Scrapping non-proposals

Last week, the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced he would scrap some proposals relating to climate change. The next day, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Mr Sunak. The interviewer (Nick Robinson) said the UK government had never made the ‘proposals’ that Mr Sunak said he would now scrap. He asked why the Prime Minster was claiming to scrap proposals that, in fact, did not exist.

At first, Mr Sunak just ignored that question. After Nick Robinson repeated the question several times, Mr Sunak referred to particular reports produced by outside bodies. In response, Nick Robinson stated that even those reports contained no recommendations to do any of the things listed in the reports.

The ‘proposals’

What ‘proposals’ were they talking about? The full text of the announcement is at PM speech on Net Zero: 20 September 2023 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) Here is the first reference to the ‘proposals’.

There have even been proposals for:
– Taxes on eating meat
– New taxes on flying
-Compulsory car sharing if you drive to work-
And a government diktat to sort your rubbish into seven different bins.

Later in the speech, Mr Sunak said more on each of these points.

The debate about how we get to Net Zero has thrown up a range of worrying proposals and today I want to confirm that under this government, they’ll never happen.
The proposal for government to interfere in how many passengers you can have in your car.
I’ve scrapped it.
The proposal that we should force you to have seven different bins in your home.
I’ve scrapped it.
The proposal to make you change your diet – and harm British farmers – by taxing meat.
Or to create new taxes to discourage flying or going on holiday.
I’ve scrapped those too.
And nor will we ban new oil and gas in the North Sea which would simply leave us reliant on expensive, imported energy from foreign dictators like Putin.

A misleading impression

The speech gives a clear impression that the 4 items highlighted by Mr Sunak had, until that speech, been policies proposed by the government. Nick Robinson’s questioning indicates that this impression was misleading. Mr Sunak’s floundering response to his questions suggests Nick Robinson was right.

Did Mr Sunak give that misleading impression on purpose? Or were he and his speechwriters just being careless in using the word proposal for the 4 items listed above? I don’t know. In the rest of this post, I will focus on the possibility that they were just being sloppy and not deliberately seeking to mislead.

When to use ‘proposal’

A former colleague of mine gave me once some very good advice about how to use the noun proposal (and the related verb propose) in an organisation that creates laws, regulations or standards (in our case, accounting standards) having some kind of formal authority. She said we should use:

  • proposal (and propose) only in referring to a formal document setting out for comment a draft (an Exposure Draft) of a proposed accounting standard.
  • preliminary view (rather than proposal) in a Discussion Paper—a formal document seeking public feedback on something the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) is thinking of doing. The views the IASB expresses in a Discussion Paper are less developed, and less firmly held, than proposals it makes in an Exposure Draft.
  • decision (or tentative decision) in referring to decisions made by the IASB on the way towards a future Exposure Draft (or future Discussion Paper).
  • recommendation (and recommend) in staff papers explaining decisions the staff suggest the IASB  should make.
  • words such as request, suggest or recommend in staff papers reporting alternatives put forward in comments by other people and organisations.

Benefits of following that advice

That advice was excellent, and so I always tried to follow it. It means that whenever you use propose (or proposal), it is clear that you are talking about something that the standard-setter (in our case) or government (in Mr Sunak’s case) has published in a fully worked out draft and expects to implement if it learns nothing more from public consultation.

On the other, using other words signals:

  • a preliminary view that standard-setter (or government) has reached formally and has published for comment, and that may lead in due course to a full proposal.
  • an intermediate decision (still tentative) that may ultimately be reflected in a published preliminary view or in a published proposal.
  • a suggestion made by someone else—either an outside party or the staff of the standard-setter (or government).

If Mr Sunak’s speechwriters did not want to mislead, they should have chosen his words more carefully, for example by following the above advice.

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