HC Deb 18 March 1948 vol 448 cc2431-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Joseph Henderson.)

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I want to speak for about ten minutes on Government English, by which I mean the language used by Ministers and civil servants. Let me say that I am just as appreciative of civil servants as the Minister of Labour was in the last few words of his speech in the previous Debate. I am not going to talk of the language of Acts of Parliament. That is a different matter.

The first object of a Government statement is, or should be, to convey its meaning readily. Apparently some Government Departments have been rather uneasy about their powers of expression, for in 1942 the Ministry of Home Security, and last year the Ministry of Labour, issued a booklet or circular designed, they said, to secure clearer thinking, clearer expression, and a sharper impact upon the mind of the reader. I understand also that a comprehensive book on this subject, to be called "Plain Words," written by a distinguished civil servant, Sir Ernest Gowers, is shortly to appear, for the guidance of all Departments, including the Fighting Forces and the socialised industries. I am very glad to hear that.

I think that what may have aroused Government uneasiness is that a year ago, when the popular edition of the White Paper on the Economic Situation of 1947 appeared under the title "Battle for Output," the institution called Mass Observation made a detailed inquiry into how far the public understood this document. The result of that inquiry was disturbing. Mass Observation found that a very large number of the words and sentences were not understood. The conclusion of the investigators was that the White Paper was incapable of influencing most of the population to any significant degree. A wide gulf was revealed between the language of our leaders and the language of the general public. And this was the popular edition! That is equally true of many other Government pronouncements. It is not too much to say that their obscurity partly accounts for the disrepute into which some departmental activities have fallen. If departmental announcements are not understood, can the public be blamed if they mistrust the department?

An official statement should be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, lucid, and certain rules for achieving these qualities are generally accepted. The first is that the writer ought to prefer the simple word to the far-fetched. A Government department is more likely to be understood if, instead of saying "implement," it says "carry out" or "fulfil." Again, why must it talk of "ablution facilities" when it means "wash basins?" Why does it talk of "proceeding" when it means "going," and why are people asked to "donate" instead of to "give?" My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) would have been better understood by the public if, a short time ago, he had said "one-sided" instead of "unilateral." Is it necessary for a Ministry to say "unfavourable weather conditions" when they mean "bad weather?" When a Minister refers to "sabotage" would he not consider saying "wreck" or "damage" or "destroy" instead? When there is to be "re-habilitation" or "re-conditioning" might it not be much better if the thing were "repaired" or "restored?" For "evacuate" why not use "rescue," "empty," or "clear;" and would not a Government letter which said that "his garment suffered minor damage but is capable of re-conditioning," have done better to say that "his trousers are torn?"

The second rule is that the writer should prefer the concrete to the abstract. It is not much good telling a miner, as he was told in a White Paper last year, to "make a constructive and flexible approach to the problem of production." The Ministry of Food tell us that "the fats position will be relieved" when all they mean is that more fats will be available. The Ministry of Health, in referring to the war, say that "the cessation of house-building operated over five years," but "operated" is a singularly inappropriate word; why not say "no houses were built for five years"? The Ministry of Fuel and Power warn us that "the coal stocks position is extremely serious"; they mean, no doubt, that "coal stocks are dangerously low." My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, on 17th June, 1940, did not say "the position in regard to France is extremely serious"; he said "the news from France is very bad."

The third rule is to prefer the short, straight speech to circumlocution. Must everything be in short supply—cannot it be scarce? Must people always "co-operate in a co-ordinated manner"; cannot they work together? A Minister sometimes says in this House that he "is prepared to admit"; then why not admit it? When a policeman reports that a defendant "was conveyed to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition", what he means, and what he probably would say if left to himself, is that he was carried home drunk.

I am going to read a short extract from a well-known lecture by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch—"Q". 'How excellent a thing is sleep,' sighed Sancho Panza. 'It wraps a man round like a cloak.' This, says "Q," is an excellent example of how to say a thing concretely. He adds: A Government Department would have said: 'Among the beneficent qualities of sleep its capacity for withdrawing the human consciousness from the contemplation of the immediate circumstances may be perhaps accounted not the least remarkable.' "How vile," says "Q," "is the abstract noun. It wraps a man's thoughts round like cotton wool."

One common form of circumlocution in this House is what I may call the phrase of appeasement. A Minister will tell you that an operation is "one of considerable magnitude," because he thinks that is more likely to be accepted as an excuse than if he says it is a big job. Or he may say "considerable practical difficulties militate against my hon. Friend's suggestion being put into effect," because he thinks that is more placatory than "my hon. Friend's suggestion will not work." For myself, I prefer the unvarnished reply. Again we are frequently told that a matter "is under active consideration." Is it possible for a thing to be considered otherwise than actively? Does a Minister ruminate, like a cow? Actually, I am told by a civil servant that this answer really means that they have lost the file and are trying to find it.

