Monday, 19 December 2011

A World Without Jam...and packaging

I am heartened to read today that at last supermarkets must within a year cut down on the amount of packaging they use or else laws will be brought in to ensure they do. Apparently, a former environment minister has even made the drastic suggestion that the public should dump packaging at supermarkets – whether stores want it back or not!

Well minister, you are not the first to come up with this ‘drastic’ action. Back in 2006, when the WI's campaign to reduce packaging began in earnest, this was one of the actions members were urged to take. But we used the word return, not dump. Some members did return their packaging and may still do. I understand this practice is a matter of course in Germany. And what about refunds on glass bottles like we used to have in this country? It is done in Germany, along with plastic bottles too.

In 2006 we called for cucumbers not to be wrapped in plastic and for the sale of single fruits and vegetables, rather than the ubiquitous set of four in a double, and sometimes triple, wrapping on a plastic tray.

I remember taking with me into the Radio 4 studio a pack of four parsnips to illustrate to Jennie Murrie on Woman's Hour exactly what the WI meant by over packaging. Right on cue a liquid oozed from the pack on to the presenter's desk!

The WI has been on the packaging case for years and I do believe we have made great inroads. I am now able to buy parsnips singly, even if I need four of them. The option is at least there – in some places. Supermarkets still have a long way to go.

Another long-standing campaign has been the struggle against climate change. I represented the WI in Poznan in 2008 and Copenhagen in 2009; the latter being classed as a summit. How far did Durban talks progress? I heard a reporter comment this year that the talks have provided “a roadmap to secure a roadmap of an over arching global deal”. Yet it seems the gap between pledges, and what is actually required, remains vast, while all the time the sense of urgency remains somewhat lacking.

And therein lies the issue. How urgently do we care about the sort of world we leave to our grandchildren? I tend to think in terms of the next two decades. The WI all along has raised the issue too, of women being part of the discussion, decision making and solutions. It's worth taking another look at our award winning film ‘A World Without Jam’, because sadly the message is the same now as it was six years ago, and the 100 months to tipping point is down to around 30. How about a new year's resolution to think again as consumers, about all the rubbish we produce and where it goes and what happens to it after we put it in the right bin.

Monday, 12 December 2011

WI members make prison journeys

Prime Minister Atlee, presiding over many a gathering in the room bearing his name in the House of Lords, must raise an eyebrow at some of the discussions it hosts in the twenty first century. Possibly not on his agenda was the visiting of  by ‘wrong-doers’ - folk held at Her Majesty's pleasure in their place of incarceration.

A few days ago, the WI, in partnership with Action for Prisoners' Families, hosted the launch of the report of The Women's Institute Visiting Prisons; a publication of accounts written by WI members who volunteered to visit inmates at prisons across England and Wales. Many people receive no visits or very few visits during their time in prison and this can be due to many factors including distance from the prison to family homes, cost of journeys, restrictions that surround visits, and  lack of co-ordination between prison authorities and the families to name but a few. In some prisons, inadequate or poor provision for children of all ages when taken to visit a parent can be a barrier to frequent visits, and some visits, although planned, may never come about. Accounts have also been written by WI members who were unable to make their planned journeys because of insurmountable travel difficulties, non-response from the person requesting the visit and prisoners being moved to different jails at a moment’s notice. One visit was halted as the visitor was in transit because the prisoner was being transferred to another prison there and then.

All of these journeys were undertaken, or not, to highlight the problems, difficulties, frustrations and stresses put upon a prisonler's family in their desire and endeavours to play a major part in the offender's rehabilitation.   None of the WI visitors had previously met the people they were visiting and some were subsequently unable to visit unless they gave their age and address. All were apprehensive but all  were pleased to have taken part in this project.

My round trip of 320 miles took ten minutes short of nine hours, cost around £121 and was achieved using buses, trains and boats. I have become a seasoned traveller in recent years but even so, this trip, which had to be undertaken in one day to avoid spending more money on accommodation, was no holiday jaunt. I was blessed with sunny weather, but in the dark and cold of mid winter it might have been a different matter. The family of the man I visited live even further away than I do, so their journey would include an additional 226 miles.

It is important to remember throughout this project that at the beginning and end of every visit, including those that did not come to pass, is a person. None of the prisoners taking part had received a visitor for a long time, if at all, during their sentence; they not not projects, but human beings whom society entrusts to the criminal justice system to correct and rehabilitate in order that they may play an active and responsible role in society. Surely society should practice what it preaches; that this is such a huge job should not deter from the mechanisms that will one day make the system a good one – one that works.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Little black dresses

Could Men In Sheds - MIS - become the male equivalent of the WI, I wonder? A study coming out of Leeds Metropolitan University confirms that men coming together in sheds for conversation and to share talk and tips on hobbies, in other words interaction, has a positive effect on their well being. No longer one man in his shed but men together in sheds.

Face-to-face conversation and interaction are given elements of the WI and the sharing of knowledge of crafts, and interests and skills have added to the wellbeing of our members for 96 years so far.  And nowhere was it more in evidence than last Thursday at the NFWI's Little Black Dress sustainable fashion show at the London Fashion and Textile Museum.  The show saw 35 WI models modelling their creations designed either by themselves or another WI member.  But these were dresses with a difference.
Members chose to enter one of three categories:
• The Best New Dress, designed from scratch.
• The Best Re-made or Upcycled Dress - made using existing clothes updated, adapted or refashioned
• The Best Eco-friendly Dress - made using any material, fabric or otherwise but must be made to minimise the impact on the environment such as recycled materials, organic textiles and environmentally friendly processes.

The models were accompanied by fellow WI members and supporters, and with competition in mind, the judges were Baroness Lola Young, ambassador for the Ethical Fashion Forum and the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethical Fashion in Parliament; journalist Lucy Siegel whose work in championing ethical fashion and exposing the truth behind the high street labels has brought the issues behind ethical fashion into focus; and Marylyn Haines-Evans, NFWI Public Affairs Committee Chair.  The competition was the culmination of the current stage of the WI's Fast Fashion Campaign which aims to raise awareness of the environmental and social impact of fast fashion.  The modern high street is increasingly dominated by this type of fashion and like fast food; the fashion is low priced, mass produced and designed for instant gratification.  However, the surge in demand for cheap disposable clothing produces a range of negative impacts for people and the planet.

The NFWI has called on retailers to be more open about where and how their clothes are made, and it wants retailers to use their influence to improve the working conditions throughout their supply chain.  Every year in Britain we throw away 1.2 million tonnes of clothes but only 25% of textile waste is recycled.  Most of these clothes end up in landfill contribution to the mountain of waste that our children and our children's children will have to deal with way into the future.

Now onto the dresses – they were all wonderful!  Many harped back to the ethos of make-do-and-mend of years gone by, which is highly fashionable.  Others chose to use camellia leaves or newspaper, not to mention stinging nettles and old tights, materials from men's suits and ties, video taps and plastic food trays. Imagination ran riots but came up with designer clothes to die for. 
The whole event was a celebration of women sharing their talent and their friendship and I feel sure their well being was well and truly catered for.  And don't forget, many of the craft skills used by these talented members can be learned in the WI's own college, Denman College, in Marcham, Oxfordshire.

