Honorable Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Chrissie Maher for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.
Over 30 years ago, recognising that many of the poorest people in society were being deprived of benefits and services because of overly complex public and legal documents, a small group of activists led by Chrissie Maher founded the pressure group, the Plain English Campaign.
The campaign was launched in Parliament Square in July 1979 with Chrissie orchestrating a public shredding of jargon-filled official forms in front of the world’s media. Today, Chrissie manages the entirely independent Plain English Campaign with over 40 full-time staff and 12,000 members world-wide, providing help to those mystified by the bureaucratic language, small print and legalese of official information. Funding for the campaign comes from commercial activities such as editing and training. Plain language is promoted through hosting international conferences, funding research projects and the presentation of awards - its Crystal Mark, widely recognised as a guarantee that a document is written in plain English, now appears on more than 20,000 documents worldwide. The worst examples of official jargon receive the "Golden Bull" Award.
Chrissie was born in 1938 to Frederick and Maureen Lewington and was brought up in a crumbling and overcrowded Victorian terraced house in Tuebrook in inner-city Liverpool. Her father died when she was young, leaving her struggling mother to raise 6 children. Money was scarce and the conditions quite Dickensian: Chrissie remembers
- The regular visits to the pawn broker
- Wearing only hand-me-down clothes
- Sacking instead of carpets on the floor
- No heating in the winter
- Feeling perpetually hungry
- Bread and dripping for Sunday lunch and
- No presents at Christmas
Chrissie didn’t attend school very often and left virtually illiterate and with no qualifications. Fortunately her first boss noticed her potential and paid for her to attend night school where she flourished. In 1959, she married George Maher, thereby achieving a domestic stability previously denied to her.
Chrissie Maher’s experience of exclusion inclined her to community work where she soon realised that many Liverpudlians were effectively disenfranchised through their inability to understand jargon-filled benefit forms.
In 1971, she launched the Tuebrook Bugle, Britain's first community newspaper, written by local people for local people. It was both popular and empowering: Chrissie recalls “Suddenly trees got planted, drains got cleaned, and councillors were called to account for their actions.”
In 1974, she launched Impact Foundation, a community printshop where she established The Liverpool News, Britain's first newspaper for adults with learning difficulties. The same year, she joined by invitation the National Consumer Council, and also established the Salford Form Market, where people could gain advice about benefits and how to complete the needlessly complicated forms. It is at this time that Chrissie helped rewrite a series of forms in plain English for the Supplementary Benefit Commission, her first experience of this kind of work.
Her zeal for campaigning intensified with the death of two elderly ladies in a bitterly cold winter in the 1970s because they couldn’t understand a government claim form for a heating allowance. Shortly afterwards came the Plain English Campaign.
- Within 10 years, the PEC was being consulted by the majority of major organisations in the country.
- In 1990 the Crystal Mark was launched and the first plain English international conference took place in Cambridge.
- In 1993, perhaps the most well-known Golden Bull Award went to the NHS for a 229 word definition of a bed.
- Following lobbying from the PEC, the European Union declared that any term in a consumer contract can only be enforced if it is written in 'plain and intelligible language'. A welcome development from an organisation given to describing gums as 'mucous membranes of the oral cavity'; and pigs as 'grain-consuming units'.
- The PEC helped draft a plain English version of the Human Rights Commission Bill, demonstrating that legalese is unnecessary.
Closer to home in 2001, Chrissie criticized Liverpool City Council for renaming Roadsweepers as Street Scene Operatives.
Possibly the campaign's finest hour came as the Lord Chancellor's reforms of the legal system banished Latin and legal jargon from England's civil courts. And The Law Society added a new clause to its code of conduct, promising that solicitors will make 'every effort to explain things clearly, and in terms you can understand, keeping jargon to a minimum'.
Currently Chrissie is campaigning for jargon-free Budget reports to enable the public to gain greater clarity about their financial future.
Her work has brought her many awards:
- In 1985 she was awarded the Rosemary Delbridge Memorial Trophy for her campaigning activities.
- She was awarded an OBE in 1994 for a her lifetime of campaigning on plain English
- She has an honorary MA from the University of Manchester and an honorary doctorate from the Open University.
- In 2000 Chrissie, along with disability rights campaigner Lord Alfred Morris of Manchester and World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee were named 'Information Pioneers of the Century' by the UK's National Information Forum.
Tom McArthur, editor of the Oxford Companion to the English Language has stated that "in all the history of the language, there has never been such a powerful grass-roots movement to influence it as the Plain English Campaign, and Chrissie is the one who got it going."
Chrissie Maher’s career is the story of a determined and principled individual not being weighed down by the abject poverty of her early life but actually being inspired by those circumstances to campaign for a better life for others. Her campaign to empower ordinary people shows how taking a personal stand can set off a 'ripple effect' locally, and how this ripple effect can gather enough strength to have impact at national and international level.
Chrissie remains proud of her roots, commenting recently that “The campaign has gone all over the world and it’s all come from Liverpool, it was Scousers who started this.”
It is with great pleasure that I present Chrissie Maher, this most distinguished person and daughter of our city for the award of our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.
Professor Frank Sanderson
14 July 2010