Bad Language in Government

Monday, March 30th, 2009. 11:44pm

Public Administration Select Committee website screenshot
The UK Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee is currently calling for people to send them examples of the Government’s poor use of language.

I have submitted the following:

  1. The HMRC’s description of their online forms for self assessment taxation as software.

    I feel that the use of the word “software”, while not technically inaccurate, suggests that software has to be downloaded and run on the users’ computer. This confusion is amplified by the fact that the HMRC directly compare their “software”, which is in reality an online form, with commercial software which has to be purchased and installed on the users’ computer.

    One cannot easily find out that the HMRC “software” is in fact simply an online form until after signing up for the service.

    I believe that if this was corrected then more people would fill in their self-assessment tax forms online, which ought, assuming rational systems being in place, reduce the costs of collecting tax. I have written to the HMRC many times on this point. I have never had a reply, but they have on occasion started using the term “online software” perhaps as a minor, insufficient, effort to act on the suggestion.

  2. Anti-Social Behaviour; this is too often used to refer to real crimes (such as driving scooters without helmets, licenses or insurance) as well as criminal damage. It results in such offences being unreasonably treated together with perfectly legal and normal things some consider problematic such as youths gathering outside shops on their way home from school.
  3. Specially Trained Units; non-firearms police officers who are trained in the use of the TASERs which they are soon to be issued with are described as “Specially Trained Units”, often abbreviated to STUs. This is misleading as it suggests these officers have had more training with TASER and experience of situations where force might need to be used than is the case. STUs are individual normal response police officers who have been issued a TASER and given a few hours training on its use. (more…)
  4. Laid before Parliament; this process is not what it sounds like. Having secondary legislation “laid before Parliament” does not mean it is discussed, debated and approved by both houses of Parliament. Often government ministers and departments imply that is what it does mean, and this is very misleading. In practice though there is no debate, and “laid before Parliament” doesn’t even mean published and drawn attention to on the Parliamentary website. As far as I can tell the usual procedure is for the “Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee” [A House of Lords Committee, with no Commons equivalent] to determine ” that the special attention of the House need not be drawn to [the secondary legislation] ” which is then considered approved without debate or a vote. There does not appear to be an accessible procedure for MPs to force a debate and vote. (I’ve raised this with my MP)
  5. Regional Assembly; suggests a body of elected individuals, however many members are unelected.
  6. Television Licence; “Television Licences” are required for all equipment capable of watching live TV, this now includes many computers, mobile phones and other devices so the term is now out of line with technology. (more…)
  7. Investment; the Government far too often uses the term “Investment” when in-fact what is being described is spending.

3 comments/updates on “Bad Language in Government

  1. Richard Article author

    I received the below update on the 30th of June 2009:

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Thank you for submitting your example of official language to the Public Administration Select Committee. Your submission will be circulated to Committee Members and will, I am sure, be useful to them during the course of this inquiry.

    We are writing to you now to let you know how your submission will be treated by the Committee.

    First, you may be interested to know that the Committee is to hold a meeting in public on Official Language on Thursday 9 July, at 10.00am in Portcullis House, House of Commons. You are welcome to attend to watch and listen; the meeting will also be broadcast live on the internet at . During this public hearing, the Members of the Committee will hold a discussion with four witnesses: the language expert Professor David Crystal, Matthew Parris of The Times, Simon Hoggart of The Guardian and Marie Clair of the Plain English Campaign. Further details are available on the Committee’s website at . Unless you tell us otherwise by Tuesday 7 July, the example of official language you sent to the Committee may be referred to at this meeting.

    Secondly, we intend to treat your submission as evidence to the Committee. This means that it may be published by the Committee, both on paper and on the internet. Alternatively, the Committee may place it in the House of Commons Library where it can be inspected by Members, and in the Parliamentary Record Office where it can be inspected by the public. We will, of course, remove contact details including email addresses and telephone numbers.

    If you have any concerns about personal details included in your submission being published, please let us know and we will remove any details that could identify you. If you would prefer that your submission is not published at all, it is important that you notify us in writing, stating clearly that you wish your evidence to remain confidential.

    I hope this makes clear how the Committee intends to use the material that you have submitted to its Official Language inquiry. Thank you once again for making the effort to send in your example, for which the Committee is very grateful.

    Yours sincerely

    Lori Verwaerde
    Committee Assistant

  2. Richard Article author

    I have received the following email:

    Thank you again for your contribution to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into Official Language. The Committee’s report, Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language is due to be published next week.

    If you would like an advance copy please send me a postal address.

    Thank you once again.

    Lori Verwaerde

    Committee Assistant
    Public Administration Select Committee
    House of Commons
    Tel: 0207 219 5730

    This is astonishing.

    Reports like this ought be published electronically. Offering me a paper copy early makes no sense.

    A couple of weeks ago the report on publication of the report on Parliamentary expenses which had been leaked was delayed while it was printed.

    I don’t see why committee reports need to be printed in glossy formats.

  3. Richard Article author

    On Friday I was sent an embargoed copy of the report containing a warning saying it must not be published before 00:01 on Monday the 30th of November.

    The report is now available from the committee website:

    The embargoed report, was 28 pages long whereas the final PDF document contains 52 pages.

    The difference appears to be that the embargoed document (and at the time of writing the HMTL version of the final document), don’t include the appendices or the full oral and written evidence submitted.

    Often on the Parliament website one has to check both PDF and HTML versions of documents to see if one contains more information than the other, this is a crazy state of affairs.

    The report itself is pretty vacuous; and in my view there are no substantive conclusions or recommendations. There was nothing there which relates to my suggestions.

    The most entertaining element is a section of evidence (pages Ev6 and Ev7) in the PDF which discuss Twitter. A professor giving evidence said:

    I think that if Twittering were a part of the routine training of a politician things might improve quite considerably.

    Presumably in jest, Tony Wright MP, the committee chairman suggested replacing Prime Minister’s questions with “Twitter Time”.

    Former Home Secretary David Blunkett wrote a note to the committee saying he was “looking out some classic letters”; disappointingly he appears to have failed to deliver what he promised and never did make his substantive submission. He did however make some brief comments on the Civil Service:

    The Civil Service always use the term “delighted” for just about anything that Ministers are asked to do—which completely takes away any meaning for the word at all! I used to eliminate it from all my letters and reports. They also have wonderful phrases like “stand ready” which actually means we’re doing nothing about this unless we’re absolutely forced to do so!

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