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FEATURES - GIVING WAFFLE THE BIRD

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I love listening to John Prescott. Words in a Prescott speech are like barrels tumbling over Niagara Falls. They ar...
I love listening to John Prescott. Words in a Prescott speech are like barrels tumbling over Niagara Falls. They are swept along torrentially. You never know how they came to get into the river and you certainly don't know in what shape they will eventually emerge from the rapids but there is a fascinating, awesome splendour in the sheer energy of the flow.

In Mr Prescott's mouth, words change meaning. In the debate on regional government, he said that people in the English regions would be given the opportunity to have similar opportunities to those in Scotland and Wales. The word similar, as we now learn, actually means different unless somewhere along the line I have overlooked the proposals to give the English regions tax-raising powers and control of health, education and local government. But at least with Mr Prescott you know what he thinks he said. He is, to change the metaphor, like a great Green Goddess - lacking practically all modern technology but somehow he arrives panting at his destination.

Brian Bender, in contrast, is fully-equipped, high-tech, all mod cons machine-taxed, MoT and on the road. The permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the very model of the modern civil servant, half courtier, half business executive. He was put into the newly created Defra from the Cabinet Office to modernise that old dinosaur the Ministry of Agriculture and turn it into the temple on earth of sustainable development - a real Green Goddess if you like.

If Mr Prescott's language is a tumbling torrent always threatening to burst its banks, Mr Bender's flow is cultured, controlled, navigable. The only trouble is that, whereas I can understand what Mr Prescott is saying (if not, invariably, the way it is said), I very often find Mr Bender incomprehensible. And that is because his language is littered with the submerged rocks of New Labour management-speak.

I have in the past groaned inwardly (and occasionally outwardly) at the dreary language of the 'roll-out' of government programmes across the country as if the UK were some ill-prepared cricket pitch subject to unpredictable bounce. But now Mr Bender has introduced me to two more Defra specialities: the 'decision tree' and the even environmentally-friendly 'bird table discussion'. The bird table discussion, Mr Bender assured me, is an expression imported from the military. It meant gathering the team together not around the conventional table, but standing, buffet-style, for a quick beat around the subject matter. This, apparently, is brisker, more efficient, more democratic.

I was not familiar with this military technique. My son served for years on one of Her Majesty's nuclear submarines and he reports that as far as he can remember a bird table did not form part of the standard kit.

There again, I suppose a submarine

is probably not the first place to look for one and presumably the only way a decision tree could be spotted was through a periscope.

But the government is clearly smitten. It is probably only a matter of time before the Audit Commission recommends that bird tables be installed in council chambers up and down the land for meetings of the Cabinet. Indeed, councillors relegated to the scrutiny role could be let in afterwards to see if any crumbs really had fallen to the ground. It would be clearly sensible for bird tables to be installed underneath the decision trees to maximise productivity.

Perhaps I am being unfair. If the people concerned know what the shorthand stands for why should I allow it to irritate me - and probably display my own lack of imagination? The reason is that government is conducted in the people's name and by their authority. It is, therefore, reasonable to ask that government communicate with the people it is elected to serve in language which facilitates, not obfuscates, accountability. Mr Prescott's torrent may be unruly but give me that any day over the insidious whirlpools of modernisation-speak.

David Curry

Conservative MP for Skipton & Ripon

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