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Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy
Published: 26 Jan 2015

3 Reducing jargon and making parliamentary language more accessible

The jargon used in Parliament can make it harder for people to understand and engage with its activities and processes. These processes need to have names to help users to refer to them, but parliamentary language can be intimidating.[1] One group gave examples of jargon that people outside Parliament are unlikely to understand:

“The average person has no idea of the difference in significance between an adjournment debate, a back bench committee debate and a ten minute rule bill.”[2]
Parliamentary language by Alex Mitchel (

Making parliamentary language more accessible will be central to opening up Parliament. Digital tools such as jargon busters could help people to understand complex parliamentary language. However, a more fundamental approach would be to make parliamentary language simpler.[3]

One group also suggested that there should be greater use of British Sign Language translations and subtitles, for example against parliamentary debates, to help the hard of hearing to engage with Parliament.[4]

4. The House of Commons should take action, during the 2015-16 session, to make parliamentary language and communications easier to understand. This should include:

  • simplifying and clarifying parliamentary language, including procedural terms;
  • developing digital tools such as jargon busters to help readers understand parliamentary language and processes, including the law-making process;
  • clarifying and simplifying online and printed communications; and
  • the wider use of aids for people with disabilities and sensory impairments such as British Sign Language translations and subtitles for video material to help the hard of hearing to engage with Parliament.

3.1 Language and law-making

The language used in draft laws, or bills, and the law-making process can be particularly complex, and this is a barrier to understanding.[5] Laws and the law-making process should be as accessible as possible, because we should all be able to understand how laws affect us.[6]

We welcome the work that the Cabinet Office is doing, through its Good Law project, to improve the quality of laws. It has been working to reduce unnecessary complexity in the way laws are drafted and to present Acts of Parliament in more accessible ways online.

Even MPs, with their close involvement with the law-making process, said they found it challenging at times to make sense of the legalistic language in draft laws and amendments.[7] When they consider draft laws in detail, they suggest ways that the law could be amended to make it better, and these proposed amendments are also written in complex language. Full Fact said that a plain language description of what each amendment does should be published alongside the amendments to help the public understand what MPs are voting on.[8] This is already done for some amendments but is not compulsory and we hope to see it quickly become the norm.[9]

A more radical approach would be to change the way that amendments are written and debated. They could be written in plain English, and this would enable MPs to focus on the effect of the amendment rather than on technical drafting. Amendments could be voted on in the usual way, with technical drafting then being provided by legal experts.[10] We are attracted by this suggestion but we also recognise that it would be a radical departure from the current system. Careful consideration and piloting would be required before it could be taken forward.

5. The House of Commons should pilot a new procedure for amending Bills so that amendments can be written, debated and voted on in plain English.

Even with improved drafting, laws can only be simplified so far, so digital tools to help readers make sense of complex language in Bills and other legislative documents would be of significant value to law-makers and citizens. We received many suggestions for ways that digital tools could help to simplify legal language. A popular proposal was for plain English annotations or jargon-busters to help people understand Bills.[11] A more interactive idea was that citizens should be able to tag, highlight and discuss aspects of legislation.[12]

Developing digital tools to keep tabs on changes to the law and cut through the complexity of legal language would be easier if the software used to draft bills and amendments was geared up to support this kind of task. There is currently a project under way to introduce a more joined-up, digital-first drafting system, which we strongly support.

6. Parliament, working with the Government and other stakeholders, should introduce, by the end of 2016, a new set of online tools for drafting, amending and publishing legislation which are easier to use and provide open data about bills and amendments.

[1]Chesterfield roundtable 30 June 2014; Marketing roundtable 2 July 2014

[2]Edinburgh roundtable 16 June 2014

[3]Marketing roundtable 2 July 2014; Stockport roundtable 11 August 2014; Gov Camp Cymru 26 September 2014, Brighton roundtable 17 September 2014

[4]NIACE London roundtable 10 September 2014

[5]Digi006 [Elliot Hughes]; Digi002 [Nottingham university student union]; Lyndsay Hope on web forum, 18 March 2014; John Flood on web forum, 21 March 2014; Terence Eden on web forum, 20 March 2014;Digi017 William Perrin; student forum on making laws

[6]Digi005 [Paul Robinson];Digi008 Jordan Milton;Digi002 [NUS Notts]; Nick Booth, on web forum, 7 March 2014; Shane McCracken on web forum 19 March 2014; Terence Eden on web forum, 20 March 2014; Sailesh Patel on web forum 30 March 20 14 ; John Sheridan (National Archive), oral evidence to the Commission on 18 March 2014;Digi003 [Involve]; Digi019 [Argyro Karanasiou, Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management, Bournemouth University]

[7]MPs’ roundtable 15 July 2014

[8]Digi035 [Full Fact]

[9]House of Commons Procedure Committee, Explanatory statements on amendments, 6 February 2013

[10]Oral evidence to the Commission on legislation, 18 March 2014.

[11]Digi008 Jordan Milton; Digi006 [Elliot Hughes]; Sailesh Patel on web forum 30 March 14; Nick Booth, on web forum, 7 March 2014; Digi019 [Argyro Karanasiou, Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management, Bournemouth University]; Digi016 [Mark D. Ryan and Gurchetan S. Grewal]; Digi017 William Perrin

[12]Digi086 [Cristian Vaccari, New Political Communication Unit, Royal Holloway, University of London]