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!