I want to say a word about punctuation. The omission of a comma may alter the meaning of a sentence. Hyphens may be equally important, but they are much neglected in Government publications including HANSARD. No-Standing Orders are very different from no Standing Orders. A superfluous-hair remover is not at all the same as a superfluous hair-remover. A cross-section of the public is not necessarily a cross section of the public. Typists do not understand hyphens because they have never been taught them, but it would not be very difficult to master them.

I am delighted to hear that the Government are making a serious effort to improve their English, by means of this new book "Plain Words." May we have a copy of it in the Library? I hope very much that the book will contain an Index Expurgatorius—a list of words and phrases to be avoided—barbarous words, cumbrous phrases, pleonasms, genteelisms, needless variants, superfluities, pomposities. I hope the book will promote brevity and pungency. The Minister or civil servant who can state simply what he means and what he wants will be far more effective than one who employs pretentious verbosity.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

I have often wondered what the Tory party were interested in. They are not interested in getting anything done. But when we are talking about words their attendance is doubled—there are about seven of them. The first comment I would like to make is that the speech of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) was not as dull as many Tory speeches. I feel that some of the improvements he suggested were improvements, but on the whole I feel that if one followed what he suggested, and changed some of the phrases that he did not like to those which he did, ordinary speech and writing would become as barren as that Basic English which is a convenient commercial substitute for what is a beautiful language. Some of the rest of his comments really verged on the snobbishness of the educated. He referred to typists not understanding hyphens. Most of my pupils when I was a junior at the Bar could not spell, but many of them are doing useful work in the legal division of Government offices. I expect that they have since been taught to spell—I do not know.

Most of what the hon. Gentleman said amounted to this—I checked it very carefully, phrase by phrase, word by word—"why not abandon this word and use this one which I prefer—'mend' instead of 'rehabilitate'." I do not profess to have the keenest appreciation of the English language—though I have been using it for many years—but when he says "go" instead of "proceed" I have some measure of agreement with him. Yet there are times when if you said "go" you would convey some difference of meaning, whereas "proceed" would cover various forms of getting from one place to another. I would like to mention this: at the end the hon. Gentleman said something about "a serious effort to improve our expression." What he really meant was "try to talk more simply."

10.52 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

When I saw the title of the matter which the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) had decided to raise, I was completely in the dark as to what he was going to say, because although it is true that certain phrases may be beloved by certain civil servants, a special kind of English is not peculiar to them. Therefore, "Government English," in fact, does not exist, and the various illustrations which the hon. Gentleman gave tonight were illustrations of words in general use in substitution for others. Although I think that most of us would agree with him that often the shorter Saxon or early English word is much to be preferred to a long, Latinised word, nevertheless, as the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) said, sometimes a longer word does make a difference to the meaning, and conveys a meaning which the speaker desires to convey much more exactly than the simpler word.

I agree with him, however, that some words are frequently used in the wrong sense. One of the words to which he drew our attention, namely "evacuate," is one of those words. You cannot strictly "evacuate" a person. You "evacuate" a place; and yet today, almost everybody, and, I freely admit it, Government Departments, use the word "evacuate" when speaking of a person. Words such as that, I agree with him, ought not to be used, for English is a beautiful language, and those who work and speak for the Government, of whatever complexion that Government may be, should try to use English in its proper sense. Nevertheless, frequently we do get phrases and sentences which may not be strictly grammatical, but which do convey exactly what the person means. Of course, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) is a past master in using words in their proper sequence and to mean exactly what he wishes to convey. But even he at times will speak ungrammatically, and yet in no uncertain way convey what he wishes to make plain. There is on the record in Whitehall a paper with a comment of his scrawled in the margin, "This is all nonsense up with which I will not put," That might be phrased differently, but it could not be phrased more forcibly and the person who saw it could be under no misapprehension as to what the right hon. Gentleman wished to convey.

Although the hon. Gentleman said that he did not wish to discuss the wording of Acts of Parliament, nevertheless part of the trouble with which we in this House as well as civil servants are faced, is due to the phrasing hallowed, by long usage which is inserted in Bills by the Parliamentary draftsmen. It would be a very good thing if we could get away from much of the phrasing which has now become so common in Bills and Acts of Parliament, but my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith would tell us that it is often essential to use the phrases that are used by the Parliamentary draftsmen because those phrases, by long usage, have taken on a special meaning. If something simpler and more direct were used, the courts might say that, having used a different set of words from those used in previous enactments, the words might mean something different and they might be called upon to define them afresh. Therefore, the Parliamentary draftsmen are chary of experimenting with new forms when they intend to express the same meaning. They are apt to use phrases which have become time-honoured, and which people and the courts have become used to, and upon which the judges have given decisions.

Therefore when civil servants come to translate the words from an Act of Parliament on a form, or in a document, or into a statutory instrument, they are apt, and one cannot blame them, to use the phraseology of the enactment with which they are dealing. The difficulty is quite apparent, well known, and well understood in Departments by all civil servants who handle Statutory Rules and Orders. We have recently attempted to translate what I may call the "jargon" of an Act of Parliament by adding an explanatory note at the end.

