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’être 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!

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