops to help Ministers and civil servants to write clearly. It has had workshops with the DWP and Public Health England, and its content team maintains the content of the most trafficked content. It encourages everybody to avoid jargon but my brief tells me that content on websites should “be updated to improve the end-to-end user journey”.

My Lords, on any reasonable measure, all three services of the UK’s Armed Forces are smaller now than when the Government took responsibility for them. The Navy has fewer vessels than it had in 2003 and the Government have no intention of building more than there were in 2003. However, yesterday, in an otherwise pretty vacuous Statement, the Secretary of State for Defence said to the other place:

“The Royal Navy has increased its mass and points of presence around the world”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/18; col. 657.]

Talking about clarity, what does that mean?

Like the noble Lord, I read Patrick Kidd’s article in the Times today that took my right honourable friend to task for some of the verbs and phrases he used in the Statement. My right honourable friend may well be a contender next year for the Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull Award, which this year was won by a sports commentator who said:

“He’s given the referee no choice but to consider his options”.

I am so glad it is my noble friend answering this Question. As part of the Government’s relentless pursuit of comprehensibility, is he able to explain what is meant by the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”? Given that this is a season of good will, which infuses everything we do, is he able to give us some more understanding of what we are meant to understand by:

“No deal is better than a bad deal”?

I think my noble friend will understand if I do not venture too deeply into matters that are the responsibility of another government department. It would be helpful, however, if the Labour Party could explain its policy on Brexit in plain English.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that we also need to look at the down side of the use of plain English? It would seriously harm the fine art of obfuscation and the career prospects of many civil servants. Impenetrable briefs given to Ministers might be replaced by help towards straight answers. That could be the end of government as we know it.

The noble Lord may have read the Manchester Guardian in 1794, when the same issue arose. I quote:

“The nonsensical jargon of the old Ministries must be replaced by a simple style, clear and yet concise, free from expressions of servility, from obsequious formulae, stand-offishness, pedantry, or any suggestion that there is an authority superior to that of reason, or of the order established by law”.

My Lords, one of the reasons this House always welcomes the Minister to the Dispatch Box is that he fulfils his obligations, is always clear and concise and, as we have seen today, answers questions with some wit and humour. That is not always the case with answers to your Lordships’ House. In the spirit of Christmas I will not name names, but may I suggest that a new year’s resolution for the Minister might be to hold training classes for his ministerial colleagues so that we may have the delights of similar answers from all Ministers?

In her intervention, I think the noble Baroness has made me even more unpopular than before with my ministerial colleagues.