Orwellian comparisons are always popular in political debate, but whilst surveillance cameras, biometric ID cards and politically correct "thought-crime" laws are certainly of some concern, it is in the field of language that Winston Smith would find the Britain of 2007 most recognisable. Newspeak is undoubtedly the policy area of IngSoc that is most developed.
The excellent Plain English Campaign has for years been emphasising the importance of clear use of language. It’s perfectly simple – explaining things clearly is the best way to get ideas across. Confusing jargon and mangled English lead to misunderstandings, which waste money and make services inaccessible. As a tactic for deceit and obscuring the truth, it undermines accountability and restricts public scrutiny of politicians and the public sector.
My colleague Mike Denham reported recently on an unmanned police station which, residents have been told, will be closed unless they pretend it is manned and open:
Cricklade residents (aka the customers) are angry because their local police station is closed- ie if you go there you find nobody manning the front desk, and even if you shout, nobody comes. But rather than putting it right, North Wiltshire’s top cop advises them to pretend the station’s functioning properly as it is. Otherwise, he says, it will be perceived the residents perceive it’s closed, and it will be closed. Even though in real world terms, it’s closed already.
Confusing, isn’t it?
Sadly, this example is far from unique. The case of Cricklade police station is apparently one of a police force talking nonsense in order to wriggle off the hook and obscure the issue. Plenty of other agencies similarly use the practice for deceit, whilst others just don’t seem to engage their brain before opening their mouth or tapping the keyboard.
For example, a TPA researcher has just received another classic gobbet of gibberish, this time by email from Welwyn Hatfield Council, whose Customer Services Advisor’s email sign-off describes the Council as providing
access to your services and information 24 hours day, 7 days a week.
It then goes on to explain that
The Contact Centre and Offices are open
Monday to Thursday from 8.45am to 5.15pm
and Fridays 8.45am to 4.45pm
That’s right – in Welwyn, "24 hours a day, 7 days a week" actually means "eight and a half or sometimes eight hours a day, five days a week". That might well be a perfectly adequate service for people, but why is it necessary to describe it as something it simply isn’t?
The EU is another arena in which Newspeak reigns supreme. Famously, after the French voted "Non" to the EU Constitution, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister who was EU President at the time, announced
"The French and Dutch did not really vote ‘No’ to the European constitution"
Except of course that they, erm, did. Immediately after the referenda went the "wrong" way, the EU establishment set about preparing the ground for forcing the constitution on the people irrespective of their wishes. It is testament to the power of language that their first step was a barefaced attempt to redefine the result as one that was actually favourable to the Constitution.
This deceit not only wastes money and confuses people, it conceals a multitude of sins. By not only denying failures but actually redefining them as successes, disgraceful disasters are allowed to continue, and popular opinion is ignored or manipulated.
The EU Constitution rumbles on despite its outright rejection at the ballot box by two founder nations of the EU, Cricklade’s residents have to pretend to talk to police officers who aren’t there whilst continuing to live without adequate police cover, children and pensioners live in fear of "care" as a word which is actually synonymous with "abuse", Welwyn residents get 24/7 information from a 8.5/5 service and confusion reigns supreme. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.
The mangling of the English language hobbles our democracy, obscures scrutiny, wastes money and cheats the needy of access to services. We cannot win purely by getting the sums right and the numbers to add up, we will also have to win a cultural victory by demanding clarity from the people who spend our money and run our government.
Yesterday our battered beleaguered rulers bunged £3.9bn more taxpayers’ money into yet another pensions black hole.
Now, all of us sympathise with the 130,000 people who lost all or part of their pensions when their companies went bust up to 2003. And all of us can see that they were grossly misled by that stream of official assurances that their final salary pensions were safe (see here for Mail’s campaign).
But as taxpayers, we need to be quite clear about one thing: once again we’re being forced to pay for clearing up a pensions mess largely created by our rulers.
If the government had not issued all those incorrect and misleading assurances that final salary pensions were safe, these pension members and their trade unions would have had no basis for their legal case.
More fundamentally, if successive governments had squared up to the truth about final salary schemes, they’d have established an insurance scheme long before 2004.