Mr. Keeling

I suggested it.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The hon. Member was not the only person who had the bright idea.

Mr. Keeling

I was the first.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

Because the hon. Gentleman did not understand it himself.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

This point has been under observation for a very long time. It was felt that if Whitehall attempted to define in an explanatory note what an Act of Parliament meant, which is for the courts to do in the last resort, and if Whitehall's explanation was not the same as the interpretation the courts placed upon it, trouble might ensue. It would be grossly unfair to people who took the explanatory note and its simple meaning and acted upon it, and later found that what they followed was not the true meaning of the words as decided by the courts.

Major Haughton (Antrim)

From the point of view of the ordinary citizen, is it not the exact phraseology which the Financial Secretary is commending that leads to so much legal controversy?

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I am not sure that I follow my hon. and gallant Friend in what he said, but if I understand him aright he is saying that, although it is true that we get certain phraseology in an Act of Parliament, it is not that of which the hon. Member who opened this Debate complains. That may well be. I am trying to point out that much of the difficulty that has arisen—and I agree that we do get a lot of ambiguity in documents—springs from, and is due to, the fact that civil servants have to try to interpret Acts of Parliament to the citizens. They have to be careful, so far as they can, to apply the phraseology used by Parliamentary draftsmen in the Measure or Act with which they are dealing.

The hon. Gentleman did not refer to forms, but I would like to tell him that we have at the Treasury an Organisation and Methods Department which has—I think with some success—attempted, for a lengthening period now, to simplify the forms which go out, both to lessen their number and to make them simpler so that people can understand them. It is essential that the people should not only find that a form is easy to understand and the instructions plain to follow, but also that it is easy to fill in. We are well aware that there is this need, and we strive repeatedly to do what we can to simplify and make easy the forms which, unfortunately, are essential in the national life today. I also agree that the letters sent out by the Departments should be friendly, natural and informative, and couched as far as possible in words we can all understand.

The hon. Member referred to a book called "Plain Words." I hope that book will have a big and ready sale. I will certainly see that a copy is placed in the Library. It has been prepared, as he said, by a retired civil servant of some repute, who has written in an easy, pleasant, and even amusing way of these matters. That book has already been used, although it will not be published until next month, as a text book for courses which have taken place in the Treasury over a considerable period now. We have refresher courses for civil servants of certain grades, who come there week by week and are helped to do what I am sure the whole House, as well as the hon. Member who raised this subject, wants done—namely, to get away from clichés and from the use of long words, and to write simple, friendly letters. I always think that the letters which a Department sends out to hon. Members and to the public are the shop window of democracy, and it is the Department's job to see that the formal, printed letters are couched in simple, friendly, straightforward language, and that the letters sent to electors through hon. Members conform to the same standard.

We are doing our best to see that Whitehall does conform to the ideal which the hon. Gentleman has placed before us. Already we have done a great deal. The Civil Service is not as bad as it is painted. I assure the hon. Member that the view he expressed, which was expressed so forcibly by the Minister of Labour just before he finished his speech tonight, is correct. We have a Civil Service second to none in the world, and although it may be true that some of the letters are couched in language which may appear stilted, nevertheless, taking the thing by and large, the letters can be said to be excellent. That does not mean that they cannot be improved, and the Treasury and the Departments concerned fully realise that and are doing what they can to improve matters.

There is very little more that I can say in reply to the hon. Gentleman. He did not give me a great deal on which to bite, because many of the points which he made are points which can be made against almost any section of the community. Although it is true that the Civil Service is there to be shot at and does get shot at, I have not got it in my heart to believe that it is any worse than anyone else when we come to using long words where we could use short ones, or being too obscure when we could be plain.

Mr. Keeling

I stated a good deal about Ministers' language.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Ministers are drawn from various parties, and I did not gather from what the hon. Gentleman said that this kind of thing happened only since the General Election of 1945. As a matter of fact, if I had time I could indicate to the House that there is a considerable improvement in the phraseology of Ministers down the years. I was not alive at that time, and I did not hear the great Gladstone, but I have read some of his speeches. Few in this House would like to see that type of oratory come back. It was rotund, long-winded, and the sentences were extremely lengthy. There has been an improvement in that direction. Ministers themselves have helped to bring that improvement about, and none more than the Ministers who today sit on the Government Front Bench.

If stones are going to be thrown at Ministers for the kind of language that they use, not much complaint can be made against this Government. There are all sorts, whatever the complexion of the Government, and there is not a great deal in what the hon. Gentleman said under that heading which requires any reply from me. Finally, we are fully aware that there is a need for simplification and the use of proper words. Where letters are written they should be straightforward and simple. I can assure the House that we have that ideal in mind and are working towards that end. This Government more than any other has taken active steps towards the implementation of that ideal.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Could the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether there is any possibility of using a great many of the pithy Scottish words, which were in common use before the Union and since have fallen into disuse? Would it not be possible to enlarge the Parliamentary vocabulary by using some of these words?

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Perhaps the hon. Member will give us one or two examples of what he has in mind.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eight Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.