Thursday, 23 May 2013

Adult Learners’ Week and other opportunities within the WI

Tea and chat comes to mind for many when a WI meeting is mentioned, and it is the same with NFWI board meetings- only I would describe it more as refreshment and discussion. Much of the latter has happened in the last couple of weeks with numerous internal meetings, not least in finalising arrangements for our forthcoming Annual General Meeting to be held on 1st June. It takes place in Cardiff this year, with 4,000 WI members converging on the Welsh capital – along with thousands of motor sport fans too, as I understand such an event is also going on then.

At the AGM this year we shall be discussing our revised constitution – 'tweaked' is nearer the mark – to make it fit for purpose in the second decade of the twenty first century, and a vote will be taken. There will also be presentation and discussion on our resolution for this year; the saving of the “high street”, and a vote will be taken here also. A lot of voting goes on in the WI, at every level, which is all part of our entirely member-led democratic processes.

I was honoured to take part in voting of another type recently when I sat on the NIACE panel to judge the Learners through Arts, Craft Skills and Culture category for the Adult Learners' Week Awards. The ceremony was held on Monday in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall where I was very proud to present the awards. The first award was presented to Dean Short, the individual winner, who has overcome severe dyslexia to achieve distinction in a Film and Television Foundation Degree. He is now dividing his time between working at Pinewood Film Studios and studying for a BA (Hons) degree. Next I presented the Project Award to Artspace, a project that occupies town centre properties to offer art-based learning workshops and exhibition space for local amateur and professional artists, as well as learners. The project aims to attract learners from groups where participation is traditionally low and to facilitate opportunities for learners to progress to further learning or self-employment.

NIACE and the WI often collaborate on projects and one of the latest has been that of learning how to use the internet. A conference of Digital Champions was recently held in the WI's centre of leaning, Denman, where WI members received the necessary training to pass on their technical skills both to other members and the wider public.

And with that, the end of another WI year is now on the horizon. Looking back at this blog over this past year, it is evident just how many opportunities the WI offers to its members, and there will be many more over the coming year.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Circular Trends

Yet again, it has been an eventful few days with the WI. On the train between Bangor and Welshpool I met a lady, who was not only on her way to meet her bridesmaids and choose their dresses, but she also works for Body Positive, an organisation which works for and with HIV/AIDS sufferers. This led to conversation around WI mandates, not least the one from 1986 “This meeting of the WI urges its members to support the campaign of the Department of Health to inform the general public of the true facts concerning the disease AIDS”. There are mandates on a huge range of issues that have beset the country since the WI began in 1915, and one that is especially pertinent right now is the call for more midwives and our report ‘Support Overdue’, produced with the NCT. On the day of its launch, Friday 3rd May, I discussed this briefly on the BBC 1’s Breakfast news programme after a live chat on BBC Radio Five Live on the topic. On ITV’s Daybreak at the same time, the NCT was discussing the findings too, which was a great result!

All of this media work took place just before I dashed off to the well-known village of LLanfairpwll on Anglesey for the opening of a museum in a famous Thomas Telford Toll House. The museum is to showcase the history of the WI and its history where the first ever WI meeting was held 98 years and 8 months ago and it is where the Anglesey Federation office now stands adjoined to the Toll House. The WI's inauguration in the main was to enable women across the country to help provide the nation with food during the dark days of the First World War. It was also the intention that it would educate women in a more general sense, and indeed it has and continues to do so. As you know, the WI movement has come a long way since then, but at that first meeting, the discussion was The Food Supply of the Country. This very year, WIs across England and Wales are holding WI Great Food Debates to highlight the many challenges of food growing, farming, food waste and not least, nine billion mouths to feed by 2050. Plus cą change, plus cą change.