Friday, 2 December 2011

WI Foods are launched

"What more do you want? Jam on it?" This is a phrase I recall hearing from my Aunty Mimi when I was a small girl whenever something was not to my satisfaction! Were she here now I could tell her in response, "Well, actually, there is jam in it, on it and throughout it." And it is the WI.
Last week saw the long anticipated launch of the WI's own food brand with three flavours of jam; raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrant; five types of biscuit; ginger, shortbread, chocolate, oat and Shrewsbury; and two pickles; spicy tomato and sweet onion. Plain, self-raising, wholemeal and strong white bread flours will follow shortly in the list. Launched at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham, the stand did a very brisk trade with plenty of interest from intrigued buyers. At the moment the jams, pickles and biscuits are available on line at and in the spring they will on sale be in delicatessens, farm shops, corner and village shops and the like. Do have a look on line – there is a discount for WI members.
The jam label has been stuck to WI members for many a year so, of course, we wear it with pride. So much so that we now have what has become an annual WI Real Jam Festival at our own college in Oxford – Denman College – in the Georgian house that used to be known as Marcham Park, and was given the name of Denman after our first National Chairman; Lady Gertrude Denman.That aside, it was a natural and logical step to have WI jam on the market, which is as near to homemade as possible for a product that has to be mass produced. All of the items sport the strap line "Food is our heritage"; what more could we want? Jam on it? I'm satisfied! So much so, the WI has presented Her Majesty the Queen with a selection of jams and biscuits.
I mentioned Denman College above, well as you might know this is also the location of the WI Cookery School. I heard the actress Rachel Weisz saying on Monday that her next project was to learn to cook. The WI would be delighted to give lessons – from basic baking to cordon bleu expertise. Do give the WI a try Miss Weisz!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The many colours of the WI prism

From renewable energy one week to restored lives the next; just watch the many colours in the prism of life that is thrown into relief within the WI.

In this entry, I am returning to the issue of the proposed reform of the legal aid system. As regular readers will be aware, the reforms, if accepted, will make a drastic and wholly negative difference to the lives of those women who need access to legal help when they become victims of domestic violence.

Having expressed on our concerns to both Houses of Parliament, I was asked to contribute to a Bar Debate – “Broken Britain, broken families; what next?,” that was chaired by Mr Peter Lodder QC alongside Dr Maggie Atkinson, The Children's Commissioner; Mr Stephen Cobb QC, Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association; and Mr John Coughlan, member of the Family Law Justice Review Panel. I discussed what the WI had learned throughout its campaign, and referred to the WI’s latest report on legal aid in relation to domestic violence. The question was what would be the result of the reforms going through? The answer was simple: more deaths through domestic violence. I’m sure the audience of judges, barristers, lawyers and other interested parties were listening.

But moving on, what do you know about the WI? Indeed, what does the general public really know of the WI? Within the WI, we discuss this endlessly and during the past two weeks we have spoken particularly about perception of the WI in society. It isn’t easy to exactly explain what the WI because there are so many facets to the organisation. The WI prism shows up cookery, craft, campaigning, camaraderie, not to mention opening new vistas of learning and understanding. I could go on and on, but what I do want to say is that the WI is everything you want it to be, the WI is what you make of it and the WI has ever been here to inspire you. And it does inspire. Whether it is holding in your hand the beautiful shawl you have created, tasting the results of a dish you have made in a cookery class or seeing the face of someone whose life has changed for the better after you were part of a national or local campaign – these are all inspirational experiences – and for very nearly 100 years, this inspiration has passed from woman to woman into the hearts of communities.

The WI Inspiring Women. That's how women can change the world, and WI membership can give the journey of a lifetime to every woman.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reflections on the Community Energy tour

Plan A – but there is a plan B & C & D. This we learned in Feldheim, a village in a rural community of 150 people in 36 households who took the decision to become 100% energy self-sufficient.

All households pooled their land, forming a co-operative which in turn rented the land to the energy company. The result was a wind farm which was built on this land in 1995.

Pig farming was a feature in this village and in consequence a biogas plant was also built. It is estimated that 50 - 60 new jobs were created with these developments.

Now in 2011 the statement that there was no conflict between economy and ecology might be true but it did take some time for the whole village to accept the changes. Although harmony now reigns it would appear that this might not have been true at the beginning. And eventually the wind farm company took the precaution of purchasing from individuals all their stockpiles of coal and wood which at first was deterring them from using the new system. Waste not want not, would probably have been the focus at that time.

The carrot for this project was two-fold; rent from the land, and cheap electricity. Once this was established, people in surrounding villages, also with a view of the turbines, wanted to benefit from them. They too bought into this new renewable scheme.

The company offers either to set up a trust fund from which the community benefits or to provide cheap energy. And although not in the original plan, the local grid was finally purchased by the village in 2010. Needless to say, people are much more aware of the energy they consume. A very clear reminder of the WI's own Eco Teams – very active in 2006/7.

One of the main drivers behind this was the need to create economic development in the area. One large industry in the area, owned by the wind farm company, guarantees to use generated energy for ten years and this is the crux of the viability of the whole project. The Feldheim trial was set in motion by the Federal Government looking into how green energy investment might give a boost to the area. And this does appear to have worked.

But back to plan A – this is the wind farm producing much more energy than the village can use; what is not used is 'sold on'. Plan B – if Plan A fails – is the use of biogas. This is generated from a mix of wheat and maize and liquid fertilizer from the pigs. All produced on land within a 10 kilometre area this lessens the transport issue! The biomass is fuelled by wood chips harvested from community owned wood in the surrounding forests. Then if all else fails, Plan C kicks in – two hot water tanks will generate heat for a number of hours. And there is more – Plan D – the adjacent large hall in the factory that produces trackers for photovoltaic cells will provide warmth for four hours.

All this was proudly shown to us by the mayor of the area who then guided us down the bumpy path across the open fields to view the 45 turbines that form the wind farm. A much bleaker day than when viewing the turbines in the Black Forest but, nonetheless, a memorable experience.

Back home and time to reflect on the trip from Basel to Berlin and places in between where renewable energy is a well understood concept and individuals have been motivated into action and backed by government. The Chernobyl disaster colours the background of most conversations concerning renewables.

In the areas of Germany we visited a high proportion of energy companies are owned by communities – in fact, 90% of renewable energy in Germany is generated by communities and over 50 of renewable companies are owned by individuals and communities. Flexibility in the German grid system means it can absorb these small providers. Many farmers are accepting of renewable energy. And here, communities have ownership of solutions.

We talk in the UK of the green deal and of green investment banking but investment conditions in the UK are currently so uncertain.

In 2005 we were told that there were 100 months left before tipping point is reached in the struggle against the changing climate. With approximately 30 months to go aspirations remain totally inadequate.

The experience of this past week; looking at community renewable energy in action, has given a sense of what’s possible. Community is at the heart of the success of all the schemes, underpinned by impassioned individuals at the heart of the movement.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Renewable energy tour continues

Wednesday 9 November and I find myself in Freiburg from where a short minibus drive brings five of our group to Freiamt. This is a picturesque rural area north of Freiburg and is one of five renewable energy districts in Germany. Our guide is a passionate man whose knowledge of renewable energy, in particular of wind turbines, is second to none. On our way to view the turbines within the Black Forest we visit farmers to learn about their decisions to diversify into renewable energy.

The first farmer was forced to take steps to continue to make a living some 13 years ago when Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease decimated his herd of beef cattle and pigs. From that time the maize and grass he grew to feed the animals was then used to feed the tanks and machinery which produces biogas. Into the mix goes liquid dung, brought to the site from four nearby working farms. We were told of temperatures and quantities in metres and cubic metres and all about anaerobic fermentation. The residue is put back onto the land which we learned helps to produce sweeter grass and better milk yield. Interestingly, the grass is cut five times a year in this part of the world – fresh short grass is required for biomass; back home the cutting happens twice yearly – in the interests of native flora and fauna.

All the electricity produced goes to the grid with a payback of 17 eurocents per kilowatt. Of the heat that is produced some is piped down the hill to a school – which relies on the farm for its only heat source in all weathers. The farmer and his son make a good living and don’t seem to miss the early starts to muck out or feed the animals!

The journey continues further up the hill to a dairy farm with a herd of 50 dairy cattle. As in many cases in the UK, the price per litre is not adequate to provide a living. The shortfall is made up on several ways. In the cooling of the milk from 38 degrees to 3.4 degrees the heat is used to provide litre after litre of warm water; a heat source pump. What a good and sensible idea! A proportion of this farmland is rented and used as a base to site wind turbines. Their forestry land provides timber (sold) but the crown and branches are turned into wood chips for fuel. 100 cubic metres of wood chippings burns as the equivalent of 800 litres of oil which would cost around €6,000 a year. A cubic metre of wood chips is €20. This all equates to a saving of 1,500 litres of oil a year – that is, if they used oil. This farm also makes use of its own spring water. Both farms have solar panels and photovoltaic cells in abundance on their roofs.

