How to slag off your old boss, in plain English

Chrissie Maher has spent her life fighting jargon. Now a tribunal has found for two employees who felt the rough side of her tongue. Kim Sengupta reports

It Was not something Chrissie Maher would have cared to be in the headlines for, but the accusation and the language in which it was put were plain enough: she was a gossip who had driven two of her employees to resign with unfounded allegations of an affair.

Martin Nobbs and his colleague Jill Cushway had resigned from the Plain English Campaign, founded and run by Mrs Maher to counter bureaucratic gibberish, and claimed constructive dismissal. Last week they heard that they had won their industrial tribunal action.

The candid sentiments and refreshing lack of jargon in the reaction of those involved at the end of the case was just the sort of straight talking of which Mrs Maher approves. Mr Nobbs' wife Christine, an infant school teacher, spoke of the "hideous pain, anger and distress the rumour had caused her", while her husband said the final straw had been Mrs Maher's decision to prevent him and Mrs Cushway from making a plain English presentation in Scarborough, Yorkshire, as part of a roadshow they operated together.

Mrs Maher, on the other hand, maintained: "This is a miscarriage of justice, I never started any rumour. I could think of something to say in plain English, but I had better not." She said during the row over the trip Mr Nobbs "threw his briefcase on my desk and asked why the f---ing hell he and Jill were not going."

At the Campaign's headquarters in New Mills, Derbyshire, staff did not want to dwell on this little local difficulty. One said it would be a shame if the adverse publicity made people forget Mrs Maher's remarkable achievements.

She has certainly had an extraordinary life. The Plain English Campaign is now well recognised, an established concern called in by government departments and international companies to disentangle the linguistic knots and verbiage which their documents had fallen into.

And its role does not end there. The Campaign helped draft the Bill of Rights for post-apartheid South Africa, and the new constitution of Ghana. It now has offices in the US and parts of Africa; the fifth international conference of the Campaign was held last July where sessions were devoted to topics such as financial information services, policing and the law, public utilities and trade unions. Chrissie Maher, a grandmother eight times over, is now one of the great and the good.

Yet she came from a world which could hardly have been more different. Growing up poor in Liverpool she seldom went to school, and often did not have shoes. Like other bright children denied a good education, she took refuge in books. But since even the local library would not let her come in barefoot, she had to search through dustbins for discarded ones.

Escape from this debilitating poverty and frustration came in the shape of an employer who sent her to night-school. It was, for Chrissie, a time of discovery tinged with uncertainty because she had not been taught the basics of English language and literature when she was young. Seeing her first Shakespeare production, she burst into tears because the audience was laughing and she could not understand why.

But a few years later Mrs Maher had enough confidence to launch a widely praised community newspaper, the Tuebrook Bugle. Then it was time to take the message of plain, good English beyond Liverpool. In 1979 she went to Parliament Square and began shredding official documents. She was read a stern official warning, the Riot Act, by a policeman. When he had finished parroting through it Chrissie asked "Does that gobbledygook mean we have to go?"

Having fallen foul of officialdom, Mrs Maher decided to do something about it. She and a friend, Martin Cutts, started the Plain English Campaign. The then Supplementary Benefits Commission asked her to translate its forms into a style which its clients could understand more easily.

With messianic zeal she moved to other targets, and now few official bodies escape her censure. Academics "use jargon which is intended to exclude", the Inland Revenue self-assessment forms are akin to "tax terrorism", and "the Health and Safety Executive must be amongst the worst communicators on the planet".

But Mrs Maher's own communications have not always been trouble free. The industrial tribunal case brought by Mr Nobbs and Mrs Cushway is not the first time she had fallen out with colleagues. Her working relationship with Martin Cutts ended in acrimony in 1988, and he established the rival Plain English Commission the following year.

Verbal warfare broke out in 1995 when Mr Cutts' Commission began to give out prizes for clear language, something the Campaign had been doing since 1981. To rub it in he gave a booby prize, a Silver Rhubarb, to the National Westminster Bank who had been nominated approvingly by her as Crystal Clear Bank of Europe for the ease with which its literature could be understood.

An angry Mrs Maher declared: "He should be ashamed of himself. He is deliberately trying to undermine a grassroots movement. He was a student from Liverpool University when I found him."

Mrs Maher has her own booby prize, a bucket of tripe, which she likes to dish out. After the embarrassment of the industrial tribunal many of her detractors feel the only thing to do is to serve herself some.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Auditor

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: IT Auditor , Information Governance, NHS...

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform