Why can’t Irish civil servants write plain English? Why is that? Why do they feel the need to use the language of the 1920s when writing to people who live in the 21st century and who speak an entirely different tongue?
There’s an excellent book called The Complete Plain Words, which has gone through many revisions and which was written by Ernest Gowers with the British civil service in mind. In this book, Gowers explains that the purpose of official writing is to get an idea out of one mind and into another as efficiently as possible. If a civil servant writes something to a member of the public, and fails to get the meaning across, it costs time and money. The reader doesn’t understand and must waste his valuable time inquiring what it means. The civil servant must then waste time and money writing again to explain what was originally intended. And so it goes.
As an example of its kind, the Revenue letter isn’t the worst ever. At least the author took the trouble to address the recipient as you, rather than saying things like liable persons are required to … And the letter doesn’t include useless preambles like It is important to emphasise that … . Whoever wrote this letter did the course, but unfortunately, they didn’t pay full attention. Luckily for them, since the course was probably in the Institute of Public Administration — a quasi-university set up to supply certain public-service administrators with easily-obtained degrees to enhance their mediocre Leaving Certs — there was no exam. If there had been an exam, the author of this revenue lettter would have failed miserably.
Let’s examine it. Here’s the Revenue version, followed by my suggested translation.
|I am writing to you in connection with the Local Property Tax (LPT) liability for 2014 in respect of the residential properties for which you are the liable person.
Based on the liability declared for 2013, your total LPT liability for 2014 is €450. You should select a payment option on-line by accessing your LPT Record via www.revenue.ie using the Property ID 1234567AB and PIN AB34CD56.
By using the on-line facility you have until 27 November 2013 to select and commit to your payment option. A step-by-step instruction to paying on-line is set out overleaf.
LPT paid by direct debit or deduction at source will automatically continue for 2014 and no action is necessary on your part. However, you are required to indicate a payment option for properties covered by any other payment option.
You can check all the properties for which you are the liable person through www.revenue.ie at the LPT login page using the Property ID and PIN above. This will help you to determine which properties require a payment option to beselected for 2014.You can opt to pay in full by debit/credit card or Single Debit Authority. Payment by debit/credit card will be taken from your account at the date on which you make the transaction. If availing of the Single Debit Authority option, payment will be taken from your account on 21 March 2014 unless you specify an earlier date.
You may pay your LPT on a phased basis with effect from January 2014 using the following options:
. by direct debit. Direct debit payments will start on 15 January 2014 and will continue on the 15th of each month in equal instalments throughout the year.
deduction at source from your wages, salary, occupational pension or from certain Government payments
Certain payment options may be liable to charges from the financial institution involved. However, no charges apply to the deduction at source options.
Further details about payment of LPT for 2014, including deferral and partial deferral conditions, are available on www.revenue.ie or by contacting the LPT Branch by email at LPT@revenue.ie or by telephone at 1890 200 255
|This is a reminder that your property tax for 2014 will be due soon. Based on what you owed in 2013, your total liability for 2014 is €450.
Although you must, by law, pay this tax, there are various choices available to you: cheques, cash, credit card, debit card, direct debit or deduction at source.
If you have easy access to the internet, and if you feel comfortable using websites, you can go to ours at revenue.ie. There, you can choose the way you want to pay in 2014, but you must do it by the 27th November. You’ll need your property ID and your PIN to do this, so please keep this letter safe.
Your property ID is 1234567AB and your PIN is AB34CD56.
If you paid by direct debit last year, or if the payment was deducted at source, you don’t need to do anything, unless there are other properties you owe tax on this year, in which case we need to know how you intend to pay for them. Go to the website and select the properties you own. For each one, tell us how you plan to pay the tax.
There’s a step-by-step set of instructions on the other side of this page to walk you through the process.
If you want to pay in full, using a credit card, a debit card or a direct debit, that’s fine. We’ll take the money when you tell us to, provided it’s on the date you owe it or before. If you decide to use a single debit from your bank account, we’ll take the money on the 21st March 2014, unless you tell us we can take it sooner.
If you choose to pay by direct debit, we’ll take the money each month on the 15th, starting in January.<br>
Your bank might charge you for direct debits but you won’t have to pay for deduction at source.
If you don’t feel comfortable using the internet, we’ve set up a special helpline. We also have offices throughout the country where you can pay over the counter.
How hard would it be to write plain language all the time? Why couldn’t public servants communicate with people in a way that a sensible person can understand, instead of taking refuge in nonsense?
Of course, this isn’t a malaise that afflicts only civil servants. Employees of banks, insurance companies and all other sorts of other bureaucracies behave in a similar manner. Our parliamentary draughtsmen are equally culpable, writing clumsy legislation that benefits only the hair-splittters who are paid to argue about their meaning. In other European countries, they now have laws about these things, requiring official communications and laws to be written in plain language, as they should be, but as always, Ireland lags behind. I suspect this is because Irish administrators prefer to use language as a weapon rather than a means of communication.
It’s about time we moved on from that sort of attitude.