We move higher into the hills to 7,000 feet, to the foot of a wind turbine. A very slight swoosh can barely be heard as the blades go round. This is an 85 metre high edifice and we stand at its base which has a diameter of 70 metres. This particular one is designed to last for between 20 and 25 years. We are invited into the heart of the beast to view the gauges and information boxes. It feels like going up into a lighthouse but as we go nowhere near the top we can't see out. This turbine is owned collectively by 142 local individuals.

A short walk now takes us to a brand new turbine. Installed just 2 weeks ago and made from 1,500 tons of concrete, standing 158 metres high with each wing weighing 10 tons. This ‘beauty’ is huge, has 193 owners from the community and stands in a clearing of the Black Forest.

Looking across the vast and beautiful landscape, two more turbines stand tall above trees decked in their beautiful autumn colours. Do they detract from the scene? Do they interfere with the view? Possibly no more than unsightly power lines or pylons. Are these streamlined monsters an engineering feat of the early 21st century? In the struggle against climate change if natural energy is not harnessed and used in great quantities will there even be a vista to be viewed?

The overwhelming desire not to use nuclear power is a driving force in this area. Will Germany become carbon neutral country? There is no doubt it is taking the first steps.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Discover Community Energy – time for an energy revolution?

This week a fact finding tour has brought me to Germany to view successful examples of community energy in action. With the UK at an energy crossroads, facing major strategic decisions about how to generate energy in a sustainable way, the Co-operative, Forum for the Future and Carbon Leapfrog have organised a Discover Community Energy tour to provide insights from the German experience which has reinvigorated communities through clean energy projects.

The first day of the 3 day mission was spent in Schonau where the towns' folk bought the grid and set up a co-operatively owned renewable energy company, currently supplying 115,000 households. This all came about when one mother, Ursula Sladek, was so moved by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that she was determined to find an alternative way to provide energy and achieve a nuclear free future.

Having its own grid meant power could be purchased from renewable sources. The town was divided, initially, with a local jam manufacturer for the scheme and a local plastics manufacturer against it. But when the Schonau Church decided to set an example and cover the roof with Photovoltaic cells the majority of the town made a contribution providing the catalyst for the whole scheme to get the go ahead. As with so many community driven schemes and projects, impassioned individuals provide the vision and driving force for success. An inspiring first day!

You can follow the tour on twitter: #communityenergy or at:

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

31 October to 4 November – a very full WI week

I attended four internal meetings, which took place at 104 New Kings Road, the NFWI head office, and Denman College, where even in early November the grounds are still idyllic and the Georgian mansion inviting. The online launch of the WI's own jams, pickles, biscuits and flour was discussed and it is anticipated that the website where you will be able to buy these products will go live in a few weeks time.

I accepted an invitation from the National Youth Agency to join them at their first National Youth Worker awards ceremony, which was held at the House of Commons. The stories of three outstanding nominees were told by three equally amazing young people who had been helped and completely inspired by them. All of the nominees were truly winners, with dedication above and beyond the call of duty marking the winners out as special. Testimonies given by these young people touched my heart and gave me hope for our future. Too much cannot be put on the good the vast majority of young people do. Unfortunately, "bad press" appears to be the norm these days – as backed up by polling from Barnardo’s that shows many people seem to be at risk of giving up on our children and young people altogether.

One scheme receiving particular attention at the ceremony was the RISE project – Respect Inspire Support Empower. Out of RISE and V24V24 (24 hours a week for 24 weeks) comes a project with St John Ambulance to teach young people first aid and immediate life saving actions. The project teaches basic first aid skills, helping young people save lives in areas where they are affected by knife and gun crime. Those who have already been trained are now teaching more young people. Such is the power of peer mentoring and mutual respect.

Later in the week I spent a few hours with youth workers and young mentors at the RISE office in Shadwell and heard of the excellent work that is going on there. I also saw the mock ups, in cardboard, of knifed arms and legs used for training purposes. They have also made short films which are well worth a watch. No doubt you will be able to see them on YouTube before long.

It was interesting to learn that on Thursday 3 November the Princess Royal hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace for young achievers. My new friends from RISE were all there, but I must have missed any newspaper articles about this event. I do hope there were some. These are inspiring stories that it is important to share.

Today I head off to the House of Lords to brief peers about the NFWI’s research on the impact of plans to reform Legal Aid. The Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill will reduce women’s access to justice, presenting obstacles for women trying to access legal aid after experiencing domestic violence. Last Monday, together with three victims of domestic violence, I spoke to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence regarding the same issues. These damaging reforms are not yet agreed; further debate will take place when the Bill passes to the Lords later this month. You can read our report, Legal Aid is a Lifeline.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Legal Aid is a Lifeline

Travelling to the southern most edge of the WI 'world' – for Cornwall Federation’s annual council meeting – and then on to Gwent Federation to celebrate its 90th birthday, brings October almost to a close. Today, the NFWI's report, Legal Aid is a Lifeline, was launched as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill returns to the Commons for its report reading. The report states that "the government must include a comprehensive definition of domestic violence in the bill…the proposed eligibility criteria for women to access legal aid in family cases fails to reflect women's experience of domestic violence". As part of the launch, I spoke at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on domestic and sexual violence. Victims of domestic violence who had access to legal aid and survived were invited to share their unique personal experiences and we hope that together with the report, these damaging reforms will not become a reality.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Women of the year

This week has been full of inspiring women! It began with the Women of the Year lunch on Monday where I was in the company of some very inspiring women, one of whom was a WI member from South Lincolnshire. This woman has done so much throughout her life, not least receiving the Battle of Britain medal! Not many women could claim to have one of those in their possession. Guests ranged from well known celebrities, such as Lulu and Ruby Wax, to journalists and child minders, chief executives of companies, lawyers, editors and chefs, fighters for justice, councillors, and choreographers and inventors – the list is almost endless! And that’s without mentioning the women who strive to bring peace into so many situations.

The winners were all documented but the words of one, Nawar El Saadawi, were particularly memorable. Nawar has been persecuted throughout her life for her views, her books have been banned, and she has received death threats. Earlier this year she was in her native Egypt when the president resigned. Nawar urged women to continue to use their brains to make a difference – because women's brains work differently from those of men. That a young man or woman should say, “Nawar, reading your book has changed my life” has to be the highest accolade.

Closer to home, I visited a federation council meeting in Cornwall where I witnessed many inspiring things within the world of the WI, which is so often the heart of a community. Many awards were given out throughout the evening to reward achievements by WIs and for attainment of members, and it is always important to remember that the WI truly inspires when it helps a member do more than she ever thought was possible; women who help others achieve this are truly inspirational and we are lucky to have plenty of them.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

500 bottles of jam on the wall

More than 500 jars of jam, a sweet tooth required of the judges, cookery demonstrations to tickle the taste buds and a trumpet fanfare to announce the pink geranium jelly as Best in Show – this was the WI Real Jam Festival back for its second year. Held in the WI's own place of learning, Denman College, the festival again showcased the colourful and timeless art of preserving luscious fruits and berries in jams and jellies. Learning to make jam is a frequent request from new WI members and the WI is happy to oblige.

The WI Cookery School is an excellent place to learn how to not only make jam but also to bake cakes and bread, cook up a feast as well as use kitchen knives properly and efficiently. Why not go to the website,, and find the perfect course for you.

Back at the Real Jam Festival Dhruv Baker and Rachel Green competed against WI members to make a jam from scratch and to use it in a dish of their choice. The proceedings were presided over by Matthew Collins (writer, teacher and intrepid TV Travel Show traveller) with wit and instruction on how to acquire the Christmas turkey at rock bottom price!

