Tuesday, 24 April 2012

On the campaign trail

Last night, the NFWI and the Prison Reform Trust joined forces once again to host a Care Not Custody parliamentary reception in Westminster. I was joined by a number of my fellow WI members, and we had the pleasure of hearing from the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley MP, and Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt MP. Both Ministers reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to diverting people who are mentally ill from the justice system into treatment and care; and Crispin Blunt told the reception that the Government ‘greatly appreciate the role of the WI in raising the profile of this agenda’. He also told us that he knew the WI, and our partner organisations on this campaign, will be there to point out ‘when the government are getting things right, and when they are getting it wrong.’ He is quite right that we are very good at being the ‘itch you cannot scratch away’ and making sure the Government deliver on their promises. With Care Not Custody it will be no different, and we will keep a close eye on the governments’ plans.

We have also seen further success on the legal aid campaign. Following considerable government concessions in the Commons debates, the Lords, who debated the Bill yesterday, have made additional amendments on domestic violence. The WI welcomed the initial concessions made by the Government, but we felt these concessions could have gone further. One of our key concerns was that, although the Government had widened the evidence gateways for domestic violence victims accessing legal aid, these concessions only applied to women who had been admitted to a refuge. We know that the majority of women who experience domestic violence do not go into refuge, preferring to stay with friends and family, and access support in the community. Women’s Aid statistics show that of the 124,895 women who accessed their services in 2010, only 17,615 were admitted into refuge. The other key issue the Lords amendment addresses in the evidence timeframe; extending the timeframe from two years to six years. Again this is a welcome step, ensuring that many more women will be able to access legal aid.

The Bill will be debated again in the Commons this evening; we watch with bated breath!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Success for WI legal aid campaigners

Last nights debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in the Commons made for compelling watching. The tireless work of WI campaigners, who have been lobbying on this issue for over a year, came down to this moment. Last month the legal aid campaign secured a major success when the House of Lords voted through vital amendments to the Bill that would protect access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence. However as I watched the debates, I was all too aware that the good work done in the Lords could quickly become undone in the Commons.

In the end what we saw was a considerable compromise from the government; that will ensure that many more victims of domestic violence have access to legal aid. Our three main campaign ‘asks’; the inclusion of the cross-government definition in the Bill, the evidence gateways to be widened so women can use evidence from a wider range of professionals (for example a doctor, or a support worker) to access legal aid, and the removal of the twelve month time frame that applies to the evidence, were all addressed by government and significant changes were made.

The government committed to widening the evidence gateways to include a police caution, admission to a refuge, and evidence from a doctor or social services. They also extended the time frame that applies to the evidence gateways to two years. Finally they tabled their own amendment to include the cross-government definition of domestic violence in the Bill; something the WI has been asking for since the campaign first began.

These concessions will make a real difference; many more victims of domestic violence will be able to access legal aid as a result of these changes. Many thanks to all those members who ‘Paired up with a Peer’ and wrote to MPs, your tireless lobbying no doubt made a difference. Once again the WI has shown politicians that we are a force to be reckoned with! 


Monday, 16 April 2012

Back on the road again

I'm back on the road again today after ten days off, during which my son was married surrounded by the WI. Several of the guests are WI members, not to mention his sisters, cousin and aunt, as well as his grandmother, mother-in-law and mother! He can't get away from the WI just as many men are finding these days, with their women folk joining the WI in their thousands. It's never too late – or too early! – to join the WI.

At my own WI last week it was great to watch an expert demonstrate the art of jointing a chicken and then prepare chicken chasseur and chicken in a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce. Cookery has long been a forte of the WI; indeed the WI's own Cookery School can be found in Marcham right next to Abingdon in Oxfordshire. All types of courses are on offer here, not only to WI members but non members, gentlemen and sometimes children are welcome too. Recently, the making and icing of cupcakes have been discussed at many WI meetings – particularly with newer WIs. I don't know if Hebdon Bridge WI in the Yorkshire West Federation has embraced the cupcake in their first year of meeting, but I expect I shall find out this evening when I attend their first annual meeting. New WIs are springing up all over England and Wales proving yet again that the WI is many things, but it is definitely what its members make of it.