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 www.bowelcancer.tv.

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.