Matthew's course, at Denman College is about freeing one's inner voice through the lilting and profound words of the bard and runs from 2 – 4 November. His easy and relaxed style of teaching is sure to bring out the real you. Not to be missed. Book a place and give it a go today.

From Denman College in Oxfordshire I travel to mid Wales, then to the committee of the Federations of Wales, which will be held at Broneiron, the headquarters of the Girl Guiding movement in Wales – another successful all female organisation!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Reflections on a busy week

The Annual National Council meeting, the 54th of its kind, was a gathering of every Federation Chairman and Treasurer to discuss all things WI. One of the exciting issues raised was the fact that since the previous council meeting, 20,800 more women have become WI members and 114 new WIs have been established. Indeed, the WI has been inspiring women for 96 years now and no doubt continues to do so. The WI truly offers something for every woman. For many that can begin with new friendships and continues into learning new craft and cookery skills as well as taking part in the many campaigns instigated by members. Part of what makes the WI such a unique organisation is that it is member led at every level.

Early on Monday morning I set off to Manchester and the latest party conference, to chair another roundtable conversation with politicians and organisations with a major interest in the WI's Care not Custody campaign. This time the discussion focussed on how the idea of care is more than a wish and is now in some parts of the system and beginning to have an impact on those who come into the criminal justice system with mental health problems. We call it Keeping the Care not Custody Promise. Police, prison and several mental heath organisations attended as well as representatives from the health sector such as the NHS Confederation and Royal College of Nursing – the NHS has to be involved. So many people need to be understood, made well and diverted from a life of crime, which takes them through the revolving door of criminal justice.

We are involved in this issue because of a mandate that was formed from a resolution put forward by a WI after a suggestion from one of its members – a lady who was very familiar with mental health and the criminal justice system. I mention this because on Tuesday a day long consultation with federation representatives, known as the resolution shortlist selection meeting, took place. The resulting shortlist will be made known in a few days’ time. Watch this space.

Wednesday saw an external advisory meeting with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on what should be reported to CEDAW – The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. Sadly, discrimination against women does still readily happen and most recently the WI has been concerned that there will be huge discrimination against women who experience domestic violence if the legal aid reforms, proposed by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, become law. The WI has been privileged to hear the stories of some women who feel that without access to legal aid they would have had no choice but to stay in abusive situations that ultimately would have led to their deaths!

Again, we work on this issue by dint of mandates passed as long ago as the 1930s but also one passed in 1994.

The WI has always been there for women; it still is and it inspires.

The end of the week – for me, a year older and a family celebration.

Next week I'm off to the hills of Wales to meet with the Federations of Wales committee. Da Boh u.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Excellence in the Third Sector

We were just pipped at the post! The NFWI, working in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust, came second with a highly commended accolade in the category Charity Partnership at last night’s Third Sector Excellence Awards. I am immensely proud of this achievement and even more so of what the campaign has achieved in many areas; not least in the role it has played in helping to change the minds of so many when considering whether custody can truly work for those with mental illness.

The Health and Justice Secretaries made a promise in March of this year to put £5,000,000 into a 100 diversion schemes across the country by 2014 and we must make sure that this promise is kept, along with the other necessary changes demonstrated in the Bradley Report published in Dec 2010. This very topic was discussed around the table during the Labour Party Conference this week, with Lord Bradley commenting that it is a community issue and not a prison issue. Several MPs and professionals in the field such as the Prison Reform Trust, Prison Governors’ Association, Rethink Mental Illness, Mental Health NHS Conference, Centre for Mental Health, Prison Officers' Association and Turning Point certainly agreed, adding that the Health and Wellbeing Boards would play a critical role in any diversion scheme. A diverse range of organisations, some of which were present at the discussion, need to be part of any scheme to help those in need because of the complex needs of many individuals entering the system. Questions keep needing to be asked because the only way to achieve a result is to keep pestering those decision makers to always keep people in mind when making all of their complex decisions.

Whilst we’re remembering campaign asks from the past few years, the WI will not forget that the regulations for labelling meat products with their country of origin is still awaited. We now have mandatory labelling on meat – sheep, poultry, pork and goat; beef and veal are separate – within the next three years, but constituted products are not yet on the list. A briefing by Defra officials to the food industry this week gave the necessary information that will need to go on to labels, for example the size of space, the size of font and much more, and nutrition labelling issues were also explained as well as information on where and when Food Information Regulation takes over from Food Labelling Regulation. All this under the banner of ‘a regulation on the provision of food information to consumers’!

As another week comes to an end, the WI is on the move once again – this time to Bedfordshire, where the NFWI will hold its annual council meeting. The ANC, as it is known is a two-day gathering of chairmen and treasurers from all 69 federations where the policy, vision and action in the context of growing numbers of members and women wanting to become members is discussed throughout the weekend. The WI is here to inspire women and we are certainly doing that.

And thinking of women, at the awards ceremony last night I met the CEO of the Stroke Association who told me that more women than men experience strokes, and early recognition of symptoms and fast action can save a life. They are always looking for volunteer champions who will spread the word of FAST action.

Quite a week – here’s to the next!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Planning regulations rethink and Celebrity Masterchef

At the beginning of this week, the WI has called on the Government to rethink the new planning regulations they wish to impose in The Daily Telegraph. The call is to allow communities to get involved in the issue, to talk together, and to make their voices and opinions heard. There is also a concern that too few councils have published development plans, which will offer more protection from builders being given a free hand.

The WI’s involvement in the campaign stems from recent concerns voiced by WI members, as well as the mandates in place from as long ago as 1938. There are also two mandates from 1984 and 1998, looking at the regeneration of brown field sites in urban areas.
The WI has its fingers in many pies – the WI is never far away. And sometimes the pies in question are being created by celebrities for national judging as you may have seen on the latest instalment of Celebrity Masterchef.

Action for Prisoners' Families

Last week I took a journey to and from the Isle of Wight. My trip involved trains, boats and buses, but I managed to return in one day. While I was on the island I spent two hours with an inmate of Parkhurst Prison. It was the first time we had met and I was there in place of members of this man's family and friends who all live very far away on the mainland and the north of England. The cost of such a journey and the distance prohibit them visiting him on a frequent basis. As previously mentioned, my journey involved a range of public transport to reach the prison and I am used to travelling long distances – especially in my role as NFWI Chair – but many people are not as comfortable.

The visit was one of several undertaken by WI members as part of a project with Action for Prisoners’ Families. Members have volunteered to make journeys from their homes to a given prison to highlight the difficulties that can prevent prisoners from receiving visits. It is argued that visitors play a part in the rehabilitation that a prison sentence is supposed to provide, so highlighting how difficult these trips can sometimes be is an important consideration. Each participant will write a detailed account of their journey to make their visit, and all of the accounts will be compiled in a final report to be launched at the end of the year. The important thing to remember is that at the end of each journey is a person, and hopefully this report will go a long way in highlighting this very point.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Two news worthy events

On Monday I found myself at two events that were featured in the news. The first was the launch of Bowel Cancer Information; a service that provides helpful hints for spotting symptoms early, and raises awareness of a disease that kills many people. It was fronted by Lynn Faulds Wood who survived bowel cancer twenty years ago and eminent medical specialists at the launch urged the 40 leaders of the attending large organisations to pass on this message to their thousands of members. Visit their website at

The other was the launch of a report from the Make Justice Work Campaign entitled Community or Custody. The project, out of which came the report, was "considering the most effective sentences for the great number of low-level offenders who are currently filling our prisons to breaking point - and who leave prison only to offend again". The report concluded that intensive community sentences do have an important role to play in greatly reducing reoffending rates and play a major part in rehabilitation of offenders provided such schemes set necessary rigorous standards. This outcome mirrors the demand of the WI's Care not Custody campaign. A prison sentence, whether long or short, only serves as at least a holding measure in so many cases, or at worst, an intensification of the mental health and/or other problems that brought the individual into the criminal justice system in the first place.

