Insurance against jargon

With the 30th Golden Bull Awards drawing near, Plain English Campaign is calling for people to nominate poorly written documents by both private and public organisations.

 Just like the changing trends in language, there have been noticeable changes in the wording of public information during the past 30 years of the campaign’s fight against jargon and gobbledygook. The early years saw an emphasis on regulatory and legal language, as reflected in past Golden Bull award winners from the insurance world. 

The growing confidence of people to refuse the unnecessary jargon and pompous language used in critical information, like policy documents, has helped improve the industry’s public communications.

Last year, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) legislated for clarity about personal bank accounts after investigations by the Competition Commission pressed almost every Northern Ireland bank into providing the public with key fact information in plain English. The campaign is now calling for this legislation to be implemented throughout the rest of the UK, and not just for personal bank accounts.

The Competition Commission’s ten-year investigation into the Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) revealed the concerns about wording and public understanding of insurance documents. The Commission recently published a draft order containing a template for PPI providers using suggestions from Plain English Campaign. They hope this will allow people to compare key policy details easily between providers, and give them a consistent and easily understandable annual statement.

In 1989, a major insurance provider achieved the very first Crystal Mark on an insurance policy document. With the coming of online insurance, the need for plain English has become an absolute necessity for people to get direct information they can understand, and a major selling point to the insurance providers. This month, another major insurance firm, Aviva, has earned the campaign’s Internet Crystal Mark with their clear and direct website aviva.co.uk.

You can also listen to a recording of the impressionist Phil Cornwell reading Aviva's top ten list of nonsensical comments by public figures (mp4, 2.7MB)

Steve Genders, head of online marketing at Aviva says, “Politicians, sportsmen and celebrities are notorious for spouting a variety of vague gobbledygook, proving that getting a direct and straight answer is as difficult today as it’s ever been. Aviva has worked closely with Plain English Campaign to meet their strict criteria for the minimum amount of corporate jargon on its website, enabling users to find information on insurance and purchase directly.”

Recent research from both the Financial Services Authority and the Financial Ombudsman Service shows that the increases in public complaints about insurance are mainly about unclear information.

Chrissie Maher OBE and founder of Plain English Campaign added, “People have a right to clarity and honesty in their public communications. Without clear information everyone is losing out – customers don’t get a fair service and companies can lose business.”

Plain English Campaign has

  • crystal-marked almost 20,000 documents in 20 years
  • edited over 30,000 documents in 30 years
  • trained almost 200 Plain English diploma holders over 20 years
  • accredited more than 150 Honesty Marks in the past 10 years.

But this is only a small blow in the fight against jargon. There is clearly a need for plain English standards to be set in place from the highest levels, to give people information that they can read, understand and act upon, within a single reading.

Examples of insurance documents winning awards

Golden Bull winners 1982

The Chief Insurance Officer at the Department of Health and Social Security for two letters, including a 143 word sentence

'From and including 26.2.81 an additional component is payable at the weekly rate of 5p which is the rate appropriate to 1¼% of the amount of the surpluses in the earnings factors for 3 years in the claimant's working life after reduction on account of his guaranteed minimum pension of £2.04 (the guaranteed minimum pension was originally notified to the claimant as £1.99 and has subsequently been amended to £2.04) (Social Security Pensions Act 1975 Section 6 and 29 (1) and the Social Security (Earnings Factor) Regulations reg 2 and the Schedule) and graduated retirement benefit at the weekly rate of £2.37 (£2.58 from 26.2.81) which is the amount appropriate to 67 units of graduated contributions paid or treated as paid by the claimant (National Insurance Act 1965 Section 36 and the Social Security (Graduated Retirement Benefit) (No.2) Regulations reg 3 (3) and Schedule 1).'

Manchester Co-operative Insurance Society for a life assurance policy

'Notwithstanding anything contained herein to the contrary it is declared that the tables of sums assured above are hereby amended by substituting for the respective sums appearing in the columns headed 'Sum Assured' the sum of £1000 reduced by not more than the amount of principal that would have been repaid at the number of years in force of the policy on account of a principal sum of £1000 advanced for the term of the policy at a rate of interest of fifteen per cent per annum and repayable by equal annual installments including principal and interest.'

Golden Bull winner 1985

Comet (Radiovision Services Ltd, Hull) for the Terms and Conditions of Five Star Option 5 guarantee

'At the request and cost of the Insurer, the Insured shall do and concur in doing all such acts and things as the Insurer may reasonably require with a view to obtaining compensation, following loss or damage covered by this insurance and enforce any rights the Insured may have against anyone including but not limited to, any rights the Insurer may have against the manufacturer under warranty, guarantee or otherwise in respect of any loss or damage whether or not any payment has been made by the Insurer.'

Golden Bull winners 1987

Automobile Association Insurance Services Limited for the Supersure Certificate

'Whereas a written application and declaration has been made and accepted such application and declaration shall, the fee having been paid, form the basis of the Contract and we the undersigned accordingly confirm that under the terms of a master policy issues by certain BIA insurance Companies and a separate master policy issues by certain Underwriters at Lloyd's, such Companies and Underwriters being Underwriters of the Contract (together "the insurers"), in each case to Automobile Association Insurance Services Limited on behalf of and for the exclusive benefit of members of the Automobile Association, the Owner shall be indemnified against loss occurring during the Period of Cover in accordance with the terms of the said master policies a summary of which is contained herein for Mechanical or Electrical Breakdown arising in connection with the Vehicle Covered without recourse to contribution from the Owner except where specifically stated.'

Golden Bull winner 1989

Frizzell Insurance & Financial Services for a Home and Leisure insurance document

'Any item which covers articles not separately specified is subject to the following special conditions of average, that is to say, if the value of all articles covered by such item shall at the time of any loss be greater than the value insured hereby in respect thereof, the Insured shall be entitled to recover hereunder only such proportion of the said loss or damage as the sum insured in respect of such item bears to the total'

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