Thursday, 23 February 2012

WI Adviser conferences, how to reboot a sustainable community, legal aid proposals and safeguarding the environment

Today is the fourth day of the WI Adviser conferences that are on a WI progress around the country. Monday was Harrogate,  Tuesday was Bedford, yesterday  was Gatwick,  today is  Bristol and  Friday is Shrewsbury. WI Advisers are WI members who have been trained to open WIs and offer help and support to WIs in every way that you can imagine. Originally, WI Advisers were known as VCOs - Voluntary County Organisers - and they rode around the countryside on bicycles in regulation brown long skirts, jackets and hats; those days are no more!           

In those days, corner shops were everywhere, as were Co-op stores where every customer had a number - our family number was 18129 - and  'divy' (dividend) was collected. Now, corner shops become fewer and fewer, but the Co-op goes on, and last week I attended a Co-operative event: How to Reboot A Sustainable Community. Speakers included environmental economist Noreena Hertz, and Oxfam GB CEO Barbara Stocking, who both presented alternative approaches to sustainable business, and examples of Co-operative opportunities already being delivered, including renewable energy with the Co-op already funding community initiatives to the tune of £70 million.           

Whilst this spending is positive, I remain hugely disappointed about the proposal to remove funding from another area of the legal arena; the withdrawal of much funding from the legal aid budget for victims of domestic violence. The WI has engaged in lobbying both MPs and Peers in recent months, and that lobby continues. A few days ago I gave 'evidence' on the subject again; this time to Labour's Commission on Women's Safety, and between 5th and 7th March the Lords are expected to vote on the amendments to the Bill. The NFWI is deeply concerned with a range of the proposed reforms: the proposal for more mediation; that self representation in the witness box will deter women from reporting domestic violence; and the narrowing of the gateways of proof. Altogether none of these are acceptable when trying to protect women from violence, which is why lobbying has to gain even more momentum in the remaining days before the vote.               

Another area of WI work for many years is the environment, which was reflected by START who recently held a day-long event at the WI's Denman College to share ideas on how individuals can make small changes in their life style to fight to save and safeguard the environment. WI members have been doing just that for years, not least with Eco Teams and the Carbon Challenge, never mind our campaign for less packaging on certain foods,  combatting food waste – the list is long and that is just within the last five years! Who knows what we will be working on in the next five years – it’s all up to our members!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Mr Ed Vaizey MP visits Denman College, welcoming in the Chinese New Year with the Wei Yin Chinese Women Society and more discussion on the proposed changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

A visit to Denman College is always a delight, but it was particularly special last Friday just before the snow arrived to welcome Ed Vaizey MP, Libraries Minister. Mr Vaizey was visiting to receive the WI’s "Save Our Libraries" postcards and petition. There are over 75,000 signatures on the petition as well as 5,000 postcards, not to mention the online petition of more than 16,000, which surely shows the depth of feeling surrounding the closures of local libraries across the UK, as well as withdrawals in the mobile library services. It is thought that some 50 libraries have already closed their doors, somewhat fewer than the 600 closures predicted in 2011 but, nonetheless, the campaign continues.

The impact of these closures on women users in particular, and members of library staff were stressed to Mr Vaizey and he was asked about the conditions under which the government would intervene in closures. He explained that intervention would come in the absence of a proper strategic review by councils when reviewing the service, and if there was evidence that a significant proportion of the local population would suffer disproportionately with the removal of that local service; surely local closures are eroding the national library service? The main message from the Libraries Minister was that the Government is "doing its best" in a very complex situation. As I said before, we will continue with our campaign.

On Monday I travelled to Manchester at the invitation of the Wei Yin Chinese Women Society. This is the largest Chinese community centre in Britain and it provides community services for the Chinese population in Manchester. When it opened in 1988, one of its main aims was to support and assist Chinese women and their families, and other communities in need. It also aims to encourage mutual support and strengthen unity amongst Chinese and other communities; to assist Chinese and other communities in building up a positive self-image and self-confidence; gain access to information and resources; and share experiences with other like-minded organisations.