At the launch I met a woman who was termed as a service user because of mental health issues and difficulties engendered in her childhood. Even though she worked hard and had risen to a high status in her professional life, "when it all got too much" she began to drink and this eventually this brought her to the notice of the criminal justice system. She told me "when it came to sentencing, I could have gone to prison. I was sentenced to an Intensive Alternative to Custody Order for 12 months. This meant I would be attending at least five appointments every week and that I would have some discipline to avoid returning to custody." She added that had she gone to prison, she knew she would not have coped and her entire family would have been torn apart. This is what happens to so many women who are sent to prison.

Sharing of information across agencies dealing with any one case also needs to be the norm. Last Friday I attended a seminar at Salford University at the Centre for Prison Studies where I learned that "information sharing is key to continuity of care". Concrete evidence of this has now been developed in a research project by the Offender Health Research Network and with proof of such initiatives working, surely this has to be replicated across the country. All of this, combined with the promise of that £5 million for 100 diversion schemes across the country revealed last March at the WI's Care not Custody reception by Secretary of State Andrew Lansley, surely send out a strong message to everyone involved: "please get on with it".

Monday, 12 September 2011

Queen of Craft & Care not Custody

I was interested to read Phoebe Frangoul's piece last week in The Fashion Schmooze about the launch of WI member Jazz Domino Holly's book, Queen of Craft. I first met Jazz some three years ago when she and I, with two other members and a journalist, visited HM Wandsworth Prison. This was at the beginning of what is now known as the WI's Care not Custody campaign, and we were shown around the prison and spoke with prison officers. After this, we visited The St Giles Centre; a charity which, amongst many things, sends people to meet ex-offenders at the prison gate at the time of their release. The operative words here are 'some' and ' few'.

Work on the Care not Custody campaign continues going strong with a variety of projects including WI members mentoring a few women in the Asha Centre in Worcestershire, and establishing a WI in a female prison.

Back to the Queen of Craft and Phoebe's comment that Jazz was instrumental in introducing the ‘new wave’ of WI groups found in London; in fact, the first of the new wave, which includes other major cities across the country, happened in September 2003 when the Fulham WI was formed. This month they are celebrating eight years – long may they continue! The Shoreditch Sisters WI emerged in September 2007 and there have been many others set up in those intervening years. Within London there are now 38 WIs – all welcoming women of any age.

Only last week two meetings were held for officers of the London WIs at the NFWI headquarters at 104 New Kings Road. It was a chance for some to learn about the London WIs Forum and where it could be found on the Moodle, the WI's prize-winning online learners' tool. The forum is specifically created for London WIs to make connections and to tell each other what they are doing. The meetings were also a great opportunity for fellow London WI members to swap hints and tips on good speakers and activities for meetings – there is always something new to learn from the WI!

Friday, 2 September 2011

WI cornucopia

If you are not in regular receipt of WI Life, by that I mean if you are not a WI member, do take a look at the cover of the latest edition on the NFWI website. I just love that hat, or is it a hatinator? Modelled by the lady who designed and made it, the hat heralds the article, which explains how a talk by a milliner at a WI meeting inspired member Helen Heath-Martin to take up the art of millinery herself.

This is, of course, just one of the many craft skills that can be learned within the WI. Over the years, many members have made a career from a skill first picked up at a WI meeting or from taking a short course at the WI’s own educational institution, Denman College. The college, formerly known as Marcham Park, was named in 1948 for the first NFWI Chairman, Lady Gertrude Denman. The Georgian magnificence of the property remains to this day and students may elect to stay in the house itself, or in one of the purpose built en-suite rooms or cottages dotted throughout the grounds. The gardens are breathtaking with herbaceous borders to drool over, a lake to linger by, and a walk-way bordered on either side by lime trees. It is an idyllic place where the world recedes and learning process are given full reign. You don’t have to be a WI member to attend courses, and gentlemen are very welcome too. Do have a look at the Denman College website to see what is on offer now and in the future.

The NFWI doesn’t take a holiday during the month of August but many individual WIs do not hold a formal meeting; my own WI being one of them. We do however still meet on what would be the WI evening, in either in a member’s garden or, as we did this year, in the local pub. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a couple of cheese and wine events during the month, an afternoon tea by WIs in my federation, and a regular WI meeting in my local area. At this meeting, the guest speaker was novelist Sarah Harrison, and she kept everyone in stitches – myself included. The whole evening was just so positive and happy and it made me think, yet again, that if I wasn’t a member already, I wouldn’t be able to join quickly enough.

Work on our campaigns continues. As part of the Legal Aid campaign I attended a focus group of women who had suffered domestic violence where they spoke of their situations and how access to and the use of legal aid had made a positive difference to them. Those of you who have read some of my previous posts will recall that the WI has told the government, in no uncertain terms, that their proposal to reform legal aid provisions is just not acceptable in cases of domestic violence. More focus groups are to be held presently, from which a report will be presented to government. All this work stems from a 1994 mandate on legal aid; the WI on the case yet again.

The current mandate on keeping local libraries open and fully functioning, Love Your Libraries, is gathering momentum, and if you feel strongly that libraries should remain open, please sign our online petition. Paper copies of the petition are also available from the Public Affairs Department: 104 New Kings Road, London SW6 4LY.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Love Your Libraries

Last Friday, the WI launched its Love Your Libraries e-petition following the government’s promise of a debate in parliament if a petition receives 100,000 signatures. As I write at 10.32am on Monday 8 August, there are already 1,831 signatures. The premise of the petition is that WI members believe libraries are an essential local education and information resource but with many libraries under threat, the future of the library service is at risk.

The WI wants to see the value of libraries recognised at both local and national levels, and members are calling on the government to honour both its commitment to act as a champion of the library service, and its duty of oversight; to ensure that a comprehensive and efficient library service is provided. If you are in agreement, please add your signature to the e-petition, which can be found at It can also be downloaded for written signatures at, or a copy can be requested from the NFWI office.

If you are reading this blog from your iPhone or Smartphone and in the habit of downloading the latest app, there's another one for your collection as of today – “Wild Jam Maker”. The app, created by WI Real Jam Festival sponsor Stoves, has been launched ahead of the festival, which takes place from 8-9 October, and has been designed especially for the country's “budding wild jam makers” and the many people who already make jam. It lists fruits and berries found in the wild that can be used to make jams, and there are also wild jam recipes, from hawthorn and crab apple jelly, to gooseberry and elderflower jam. Incidentally, the latter recipe won the best in show in the first WI Real Jam Festival held last year.

The WI Real Jam Festival is open to all; WI members and non-members, male and female, adults and children. Give it a go; even if you’ve never tried before you could discover a new talent in the process!

While you are about it, why not visit Denman College, the venue for the Jam Festival? Denman College is the WI's educational institution with a proud 63 year heritage of teaching and instructing WI members and non-members in all manner of crafts, cookery, literature, language, music and much more. Visit the superb WI Cookery School and sign up for a course. When you are staying at Denman College the world retreats and you are enveloped in the desire to learn.

Having had another quick check online as I finish writing this at 11.15am there are 1, 901 signatures on that petition.

Monday, 1 August 2011

START with packaging

Last Friday, I heard the comment, “…it's not that important an issue”, from a British Retail Consortium representative in reference to the number of carrier bags being used and discarded by the general public. It has been five years since the NFWI launched its campaign to cut the amount of packaging on certain foods and goods to reduce waste and its detrimental impact on the environment and wildlife so the fact that 6.8 billion bags go to landfill in a year should be an important issue for all WI members, if not to the rest of society. In our throw away culture where plastic bags still represent 0.3% of all household waste, perhaps the WI should be back on that campaign trail.

