Friday, 30 November 2012

A Week of Change

It has been quite a week! From the royal endorsement of an exceptional Gardening in Schools project, to a debate on reforming to the women’s justice system, to the NFWI's new home for its archive material at the London School of Economics.

The role of food education in creating a good school food culture is the remit of the Gardening in Schools Champions Group, of which the NFWI has been a member since March this year. Convened and run by Garden Organic, the Champions and other interested parties met at Carshalton Boys Sports College to see the gardening and cooking, two of the many facets that make this school an exemplar. One of the key elements for success in this field is determined and supportive leadership, which Head Teacher Simon Barber gives in abundance. This was evident as he showed us around the school garden, restaurant and home economics room, where students were happily and keenly engaged. 

The boys were all ready and waiting to welcome HRH the Prince of Wales, who was accompanied by Chef Jamie Oliver. Jamie Oliver has already done much in recent years to bring school meals to the forefront of concern, and he is ready to do something more about their standards in a big way. The School Food Plan is being compiled by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of LEON, who were also there, taking heart from this school where it has been proven that changes for the better in 'school dinners' can happen.

And change should also happen in women's prisons in Scotland, according to Dame Elish Angiolini, the first woman Solicitor General and the first woman Lord Advocate in Scotland.  Currently the President of an Oxford College, Dame Elish gave the annual Prison Reform Trust lecture, during which she shared shocking statistics including the following: at any point in time 1 in 4 women in Scotland’s prisons are on remand and only 30% of them actually go on to receive a custodial sentence; also 75% of custodial sentences given to women are for six month or less, which is not effective in reducing re-offending.  In the prison she used as a case study, 80% of women have mental health problems and 60% were under the influence of drugs at the time of the offence; women’s offending is often complex and if anything, Tuesday’s lecture served to highlight the need for better co-operation across the health and criminal justice sectors.  24 of the 27 recommendations that Dame Elish’s recent Commission made have been accepted by the Scottish government. Overall, she feels that the imprisonment of women could and should be reduced. I know the Prison Reform Trust echoes this sentiment, but this is an area in which progress has been slow coming.

It also took time to assemble the NFWI archive at the Women's Library, housed at the moment in London's Metropolitan University. Volunteers have been instrumental in making this happen, beginning some ten years ago when the archives were retrieved from the damp garage at the WI's college, Denman.  WI member Anne Stamper and her helpers did a magnificent job, which has continued until now, when those archives are to be moved to the library at the London School of Economics.

A visit to the LSE showed where the contents of the Women’s Library will be housed and stored, in relevant ambient conditions for some items. There is much of the WI's history to be seen, but on this visit I was enthralled to see a letter written by Mrs Pankhurst to Kier Hardy, in pencil, explaining how she and her fellow suffragettes were force fed.  She even drew a diagram of how the tube was put down their throats. I also found a pamphlet written in 1643 by midwives of London bemoaning the fact that with the Civil War raging their business was suffering because there were fewer babies to deliver!  War must stop, they protested, or else we shall be out of work. Today we are protesting that there are not enough midwives…

And now I shall depart for Denman and the WI Real Jam Festival. With a Christmas Fair also taking place, and cookery demonstrations by inspiring chefs and bakers, including Paul Hollywood, this is an event not to be missed.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Reforming Women's Justice

Tonight I will be at Friends House for the Prison Reform Trust’s annual lecture, given by Dame Elish Angiolini. Dame Elish will be speaking on the topic of ‘Reforming Women’s Justice’, and brings a wealth of experience on the topic, most recently gained as the Chair of the Commission on Women’s Offenders in Scotland, which advocated significant overhaul to the system. Following the publication of the Commission’s findings, and indications from the Scottish Executive that they accept the majority of the recommendations, tonight’s lecture will focus on some of the challenges and opportunities for reform that lie ahead.

The lecture comes at a time when the PRT has published polling that shows significant public support for health measures, such as better mental health care and treatment for drug addiction and alcohol misuse, to cut female offending rates. The high number of women in prison, is something that has really struck a chord with members throughout the WI’s Care not Custody campaign. 

All too often women’s offending is linked to underlying mental health problems as well as drug and alcohol abuse.  Many women prisoners have been victims of serious crime and sustained abuse.  Over a course of years evidence has built up showing the financial and social cost of imprisoning too many women for non-violent offences.  Progress in this area has been too slow for too long.         