I discussed a huge variety of the activities that WI members get up to, and how the organisation’s main aim is to empower women, but that the WI has as many raisons d’ĂȘtre as there are members. My message to them, the same to anyone, is the WI is here to inspire you, the WI is everything you want it to be and the WI is what you make if it. My visit was topped off with an invitation to join in the celebration of the Chinese New Year - The Year of the Dragon. Entertainment was a constant with a visit from the Dragon and also from the god of wealth. It was a truly great visit.

Following this excitement, the week has ended with yet more discussion on the proposed changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the erosion of means of help for those who suffer from domestic violence. I have spoken of this issue several times before in my blog entries but it is a serious and extremely important issue.

From the focus groups held with women who had been victims of domestic violence, the WI learned that without legal aid, some women would now be dead since this help provided safety and protection.  The government is proposing to remove huge areas of law from the scope of legal aid but women need advice in many areas of law such as divorce and child contact as well as housing, welfare benefits and immigration. The proposed evidence gateways simply do not reflect women's experiences, and the twelve months time-frame in which to bring a case is completely unrealistic for so many reasons. A frightening development should the changes comes about is the need for women to represent themselves in court; to try to negotiate with the perpetrator over say child contact, which could often putting both women and children at risk. Mediation is to be offered in the new proposals as an alternative to court, but some women who took part in the focus group felt that such a situation would compromise their safety, and some said that they would rather take no action than be forced to go into mediation. And the telephone helpline to be offered as the single access point for all legal aid is not the simple solution that one might think. There is still a long way to go but WI members have been lobby Lords in whose house the Bill now resides to vote against these changes.

Variety is the spice of life and variety certainly makes the WI!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Mastermind, 2012 WI Archive year, NIMBY to YIMBY, and the Alan Titchmarsh show

The WI has well and truly arrived demonstrated by its appearance as a chosen specialist subject on Mastermind. Congratulations to Sally Mabey of Glamorgan Federation for not only putting herself through what must surely be an ordeal but also for attesting her passion for the WI. There are such vast amounts of social history to be found within the WI; everything that the WI undertakes, at every level – national, federation and most definitely local – is history that is well worth preserving and building upon.

2012 is the WI Archive Year, so please do check if the completed minute books and memorabilia for your WI are logged and stored in the correct manner and place.  If you need any help, federations have their own archivist who would be happy to give help and advice.

The WI has always been good at keeping records; it's the ‘where’ that has proved difficult! The National Federation of Women's Institutes archives are housed in the Women's Library at the London Metropolitan University, and the National Needlework Archive has a note and a very long list of all of the WI textiles up until a few years ago. With so many new WIs springing up it might soon need to update its records, especially the tablecloth department as this is more often than not the first craft or textile piece that a WI produces and owns.

Our archives tell us about the huge variety of activities that WIs used to partake in, and they are key to the organisation’s longevity.  Every decade of the WI’s archives reflects the varying challenges and popular activities of the time. The essence of the WI does not change, its aims and objects remain constant; it is what is happening in society at any given time that shapes the WI. WIs have always played a role in shaping their communities, whether from within or as a consequence of a national mandate, with both giving rise to campaigning and action in some instances, and sometimes merely raising awareness of a particular issue.

At the top of this post I spoke of one woman's passion. For regular readers you might recall the passion in my posts about my trip to Germany in November 2011. This same passion ensured that renewable energy was powering the electricity and heat facilities that I visited on my trip. Following this, the participants have met, and yesterday we invited Secretary of State for the Environment, Chris Huhne, to join the discussions. He is aiming to take renewable energy from NIMBY to YIMBY, but to achieve this there needs to be much more involvement of and conversations with people. To ensure that we can still enjoy the luxury of turning on the lights with the flick of a switch in the future means that renewable energy needs to be talked about and established.

Mandates on the environment – in particular one from 1977 calling on government to look into the use of renewable energy – gives the WI a voice in this ongoing debate and need.

Finally, I was pleased to see the WI on the television again this Wednesday past, with members making bunting and decorating cupcakes on Alan Titchmarsh's show. "The WI was never like this", he commented when greeting Jazz from Shoreditch Sisters WI.  Well, actually, the WI has ever been like this.  Thousands of women down the years have become WI members in their early 20s, myself included, and had the media been as it is today I'm sure many of them would have looked as good on TV!