In 2006, the main thrust of the campaign was to reduce the number of plastic bags produced and used, as well as the amount of packaging for certain goods, e.g. the WI called for more loose sales for fruit and vegetables, and to reduce the amount of packaging where it was deemed necessary. Reducing the amount of packaging used means that less is sent to landfill meaning less methane gas is produced, which ultimately reduces the effects of climate change. At the time, I was interviewed by Jennie Murrie on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss the example of over packaged vegetables. I took four parsnips on a polystyrene tray, wrapped in cling film with me, and right on cue they oozed liquid onto the desk, proving that such covering of fresh vegetables was not desirable.

I'm sure we all have several hessian bags – both purchased and given out free – that we can use instead of plastic bags. Until about 30 years ago every household had a shopping bag or two but with the advent of supermarkets, the plastic carrier bag has taken their place. There is no doubt that the WI's 2006 campaign made a big difference to shopping bag habits; the use of plastic bags decreased, but unfortunately, their use has gone up once again.

The reasons for our 2006 campaign remain the same; degradation of the environment and climate change. These are still major issues that the WI continues to tackle.

Those very issues of environment and climate change are behind HRH Prince of Wales' START project who invited the WI was invited into the garden of Clarence House where superb displays of sustainable gardening and growing by the Soil Association, Garden Organic and the National Trust were on show last week. There was a fantastic forest garden exhibit and representatives from the British Bee Keepers Association was also there; I was able to chat for a while with the lady bee keeper there, informing her about all the WI had done with its SOS for Honeybees campaign, which is still ongoing!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Fighting stereotypes

A Daily Mail reporter ‘reliably’ informed their readers on Saturday that joining the Women's Institute is number 15 in a list of 30 “telltale signs you're really getting old”. This reliable information came from a poll of 2,000 respondents “from a wide age range” put out by a mutual assurance company.

How wrong could they be?! Joining the WI is NOT a sign of ageing – I joined at the age of 23 I am in no doubt that many thousands of current members joined in their early 20s and 30s, and I’m sure that some were even younger; there is some special ingredient in the organisation that keeps its members joining year after year.

The same reporter should have attended the Open Day at the NFWI's headquarters in London only last Wednesday to recognise the young age of members, but let's never forget that the WI is for every woman; there are no other criteria for becoming a member of the largest women's organisation across England and Wales.

The Daily Mail might like to check out the webpages of Buns and Roses WI, Fulham WI and Westcliff WI among many other WI groups of vibrant women of all ages – why don’t you come and join us and fine out how much the WI can offer?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Summer of activity

The WI has certainly been busy in the fortnight since the COOL vote took place in Strasbourg, with a number of internal meetings and the July NFWI Board meeting taking up several days. All of these meetings deal with the true heart of the WI. The NFWI Trustees consider everything from procedures to opportunities, from costs to plans for the future. We review what has recently taken place and always with an eye to what the next steps must be.

This year we have one new board member who joined us after our AGM in early June. An article in the latest issue of our magazine, WI Life, tells how she balances life on the Board at the same time as balancing a full time job. This is something that has to be addressed by both the National Board and Federation Boards of WIs since so many members work; day time meetings are not always suitable. Are we ready for a paradigm shift and how will it come about? At this stage I am not sure but I do believe it must happen sooner than later.

I am constantly delighted when new members of all ages tell me that joining the WI has been the best thing they've done. I mention this because quite recently I have been told just that by both a 24 year old and an 81 year old member. This certainly goes a long way to prove that there is something for every woman in the WI. In this instance, they enjoyed meeting different people and hearing of so many issues that they could get involved with through the campaigns for the younger member, and the opportunities to attend such a variety of events she would not otherwise have had from the older member.

Indeed, new members are coming in all the time. Where there is a group of women wanting to open a new WI, we have WI Advisers, who are members that have been recommended by their federations to open WIs. They do many other things besides, but in the last few years the demand for new WIs has been exceptional. WI Advisers work tirelessly throughout their federation in all weather conditions, often going to unfamiliar halls and venues, which is never easy in the dark, nor in the light for that matter – I know, I've done it! Last weekend I spent a couple of hours at our college, Denman, in Marcham near Oxford speaking with a group of WI Advisers. They were there to discuss their role and all that it has entailed in recent months, as well as to learn about new initiatives and methods of recruiting and retaining members. These women are particularly passionate about the WI and all their time and effort on behalf of members is appreciated by everyone. We must not forget that all they do for the WI is in a voluntary capacity.

And speaking of working in a voluntary capacity, last week I appeared as a witness at the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill Committee to represent the NFWI. Confronted by questions from 21 MPs from across the parties in Portcullis House, I spoke of the three key areas of concern regarding women who suffer domestic violence: the way the new proposals will disproportionately affect women, how the proposals put women at greater risk of violence, and the fact that women who do suffer domestic violence also usually need help with a much wider range of issues. (For more information see visit Legal Aid 2011 under Campaigns on the NFWI website.)

Closer to home, celebrations are happening for WIs reaching their 25th and 90th anniversaries, and members holding wine and cheese parties to attract new members. These events are wonderful, caring and they really do work – why not organise one for your WI?

I know I say this often but it really is true: the WI really does provide something for every woman.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A step in the right direction to COOL

The European Parliament voted on regulations on country of origin labelling yesterday. How much of the WI's COOL campaign came into fruition? Our mandate, accepted just a year ago, calls for “HM government to introduce clear mandatory country of origin labelling on all meat, poultry and fish products sold in this country.” Law on food regulation is set at a European level and after years of discussion, MEPs have voted on an agreement to introduce mandatory country of origin labelling on fresh meat. Currently, beef is routinely labelled with its county of origin, but for other meat, such as pork and lamb, ‘country of origin’ often refers to the place in which a food last underwent significant change. This is misleading to say the least.

Is this outcome a win for the COOL campaign then? Well, whilst it is a step in the right direction, we are obviously disappointed that it will not go further. The WI took new research to MEPs in Strasbourg and we have been working hard to build up the evidence base that members need to take this debate forward, particularly in the light of planned future impact assessments.

Back in the UK, our own government has favoured a voluntary approach to county of origin labelling. While this is starting to have some impact, a survey of 6,000 WI members indicates that with substantial variation in the ways that different producers and supermarkets label their products there will still be plenty of room for improvement for some time. Earlier this year, 87 WIs visited 135 supermarkets to take a snapshot look at products on their shelves and the findings were stark. With 50 supermarkets carrying products with no country of origin labelling, it really makes me wonder if a voluntary approach is viable.

Consumers want to know what they are eating and where it comes from for a wide range of reasons. I see no reason to avoid telling of an animal’s place of birth if it is reared and looked after in a proper fashion in ways that conform to legal standards. It is simply not right that consumers are forced to rely on the good will of retailers.

The campaign continues…

Monday, 4 July 2011

Legal Aid Bill, Parliament week and the Big Feastival

Last week, just hours before the second reading of the Legal Aid Bill on Wednesday afternoon, the WI was invited to a round table discussion by the Law Society about the detrimental effects the proposed new Act would have on those, who until now, have been eligible to claim legal aid. MPs, Lords and other organisations involved with the work that the current Legal Aid Act occasions were also invited. The WI is interested in the impact the new proposal could have on women who suffer domestic violence following a history of campaigning on legal aid since campaigning for the protection of the legal aid system in 1994. More recently, the WI launched a programme of work on tackling violence against women. Only those women suffering an extreme case of physical violence would qualify for legal aid under the new recommendations should they determine to bring a case against the perpetrator.

Those who suffer violent attacks and realise the need to extricate themselves and possibly their children from an abusive relationship have been able to apply for legal aid up until now to help. Under the new proposal, they would likely have to find themselves in intensive care before being able to qualify – such is the type of the injury required to qualify.

The Bill does acknowledge psychological abuse but victims of domestic violence often have far more complex needs, and advice on a range of issues such as housing, debt and much more will be excluded from the system.

The NFWI is not against reform of the legal aid system, but in its current format, the new Bill would adversely affect some of the most vulnerable in society. Alternative models to these proposals need to be pursued urgently.

