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. 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.”
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.
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. The House of Commons should take action, during the 2015-16 session, to make parliamentary language and communications easier to understand. This should include:
The language used in draft laws, or bills, and the law-making process can be particularly complex, and this is a barrier to understanding. Laws and the law-making process should be as accessible as possible, because we should all be able to understand how laws affect us.
We welcome the work that the Cabinet Office is doing, through its 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. 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. This is already done for some amendments but is not compulsory and we hope to see it quickly become the norm.
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. 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. A more interactive idea was that citizens should be able to tag, highlight and discuss aspects of legislation.
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.
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