My journey from Llanfairpwll via Bangor then took me on to Welshpool in the heart of the Powys Montgomery Federation of WIs where I attended their Spring Show. It was a joy to present prizes for such creative and imaginative items produced by very talented members. Sponge cakes, Welsh cakes, Bara Brith, photographs, flower arrangements, and displays of such a high standard, and so much of it was learned through the WI. A competitive spirit achieves, as we know from the Olympics last summer, but so much can also be learned from just taking part. One very lovely touch at this show was the beautifully hand written prize cards as each class was judged. The lady responsible, a WI member of course, was sat in the back room quietly using her calligraphic skills to enhance the final display, and utterly deserving of her own prize.

Friday, 3 May 2013

WI members campaign for more midwives

WI members up and down the country are gathering in force today in a day of action to celebrate and support our midwives. The day of action coincides with the launch of a WI authored report, Support Overdue, which shines a spotlight on how midwives are being stretched to their very limits, and how this in turn is impacting on many women’s experiences of childbirth and the early days with a new baby.

Working in partnership with parenting charity NCT, we surveyed five and a half thousand new mums, who candidly told us about their maternity care – from pregnancy, to delivery and beyond. We heard about how 60% of women were simply not getting as much post-natal support as they needed, how the pledge to give women choices, as promised by the government, was failing most women, and how the level of care varied dramatically throughout the maternity pathway. It’s important to recognise that many women told us they experienced high quality care, but far too often women told us how they were left without adequate support during different times of the maternity pathway, when they needed care and reassurance – and how this had knock on effects for their family.

With the midwife staffing to birth ratio falling short across the country, Support Overdue presents a hotchpotch picture of maternity services, with the standard of care a woman can expect to receive all too often determined by her postcode. The maternity service is sometimes referred to as the ‘shop window’ of the NHS and, with giving birth the most common reason for going to hospital, it’s easy to see why. Ensuring that that ‘shop window’ provides patient-centred care is important not only for women, but for wider society and public health. That is why we are calling on the government and maternity providers to work harder to make a woman’s experience of birth a good one: by ending the chronic shortage of midwives; by allowing women the opportunity to build and maintain a relationships with their midwife; by giving women a real choice of where to give birth; and by ensuring that continuing post-natal care is in place.

Everyone who took part in our survey only had good things to say about midwives, who I know work hard to deliver care in very difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, the framework within which they’re operating is failing. The midwifery profession is under real pressure and morale is low. The government is training more midwives, which is of course to be celebrated. But unless we retain and value the midwives we already have, this will be a drop in the ocean, and we are only likely to see a vicious circle of declining numbers.

Support is long overdue for our stretched midwife workforce. I for one will be showing my support for midwives and new mums in the day of action tomorrow, and making sure that the NHS’s maternity services is one which is fit for purpose.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

WI Campaign Developments

It has been a while since my last blog entry, but my excuse is that I have been on the road. March and April in the WI means annual council meetings, and this year (as last) I have travelled many miles between different towns and cities, and even across the water to the Channel Isles. It has all been a wonderful adventure- not only seeing new places but also meeting hundreds of members. At these meetings I have the chance to let members know what is going on throughout the WI, not least new developments in the world of its campaigns.

One of those campaigns has been that of saving our honey bees, and yesterday there was a vote as to whether to impose a two year moratorium on certain pesticides, which many suspect to play a part in bee decline. Three species of bee are already extinct and others are in rapid decline, and while the challenges facing our bee population are numerous, including a loss of foraging and changes in the climate, there is strong evidence pointing towards the contribution of particular pesticides. Many scientists and campaign groups have called for these pesticides to be banned, but the last time a vote was taken in the European Parliament, Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, refused to support a European vote to stop them being used. I am sure many members have since lobbied him, and there was another opportunity for him to vote yesterday. Unfortunately Mr Paterson voted against the ban, but it looks like the European Commission has the mandate they need to go ahead with the ban now. The issue has been widely covered in the news.

Another news item is that of the possibility of cookery and horticulture being included eventually in the school curriculum. This too is an issue in which the WI has played a big part. The WI has long called for cookery to be made a compulsory part of the curriculum and for many years many WI members have undertaken gardening in schools, teaching many children the joys of digging, planting and picking crops of vegetables. Some schools even go on to cook such produce too. The NFWI has written to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP, welcoming the inclusion of cookery in the curriculum and urging him to make gardening a more substantive element of the curriculum. As always, we await developments.