There is still quite a way to go before the Act is on the Statute book, but how long does it take? The journey of a Bill put forward by an MP and all the stages it goes through to become an Act of Parliament could be just the thing for people to engage with during Parliament Week set for 31 October to 6 November this year.

The history of our Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords is fascinating – not only to historians – and it is well worth taking a tour of the Palace of Westminster if you are in London. I am reliably informed that if you fancy listening in on the proceedings at the House of Commons then it is best to arrive in the late afternoon; settle back to hear and see history being made before your very eyes.

A new chapter in the history of the WI began this weekend with the WI tent at The Big Feastival on Clapham Common. This was an event that combined county shows with village fetes and was expertly coordinated by the Shoreditch Sisters WI. The WI Tent was fully decked out in retro style brought together cookery, baking, clothes, make up, hair styling, sewing, embroidery and so much more, whilst representing what the WI is really about: women. It was a real hive of activity and a superb recruiting event – go WI!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Factory farming debate rumbles on

There has been extensive press interest in the proposed “factory farming” resolution, both before and after the AGM, and whilst most has positively recognised that more discussion is needed, an article in Farm Business recently caused me to put pen to paper to try to explain the situation to the Editor. I have copied the letter I sent over to him below for your information.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to respond to the recent article “Time to Focus on Jam again” (Farm Business 24 June 2011) which fails to recognise a key factor; the National Federation of Women’s Institutes does not have, and never has had, any kind of mandate to work on the issue of large-scale farming. Delegates at the AGM rejected a vote on one of their resolutions looking at planning permission surrounding large-scale farming units on 8 June 2011, calling on the industry and relevant bodies to open up a rational and transparent debate on the future direction of UK farming.

Every year, WI members put forward a range of issues for national debate at the AGM, which, if passed, go on to become the mandates that form the basis of the organisation’s campaigning and awareness-raising activities in the future. As a unique organisation, the resolution process means that members play a central role in defining policy and bringing issues onto the WI's national agenda; this ensures that the entire process is wholly democratic. Many people from many organisations, both farming and other, were very interested in the large-scale farming resolution before it reached the AGM. That the mention of factory farming of large animal caused such a stir surely means that there is a very big discussion and debate to be had on the very subject.

The WI’s resolutions and mandates are first and foremost a tool to raise awareness of any given issue – a way of educating not only WI members, but the local community as well as the wider population.

What happened with this resolution proves without doubt that the women who were debating it at the AGM are intelligent and they realise that more discussion is needed on the issue of factory farming in the UK including, but not excluding, the issues of local and sustainable food; animal welfare; food security for the future; protection of the countryside; and the concern with slurry and water tables.

The women “deep within the organization” are WI members whose vote holds no more sway that any member in any WI. Might I suggest that Caroline Whibley visit a WI, even join one, to learn just what the WI is truly about.

And as for jam, WI members have never stopped making jam since it’s formation in 1915. In October, we are holding the second WI Real Jam Festival at the WI’s own Denman College in Oxfordshire where everyone can learn to make jam as well as enter a pot into the competition – there are classes for everyone from the connoisseur to the beginner.

Yours etc…

Ruth Bond
Chair of the NFWI

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Let's talk

A headline in the Farmer's Weekly Interactive on Saturday 18 June announced “WI saga highlights need to educate more”. Adam Bedford is so right – the primary reason for any WI resolution is to educate, to inform and to promote discussion around the issue raised. Initially, this all takes place within WI meetings between members, but it's not long before the general public gets to know more too. It does not matter that there wasn’t a vote on the planning permission for factory farming resolution because raising awareness of the whole issue has well and truly taken place. Yes, we do need a public debate; yes, we do need to look more into the whole saga of factory farming, but right now, ‘for’ or ‘against’ is not the answer. The media is still talking about this topic ten days after the AGM, so LET'S TALK!

Talk is what the WI did with the Great Milk Debates in 2007. Across the country, dairy farmers, processors, retailers and consumers, including WI members, held at least 100 discussions, which in a number of cases resulted in better prices for milk. Last November the debate was reinvigorated with the Mission Milk campaign; the WI remains on the case until a goal is reached.

Another case we are still concerned about is Ending Violence Against Women. Following the proposals made yesterday in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the NFWI believes that vulnerable women are still potentially unprotected. Whilst it is positive that the government has acknowledged the importance of the provision of legal aid in cases involving domestic violence, these proposals do not reflect the reality of women’s lives. Changing the scope of legal aid, as these new proposals have, just serves to risk excluding vulnerable women from the justice they so badly need.

On a lighter note, I spent a very enjoyable and interesting morning with members from the two Kent Federations – West and East – discussing all things WI from badges and the NFWI's centenary, to Denman College and rising membership numbers. 21,000 women have joined the WI since this time last year; the reasons for joining will be myriad but I bet some really wanted to learn to make jam.

More and more members are becoming moodlers too; there are now over 10,000 of us! I urge all members and NFWI Associates to check it out.

Looking back to the AGM and membership, blog readers might be interested to learn that an NFWI Associate from Boston, USA came over specifically to attend the meeting in Liverpool. During her short three-day trip to the UK, she also visited the NFWI office at 104 New Kings Road and Fulham WI. Denman College is on the itinerary for her next visit to these shores; we’re looking forward to seeing her then.

Friday, 10 June 2011

An AGM to remember

Not since 1992 was there such an instance at an NFWI AGM. During the meeting, a member begged leave "to move to the next business" but it was not granted. In 2011 when the same thing happened, leave was granted and we all moved to the next business. After much discussion and insight from expert speakers, no vote was taken on the issue of granting planning permission for large-scale factory farms. This means that the WI has no mandate on which to act so there will not be a campaign. What it does mean is that the whole area of factory farming, mega farms, environment and animal welfare, not to mention future food security, is now on the nation's agenda.

Over the past few months, WI members have been accused of being ignorant and ill-informed regarding 'mega farms'. Misguided was another adjective I often read in the media. If anything proves such derogatory accolades to be themselves misguided, this outcome does. The membership, represented by 4,587 individual members at the AGM in the Liverpool Echo Arena, clearly saw that this is a subject that needs further discussion and wider debate. This is precisely why the WI's resolution process has stood the test of time; it gives time for research, thought, deliberation, information gathering and expert advice, which, on this occasion, was clearly taken to tackle such a complicated and far-reaching subject.

The vote to save local libraries was passed with a 97% majority but one expert speaker pointed out that new models of library provision should be explored, for instance the National Trust model with libraries within an authority becoming charitable trusts with independent governing bodies drawn from the public, local authorities, educational bodies, etc under the aegis of the Charity Commission. Libraries are currently used by 12.8% adult population once a month; 87.2% do not use them at all. In the saving of our libraries, perhaps there is much to be discussed here too.

Guest speakers at the 96th AGM were Erwin James, writer, who spoke of his life as it led him to prison and beyond; Dr Rita Gardner, Director of the Royal Geographic Society, who briefly spoke of her studies into natural and human induced climate change; and Sir Steve Redgrave, Fairtrade's Chief Ambassador.

Just count how many topics were covered in this meeting alone – one adjective I defy anyone to use regarding the WI is boring!

Friday, 3 June 2011

AGM and Hay fever

I took a trip down to Abergavenny this week bit did not alight from the train there.No, I continued to Hereford from where I made my way to Hay and the renowned Hay Book Festival. Over the years, I have spent a number of hours in Hay, especially in the book shops, but never have I been to the festival – my loss. This year however, the WI had a presence there and being an avid bookworm, how could I not be there!

WI members were invited to hear Rosie Boycott in conversation with Dame Harriet Walter who was discussing her book, "Facing It, Reflections on Images”. These reflections are beautiful, sensitive, lively, pensive, smiling, old faces of women. A joy to behold, and when studied, these faces reveal so much more than a wrinkle or a blemish. Whether well-known or completely unknown to many people, such faces reflect a microcosm of lives lived to the full, with contentment, possibly with regret but certainly lived. A discussion, with several questions from gentlemen in the audience, was followed by tea and welsh cakes. A thoroughly good way to spend an afternoon – thank you to all at the Hay Festival for inviting the WI.