Tonight’s lecture promises to make a valuable contribution to an important subject. You can watch the lecture live from 7pm on the PRT website:

Friday, 23 November 2012

The WI Great Food Debate

On 6 December 2012 at the Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens, York, the NFWI is launching The WI Great Food Debate.  The keynote speech will be made by Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will be joined on the panel by Peter Kendall, President of the National Union of Farmers , Pam Warhurst, Forestry Commission Chair and Anne McIntosh MP, Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (invited).  The events starts with a reception at 6.30pm, and the debate with discussion will run from 7.00pm to 8.30pm.

Ensuring global food security will become one of the world’s biggest challenges as the global population is predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050, increasing demand for food and intensifying competition for land, energy and water. There are growing concerns about how to improve security and sustainability of food supplies at the local, national and international levels, both now and in the future. There is no simple solution to addressing the tremendous demands on the food system and a holistic approach, involving all sections of society is needed, yet to date, there has been little public conversation about these issues.

IPPR and the NFWI are joining together to host a debate on food security as part of the NFWI’s ‘Great Food Debates’ and programme of work on food security in 2013.  A keynote speech will be delivered by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, followed by responses from speakers on food and sustainability and audience Q&A.  The event will also launch a discussion paper on food security produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research for the NFWI.

As we saw from the 2007 milk debates, public debates are a great way to examine complex issues and the role that all parts of society can play in addressing important challenges.  The NFWI will draw on the lessons and model of the milk debates to develop a WI Great Food Debate during 2013 that builds awareness of the challenges that our food and farming system faces and examines how we might go about tackling them.  We’re calling on all members to join the debate so pelase do come along if you can.

Please contact the public affairs department on or 020 7371 9300 ext 212 to register your attendance. 

This is an open event so do pass the invitation on.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

All for a good cause

A week ago the Alzheimer Society launched its request for a million Dementia Friends by 2015. This is part of the plan for not only raising awareness of the many facets of the disease, but also to recruit people who are willing to learn what sufferers and carers need and then pass on that knowledge. 

The Prime Minister's Dementia Challenge was also heralded at a reception in No 10 Downing Street with the release of the first report from the Dementia Friendly Communities Champion Group. Representatives from the many agencies, companies and charities that engage in this field attended the lunch time reception. Honeyed sausages on sticks are great levelers, and while nibbling on such delicacies, conversations ensued between researchers into dementia, the emergency services, the WI, scientists, bankers, insurers, retailers, carers and sufferers. All such people in one place, learning and gaining understanding from each other. The heartfelt desire is that this be replicated across society within villages and towns, shops and offices. I know myself, having had personal experience of the effects of dementia over the last twelve years, just a little understanding goes a long, long, way. 

Twenty-four hours after this positive and satisfying gathering, I found myself attending a coffee morning hosted by a WI prior to its third annual meeting in the afternoon. Members of four other local WIs were also present. There was plenty of chat of course, as well as beautifully decorated and delicious cupcakes and biscuits, all homemade, and copious amounts of coffee. Everyone indulged in these goodies! Craft items were also on sale, and I was unable to resist the softest knitted sheep as well as a heart shaped Christmas tree decoration.

There was a short formal interlude where I was asked to say a few words and present the cup to the winner of the first craft competition. The winning item was a card and paper model, with great attention to detail, of the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland. I was very pleased I did not have to choose the winning item since the standard was extremely high in all categories. The entries included a delicately knitted fruit flan, a plate of knitted cakes with a bite taken from one, and an embroidered picture copied from a photograph - only a close look showed which was which.

One member also read out her clever and beautifully incisive piece of creative writing. We even sang Jerusalem, which was equally as uplifting and emotive as when sung in the Albert Hall with 5,000 WI members. The morning's gathering was even more of a positive and satisfying experience than the No 10 Downing Street reception; for this event was hosted by the members of Bronzefield WI, the first Prison WI.

I am so proud of the organisation which at this time I have the privilege to lead. The WI prides itself on being there for every woman; it is what each one wants to make of it and what each wants it to be. The WI is proudly proving its worth in so many places.

And showing what goes on at the national level is the aim of the Open Days held each year at 104 New Kings Road.  Two weeks ago, Membership Chair and Vice Chair, Janice Langley and I met over two hundred women who had made the journey from all parts of England and Wales to see what goes on behind the scenes. The Open Days give WI members the chance to see the beautifully formed but small offices, which house the super staff who help to make things happen and give shape and form to the ideas that become actions, projects and campaigns.

And I found myself speaking of our latest campaign earlier this week in Brighton at the conference for the Royal College of Midwives. “More Midwives” is the brief of the mandate given by a 95% majority of members at our AGM in May this year.  Between the speaking I was fascinated with some of the stands that I walked around. A number of plastic models of women giving birth brought back a few memories, but the many different pictures of babies once again made me realise why all the pain is worth it.