In the latest edition of the Green Alliance newsletter there is an article with the title "Why We Need Landfill Bans", which tells us that recycling wood, plastics, textiles and foods, rather than dumping them in landfill sites, would save the economy £2.5 billion of resources each year. I am fortunate to live in an area that does recycle these items, and since 2006 the WI's campaign to reduce, reuse and recycle has not gone away. When it comes to food in particular, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign is ongoing too and comes into sharp focus with the WI Great Food Debates being held in many areas. This evening I shall be attending my last annual council meeting of the season - that of my own federation.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The many remits of The WI

This week's news has brought to the fore the issue of the lack of public transport, especially for older people. In some areas where services are being axed, a short trip for weekly shopping becomes more of a problem.  The remedial suggestion given, setting up "community car schemes", is not new. Car sharing schemes are now becoming more established, but back in 2006 when the NFWI tried to establish them, it was very difficult to harness peoples' interest, never mind setting one up. The main reason for the NFWI then was to cut CO2 emissions within our campaign on environment and climate change. That is still a principal reason; but also journeying together can be a great help to someone, as well as enjoyable and less stressful if you are the passenger. My own village operates such a scheme and has done for many years. No doubt many other villages and areas could benefit from these schemes also, and who better to organise one than WI members?

There is no doubt that the climate has changed and I always try to use the train on my WI travels. Today I find myself en route to Eastbourne where I shall speak at the annual meeting of the East Sussex federation of WIs – it is the last such meeting before Easter, but there will be a few more in April.  I thoroughly enjoy this part of the WI and, in fact, all that goes into making the WI what it is and that is why I have always loved and valued being a member. Much time is spent by the national board on deciphering policy and constitutional matters, not to mention honing the vision for the future of the WI. I suppose, in modern parlance, I could say we are trying to break down the disparate silos (data management) across the enterprise. Mind you, when it comes to data we have very little, and it is only in the last decade that we even know the names of all our members on a national level. However, the buzz word is vision, and without vision over the past 98 years the WI would not have survived to be here for the thousands of women who are currently swelling the ranks.  There is no doubt the organisation is, again in modern speak, a brand - The WI Inspiring Women. Open to all women to make of it what they want, to come together with like-minded women, and those with differing opinions too, to learn and share, advise, regroup and take stock with a view to doing something for themselves and for their community.

Sitting on a train I have just passed a corset factory. Corsets were de rigueur when the WI was established – but although women might have been physically constrained thanks to their underwear, it did not prevent WI members voicing their concerns on sexually transmitted disease, poor housing, polluted sea, lack of water and sanitation. I could go on. In fact, there is a list of well over 400 mandates accepted by the members over 98 years. Women today, although not constrained so much corset-wise, are still pushing at boundaries society appears to accept. Labelling of food, its content and its origin has come sharply into focus in recent weeks but WI members had the COOL campaign (country of origin labelling) long before 'horsegate' hit the headlines.

Over the years many issues around the food we eat have been within the WI remit, whether tackled at national, federation or local WI level. Positive results are usually seen when all three work together, but many a positive result can be down to the tenacity of a WI- or even one or two members of a WI.  Our resolution for this year is a call for WI members to play a part in saving the high streets: if it gains a two thirds majority vote at the AGM this June it will become a mandate upon which members will take action. There are no doubt already many members who, as individual consumers, support their local high street, but a WI mandate would add even more emphasis to the issue. A few years ago in my own federation a survey was carried out to ascertain how many 'local shops' there were in the places where there was a WI. Many villages had no retail facilities. Living in a village that did have a few shops I endeavoured to feed my family for six months using only local food shops. I succeeded and the cost was certainly no more than had I shopped at out of town food shops. For now, we wait to see if our resolution becomes a mandate.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pesticides and Pollinators – Time to Act

In 2009, the WI passed a resolution on the decline of our honeybee population, calling for greater research in order to challenge this trend. The ‘SOS for Honeybee’ campaign that followed catalysed our members into action and brought the plight of the honeybee to the public consciousness.