On Tuesday I shall take another trip, it won't quite take the ferry 'cross the Mersey but I will see that very river on my way to Liverpool for the NFWI AGM at the Echo Arena on Wednesday 8 June. I can almost guarantee a warm day with little wind; as far back as I can recall, the day of the AGM has always been hot and sunny, much like it always seemed to be when taking exams at school!

Over 4,500 WI members are expected to converge on Liverpool; some staying overnight and making a short holiday of it, so I'm getting ready for the tingle I always feel when the untied voices of all those members sing Jerusalem. There certainly is a WOW factor there, I can tell you.

Monday, 30 May 2011

SOS for honeybees

Look at any new campaign and you may be sure that the WI is already on the case. Today I noticed that the RHS has launched a campaign to urge all gardeners to plant bee-friendly plants. The RHA has compiled a list of plants that will provide nectar and pollen for bees and many other types of pollinating insects. I would urge anyone reading this to download the list of bee-friendly plans found on the NFWI website, This list was compiled back in 2009 when the mandate to do all that was necessary to save the honey bee was accepted by the membership.

The SOS for honeybees campaign highlighted the issue of varroa mites, the many diseases that can attack hives as well as the use of pesticides. WI members across England and Wales have put on events of every kind to highlight the plight of not only the honeybee but also the many pollinators we rely on for our food crops and beautiful flora. After months of pressure by WI members, the beekeeping community and campaigners, the Government announced that £10 million would be put towards funding projects researching pollinator health.

One of the first things WI members did in this ongoing campaign was contact their local authorities requesting that they plant bee-friendly plants on all their roundabouts and public spaces where flowers are planted. Members were also urged to plant bee-friendly plants, which they have done in their thousands.

Do take a look at the SOS for honeybees pages on the website and read the blog of the WI's own resident bee-blogger, Martha Kearney. Here you will also see the many other issues that the WI is working on, and if you look back into the history of our mandates (there must be around 500 by now) - you will be amazed, surprised and sure that the WI has been making a difference for almost 100 years. Like I said, the WI is on the case.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The WI in action

WI history in action
Last week I attended my own WI’s Group Meeting; a collection of between four and six WIs meeting together, once or twice a year, to enjoy a particular speaker – this time we heard about the life and works of William Morris – and learn about the highlights of each WI. Our host WI was celebrating its 90th year and on the front row were two members who were at the inaugural meeting all those years ago. Of course, they were very little girls at the time, but they have been part of this wonderful organisation all that time.

Something that could also have happened all those years ago is gardening in schools. I am interested in this because my father, a young teacher in the mid 1950s, cultivated a garden with pupils taking part and learning the ways of the soil and the best means of ensuring plentiful crops. Gardening in schools really should become the norm and I have a place on a task-force that will do its very best to bring this about. One of the many reasons behind the formation of the WI was to grow food for the country during the years of World War 1. I know many WI members who have shared their love for gardening and green-fingered skills with school children, and I hope that this will continue for many more years to share and promote the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables.

Campaigning update
The WI is hoping and trusting that many benefits will be reaped following the introduction of 100 diversion schemes, promised by the Health Secretary at the WI and Prison Reform Trust Care Not Custody reception in late March. A collection of 22 organisations, including the NFWI as well as the Prison Reform Trust; Prison Governors’ Association; The Royal College of Nursing; Revolving Doors; Action for Prisoners’ Families; and Keyring Living Support Networks will all work together to monitor the progress and outcome of the commitment. I chaired a gathering of this amazing collection of organisations on Thursday to explore next steps – collectively there is the will so there will be a way to ensure ‘diversion’ is a mainstream initiative in the criminal justice system in the future.

And speaking of the future, a swishing session at the NFWI’s first Fast Fashion event saw a new future for one of my once favourite dress and jacket outfits. It has a new owner who might wear it as it is, or even give it a new lease of life either with embellishment or the scissors! The event on Saturday afternoon highlighted the mass production of ‘fast fashion’ items that carry hidden environmental and social impacts, and asked members to consider the demand for virgin resources such as water, oil and cottons when some clothing is produced on such a huge scale, and demand that living wages be paid to the people who make the garments. To find out more about the campaign, visit the website – or contact the NFWI Public Affairs team on 02073719300.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

In the Clink

Yesterday I had lunch in The Clink. The Clink is a restaurant within High Down Prison, where, as in other prisons, a prisoner can determine "to be better than he was and manage to become whom he was meant to be". These words are based on text by Erwin James, author, former prisoner, and upcoming AGM speaker. Erwin also commented that a prisoner may find a reason to live that is inconsistent with crime if he will only access all that is on offer in any given prison. While it is acknowledged that this might be easier said than done, we enjoyed a talk from a Samaritan Listener in High Down Prison who is a prisoner himself, and is always ready, willing, able, and trained to listen to his fellow inmates, and in most instances avert a disaster or help to calm a troubled mind.

For my lunch I enjoyed a menu of beef osso busso and chicken ballotine, followed by bakewell tart with a difference (I’m sure it contained fresh raspberries). Earlier in the morning I had enjoyed morning coffee with melt-in-the-mouth lemon biscuits. Between these treats, I attended the launch of the latest report from the Prison Reform Trust, “Time Well Spent”; a practical guide to active citizenship and volunteering in prison.

The report has a forward from Erwin James which begins "It is a fallacy that people in prison are content to wallow in a state of irresponsibility whilst lounging around wasting time just waiting for the day when the gates are opened so they can stroll back out into their feckless, crime-sullied lives". The following 62 pages detail the many ways in which prisoners can be active citizens voluntarily giving their time to help fellow prisoners. The NFWI has worked closely with The Prison Reform Trust throughout the Care Not Custody Campaign, and the Trust profiles and promotes all of the good work that happens within our prison system.

Some of the attendees at this event had also attended the Care Not Custody conference in March where both Kenneth Clarke MP, Justice Secretary, and Andrew Lansley MP, Health Secretary spoke and announced that £5 million would be put into 100 Diversion Schemes in the country. I mention this here because three people I spoke to said how moved they had been to hear from the WI member whose son's suicide in prison had prompted the resolution to stop the inappropriate imprisonment of the mentally ill. There is a moving story behind every one of us and not least behind every prisoner, whatever the reason for their incarceration and no matter their circumstances. What is surely needed is rehabilitation with respect, and prison with purpose.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

NFYFC annual conference

Last Saturday morning I visited the famous Winter Gardens in Blackpool and although it was pouring when I came out, I was glad because the plants and crops desperately needed the drink. These same crops were on my mind when I attended the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC) annual conference earlier in the week to discuss the WI's rural connection, its Great Milk Debates and Mission Milk, as well as the ways in which young people might champion British Farming. In the ensuing discussion, it was obvious that these particular young people were passionate about farming – their herds and flocks, crops and machinery – and if their enthusiasm is anything to go by, British farming should be secure, but I think we all know it is not as easy as that. However, there is plenty in the industry to get excited about: the technology and advances that have come with combine harvesters and tractors, and of course, the animals.

Today a young friend of the family is leaving for the USA where he will spend an exciting six months learning more about ploughing and the use of machinery in vast landscapes. Some of the young farmers at the convention have already done this and I know when ploughing and hedging competitions are held in my own area, they attract a lot of attention. British farming is a highly skilled profession to be proud of and cherished.

Although membership of Young Farmers ceases at the age of 26 (and may begin at the age of 10) the keenest can remain as an Associate member. This is somewhat different from the WI's Associate scheme – one way of becoming a WI member without the requirement to belong to a specific WI – please check out the details for more details: it could be just the introduction to the WI a woman needs!