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Government urged to use plain language

Published on 1 December 2009

A new report from the Public Administration Select Committee calls for all facets of government to say what they mean in a way you can understand. LITRG is not blameless in this respect, but it matters so much more when HMRC get it wrong.

Have you ever received a letter from a government department that you did not understand? Or telephoned HMRC only to find yourself more confused after the call than you were before? If so, you are not alone, as highlighted in a new report – Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language - from the Public Administration Select Committee (‘PASC’).

The problem

Since LITRG’s formation, we have campaigned against the overuse of jargon and generally opaque language often seen in communications from HMRC (and formerly the Inland Revenue). The PASC’s report reinforces what we have long said: that failure to give clear explanations can deter people from claiming benefits they are entitled to or mean that they mistakenly pay too much tax.

LITRG also campaigns about a further consequence: that people make errors which lead to the payment of excessive benefits or to underpaying tax. They then have to face consequences, such as being put into debt to the government and penalties.

Whether such debts are collected or penalties enforced can hinge upon what the individual ‘reasonably believed’. The assessment of what is reasonable should then depend upon what help was available and/or given to the individual together with an assessment of their capacity to understand those communications.

Unfortunately, we continue to see examples of government publications, both printed and online, which are badly expressed. They offer poor explanations and fail to take account of the abilities of their audience. Also, our “mystery shopping” has shown that helpline advisers can mislead or confuse.

LITRG’s experience is confirmed by the data kept by the charity TaxHelp for Older People. As well as uncovering errors in pensioners’ tax, they often find that all the individual needs is help to decipher a letter from HMRC or to clarify what they were told on a call to HMRC’s helpline.

The report’s recommendations

The report rightly concludes that government’s purpose is to serve the people, therefore it ‘should be required to communicate with people in a straightforward way, using language that people understand’. It indicates that the barriers put up by confusing language should be broken down by:

  • Using of satire to mock misuse of language
  • Exposing and condemning language which distorts or disguises meaning
  • Highlighting and learning from examples of good use of language
    Holding government bodies to account for use of inaccurate, confusing or misleading official language by regarding it as maladministration
  • Encouraging people to complain about cases of bad official language and for such complaints to be taken seriously, allowing people to take their complaint to the relevant Ombudsman if necessary
  • Making the law itself clearer and simpler, whilst making sure that its meaning is not compromised
  • Providing explanatory notes of the law to help the non-specialist reader.

Action from HMRC?

This report is directed at government in general, but HMRC is highlighted as a department which has particular responsibility to the public in terms of claiming their entitlements and paying the ‘right’ tax. We hope that this report, together with ‘Your Charter’, will inspire change in the way HMRC approaches communications with the public.

In the Charter, HMRC promises to ‘Help and support you to get things right’, which is expanded to say that they will:

  • provide information that helps you understand what you have to do and when you have to do it’; and
  • provide information that clearly explains the taxes, duties, exemptions, allowances, reliefs and tax credits that we are responsible for’.

Where promise is not fulfilled, the report highlights that people should complain. Of course, LITRG will continue to point out to HMRC where poor explanations are given and seek to work with them to make improvements.

Useful links

A word of caution: see our article advising you to take careful note when telephoning HMRC.


Contact: Kelly Sizer (0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)

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