Monday, 5 March 2012

Ensuring care not custody and standing up for legal aid

I'm sure you will have seen the articles in several of the Saturday newspapers about a WI having been established in a women's prison. To my delight this is absolutely true and I am very proud, not only of the  members of that WI, but also of the ladies, Jill and Jan especially, whose hard work and understanding have helped to make this WI what it is - newsworthy and, like it says 'on the tin', for all women.

However, I must set the record straight and refute one sentence penned by Daniel Martin of the Daily Mail: "The transition from Jam and Jerusalem to porridge will be seen as part of a desire at the WI to make itself more relevant to society as its centenary approaches in 2015."

Firstly, the WI has been relevant to society for every day of its 97 years. No question! And today 1,000 women a week are joining the WI, either going to long established groups or forming new ones across England and Wales.

Secondly, and more importantly, the idea and desire for there to be a prison WI was born entirely out of our Care not Custody campaign, which the WI has been pursuing since 2008. Our prison WI was established purely with the hope of enriching women's lives in a sometimes frightening and isolating place. This wasn’t about boosting membership numbers!

The Care not Custody campaign focuses on the desirability for offenders with a mental illness, whose crime so often arises because of that illness, to be detained in some place and manner other than in prison. All too often prison is a default option rather than a place of last resort. Statistics show that more than two thirds of all men, women and children in prison have two or more mental health problems and prison isn’t just damaging for these individuals, it places a duty of care on already stretched prison estate staff. 

The WI is here for all women, irrespective of status, but its aim is to empower women, to instil confidence, to teach and to share together in a safe space. As the article in the WI's own membership magazine, WI Life, says, “During our meetings, the women forget that they're in prison and instead feel part of something really special, where learning new skills and getting to know new people offers a huge boost of confidence”. I had the privilege of opening this WI and I met the women who felt this was for them. I have also met some of those same women since they have been released from prison – that WI is a force for good in so many ways.

I don't think the members of this WI sing 'Jerusalem' before every meeting the words, “I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem” might conjure up comic connotations, but a determination to build something good is how I see it, and that's for each and every woman, wherever they find themselves.

And as for Jam, well I'm proud too of the jam–making tradition that we uphold. The WI holds an annual Jam Festival at its college, Denman College, in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Not only that, but our WI branded goods of raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrant jam, not to mention marmalade and four types of flour, hit the shelves of a certain supermarket this week. It was thrilling to note that during a two hour period, while I enjoyed a cup of tea with a friend, shelves that were full with WI products were being emptied and then refilled!

The launch of the products received a full page in this store's weekly newspaper and I see on another page an article relating to a new Beekeeping centre of excellence, which is to be set up in Pembrokeshire. I mention this because the WI has had a major campaign to save the honey bee, ongoing for the last three years. Out of it, amongst a host of initiatives, have come many more beekeepers, and hives of bees; much more planting in both public places and domestic gardens of bee-friendly plants as well as the WI's own bee hives at Denman College. When in season Denman honey is on sale in the college shop.

There is little in mainstream concerns these days that the WI has not tackled, either in the past and/or is currently working on. One such subject is access to legal aid which was first on the WI’s agenda in 1994. The protection of legal aid has been taken up in earnest over the past year following the government’s proposal to cut spending on legal aid by £350 million. The NFWI along with many other women's organisations remains concerned that the apparent provision given to victims of domestic violence in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will in practice leave vulnerable women without support.

The Ministry of Justice initially failed to include a comprehensive definition of domestic violence in the Bill. I am pleased to say that this is one area that the government has conceded on, with the inclusion of an amendment which is much closer to the widely accepted definition used by the Association of Chief Police Officers as well as the UK Border Agency, the Home Office and others.

While the inclusion of a definition is a welcome improvement, I fear that without widening the evidence criteria that is required to access legal aid, it will have little impact.

Victims of domestic abuse are still being asked to jump through varying hoops in an attempt to secure desperately needed financial support. As it stands, the evidence criteria for accessing legal aid remains too narrow.  It does not reflect the fact that domestic violence is a hidden crime, and women do not routinely disclose the violence they experience to the police or to the courts. Should the Bill progress in its current form, just under half of women who have experienced domestic violence would not be able to access legal aid.

For the last few weeks the Bill has been at the Committee stage in the House of Lords. Peers are due to vote in the coming week with domestic violence issues expected to come under scrutiny later today. WI members from across England and Wales have ‘Paired up with a Peer’ in order to lobby peers to back amendments by Baroness Scotland, Baroness Butler Sloss and the Lord Bishop of Leicester that would ensure the evidence gateways would include evidence that reflect women's experiences; as well as removing the restrictive twelve month time frame that applies to some of the evidence criteria.

The NFWI's report, Legal Aid is a Lifeline, gives myriad reasons why legal aid is imperative for women who suffer domestic violence. The harrowing stories of survivors and those going through the court proceedings were shared at focus groups organised by the NFWI in different parts of the country.  The insight this research offers into the consequences of reform is an important read.

In a week where people around the world will celebrate the impact that women have played across the globe on International Women’s Day, it is hugely disappointing that the UK’s own Government seems determined to turn its back on some of the most vulnerable women in society and undermine the commitments set out in its own violence against women strategy.
We are calling on members to write to their MPs and urge the government to think again on these proposals or risk leaving vulnerable women and children without support.

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