We were delighted when the government announced the Insect Pollinator Initiative in 2010; a £10million funding pot dedicated to researching the important role that pollinators play, including honeybees, wild bees and solitary bees.

Despite this research, our bee population remains in crisis and, in recent months, bees have been in the headlines once again. This is largely in light of a growing body of evidence emerging on the impact that neonicotinoids – a type of systemic insecticide used in agriculture, as well as in the home – has on bee health and wellbeing. The reaction to this has been swift; several garden retailers have withdrawn products containing neonicotinoids from their shelves, and the European Commission has proposed imposing a partial restriction on their use in some applications and at certain times of the year.

This week the European Commission are putting their proposal to a vote of the EU member states and there is concern that the proposal will be blocked by three of the larger states – Britain being one of them.

The WI has always been an organisation to look to the future. From campaigning against oil pollution in the 1920s to the provision of breast cancer screening in the 1970s, we have always strived to consider the bigger picture. That is why I have written to the Secretary of State, urging him to support the European Commission’s proposals. Yes; there may be truth in claims that there are gaps in the current research available on neonicotinoids. And yes, we realise that there will be implications for our farming communities. Yet we do not approach this view lightly; we do so bearing in mind the huge impact that pollinator decline will have on our future generations – whether they end up being farmers, wildlife enthusiasts, or simply those who benefit from the fruits of our bees’ labour – which is pretty much everyone! We simply cannot stand still while our bee population, and the important pollination role that they play, slides into obscurity. Of course we accept that alone, the European Commission’s proposal will not present the magic bullet needed to stop the decline of bees. The challenge that bees face is multifaceted and this is widely acknowledged. But the fact remains that the evidence available on neonicotinoids paints a compelling picture on the contribution that they make to that decline. Even if restricting neonicotinoid use assuages this decline just a fraction, can we really afford not to take action?   

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rebuilding Consumer Trust in Food

Food labelling is back in the headlines as EU ministers met this week to discuss the deepening horse meat crisis as it spreads across Europe. As recent events have shown, regulations regarding food labelling in the UK are lax and frequently serve to mislead the consumer.

The public have a right to expect that the food they buy reflects what it says on the label. At present, the likelihood seems to be that the presence of horse meat in the food chain may well be the result of deliberate criminal fraud, but loopholes in the regulatory regime have long meant that labelling simply doesn't help consumers to make a fully informed choice about the products that they buy.

Consumers increasingly expect a wide range of information about the foods on offer to them, whether it is the system under which eggs are laid, the variety of strawberry, or the country of origin of meat in processed products, such as pork pies. Some may want to support farmers from particular countries, or avoid goods produced in others; knowing where a food is from indicates the food miles that it entailed; different countries have different standards on animal welfare and shoppers may wish to avoid meat reared in countries whose standards they find uncomfortable. Under the present rules however, shoppers cannot always obtain accurate information about the origin of meat and fish ingredients.

Clear country of origin labelling is an issue the WI has been lobbying on in Europe since 2010. The last round of negotiations on this saw MEPs agree to adopt regulations to include the origin of fresh meat on their labels, yet for other produce, UK consumers have been left to rely on the goodwill of retailers signing up to a voluntary scheme amid concern mandatory origin labelling is too complex and too expensive.

While recent events have demonstrated the complexity of the food chain very clearly, research shows that consumers want country of origin labelling that reflects their understanding of food. With meat products they want to know where the animal was reared, rather than where the final product was packed and produced. Surveys carried out by the WI showed that 95% of members believed country of origin labelling to be an honest representation of where the ingredients were sourced, and that 93% agreed that a product should be labelled as a national product only if the key ingredients were sourced there.