The whole pensions universe abounds with hugely expensive black holes. And as we’ve blogged many times, successive governments are in denial about the looming crisis (eg see this blog). Despite a string of weighty reports (eg the Turner Commission- see this blog), they are still not gripping the real issues. Which are:
As we’ve said many times, the combination of spineless politicos and our chequebook is not a happy one. And unless you want to spend your old age living on Value Buy pizza, some people suggest you move your savings offshore and don’t plan on retirement until 75. At which point you should emigrate.
PS The splendidly opulent pension arrangements enjoyed by the boys and girls in blue are once again highlighted by the case of Ian Johnston , who leads the British Transport Police (BTP) and is a national police spokesman on organised crime. It turns out he is the highest-paid officer in the country with an estimated pay-and-pension package of £260,000 a year. The reason? He retired from the Met at age 55 on his full £70 grand pension, and then promptly got himself a new job with the BTP on £195 grand pa. Plus of course, the usual generous police expenses (£6,964.40 last year). If only everyone had such a cushy pension deal.
Christmas is a time of giving, but few families appreciate how much they are being forced to give to the taxman. Virtually all Christmas purchases, from iPhones to crackers, are subject to VAT, and granny’s sherry attracts excise duty on top, not forgetting the fuel tax levied on journeys to see family and friends. New calculations by the TaxPayers’ Alliance reveal the startling size of the family Christmas tax bill:
This Christmas, British families will pay an average £225 tax on their festive spending, equal to 600 Tesco Finest mince pies as well as 15 bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry.
The total Christmas tax bill will come to £5.65 billion, more than enough for the Treasury to buy every single turkey in the EU.
The bureaucratic procedure attached to the simple act of clearing up a broken lightbulb is more important than it might seem. It is important because it demonstrates just how unwieldy the procedures are becoming in too much of the public sector for even the most basic of task. All this, as the Times is quite right to note, means far less time to do the vitally important real work they are supposed to be doing:
"So how many government ministers does it take to unmask the identity of a lavish donor, or to rescue Northern Rock, or sign an EU treaty at the same time as other EU leaders, or to ensure discs containing confidential details of millions of Britons don’t get lost? Answer: Are you crazy? Do you imagine that MPs have time for all that when so many lightbulbs need changing?"
Not content with spending thousands of pounds a month on publicity and hiring a new PR exec on a bumper salary, Stoke-On-Trent City Council have outdone themselves again by blowing almost three quarters of a million on refurbishing their offices.
The Sentinel reports that many have questioned whether £729,000 of taxpayers’ money should have been spent on revamping the civic centre with new carpets, furniture, lighting, pictures, cabling and partitions, particularly in view of recent redundancies and other cut-backs, including a £500,000 cut in the funding the council gives to museums and libraries.
A substantial £475,000 of the money will come from local quango, Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership. According to the newspaper this is an umbrella organisation that encompasses the city council, Renew North Staffordshire and the North Staffordshire Regeneration Zone, who presumably couldn’t communicate with one another without it…
Worst of all, many have said that the civic centre does not need refurbishing at all, and mountains of perfectly good furniture have been disposed of and replaced at the expense of the taxpayer.
The redundancies of over 250 staff in 2006/7 resulted in a £4.5million pay out from the council who hope that this will produce net savings of over £41million over the next five years, so why can’t this belt-tightening extend to all areas of council spending?
Aside from being counter-productive, this indulgent move gives out the wrong messages to both council staff and residents of Stoke who would surely rather see this money go towards services or a tax cut? Cutting back in order to fritter any money saved on things like this, that are of no tangible benefit to the taxpayer, only serves to make the public wary of cutbacks. From the outside it looks like they are ridding themselves of bureaucrats, only to make the ones that stay more comfortable.
Stoke Council really should be commended for attempting to make big savings by letting unnecessary workers go, but they should be looking to pass on these saving to the taxpayer rather than channelling thousands into spin and refurbishments.
Cutbacks and savings could be the positive publicity that the council needs, but when accompanied by frivolous spending like this when services aren’t improving, local residents will continue to believe that they are losing out, and stumping up their tax money for less and less in return.