Recent events have understandably left consumers nervous about the contents of the food they buy. While the government have been reluctant to implement a mandatory approach to country of origin labelling to date, a change in the regulatory system now seems inevitable, and when it comes, it should abolish the loopholes and let consumers make an informed choice about what ends up on their plate. Rebuilding consumer trust in our food system will be a major challenge for government, retailers and manufacturers. Clear country of origin labelling is a good place to start.

This blog post was originally uploaded here on The Huffington Post on 25 February 2013

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Country of origin labelling

I always knew that the WI was cool and never more so than now, with the ongoing furor surrounding meat.  The WI's mandate on country of origin labelling – nicknamed COOL –was voted for at the 2010 NFWI AGM, and has resulted in talks with the legislators in Europe with partial success.  However, we have always remained firm that the voluntary approach to country of origin labelling does not go far enough.  It flies in the face of consumer expectation that a product can be labelled as coming from the country in which the last significant change took place.  The essential messages that came from all of our discussions in Europe was that it was such a complicated process that to make country of origin labelling mandatory would doubtless mean much more administration on everyone's part, but we would all then know where all of any given product came from.  It is interesting that in much of the news coverage of this ongoing issue, we still hear very little from the consumer.

I have no doubt that the topic of where our food comes from will be part of the next Great WI Food Debate to be held on Wednesday in conjunction with the Institute for Public Policy Research.  Food waste is also high on the agenda when we discuss once again how the world will be fed by 2050.  This is the third NFWI-led debate on food security, the first was with Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson in York, and the second took place in Cardiff with members of the Welsh Assembly.  Following tomorrow’s debate, talk to WI members in your area about plans locally.

I reiterate what the Norfolk Federation Chairman said in her piece in the Eastern Daily Press when she said that the WI is known for food.  This will be proved once again when NFWI Vice Chair Anne Harrison brings her expertise on food to new TV show Food Glorious Food, that celebrates recipe ingenuity, flavour, presentation and sheer cooking talent; adjectives that apply both to Anne and to the WI.

A complete departure from food, or at least eating, but how do you make a cup of tea?  Can you write down the steps you take to complete this task?  The simple act of making a up of tea is something that thousands of us do every day but for some, when the memory is not like it was, even the simplest of tasks can become too difficult.  Last week, I met with the Prime Minister in No 10 Downing Street with with representatives from the Fire Service, the Police, the RSA, and two Alzheimer Ambassadors, and we were given exactly this this exercise.  We all have slightly different ways of making tea – do we use a tea pot, or just a cup or a mug?  Do we fill the kettle with water before we get the cup from the board?  Where is the kettle and where is the cupboard?   All of these questions are relevant to someone who is suffering with dementia.   To gain an insight into their situation, we went through this process along with another one – following swiftly spoken instruction to make an origami swan, which proved too difficult for any of us.  Speaking slowly made all the difference, to us and to the swan. 

These are just a couple of exercises that help to build up empathy and eventually some understanding of the cruel disease that strikes thousands of people each year, and as a Dementia Friend you can learn such insights and pass them on to your community or social group all in the interest of building up Dementia Friendly Communities.  The Alzheimer website has all the details of how you too can become a Dementia Friend.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Green fingers

Pretty in pink is how one newspaper headline described HM The Queen last week when she attended her annual WI meeting.  I would say her outfit was more cerise than pink; but it was also definitely pink when she visited Sandringham WI in her capacity as President in January 2012.  I too had the privilege of attending then, and I expect that this year, she will have spoken to her fellow members about her annus mirabilis; her glorious jubilee.   I am so proud that our Queen is a WI member, along with her two daughters-in-law.

The WI is the place to be for so many reasons, and there are currently up to 1,000 women joining every week. Whether they’re looking for new friends, new skills, or new interests, the WI can provide them all, as well as a chance to engage in the big issues of the day.  One of those issues is the many facets of providing enough food across the world by 2050, when it is estimated there will be two billion more o feed.  This has to be thought about now and such elements addressed as farming methods, food waste, genetically modified crops, water supply, sustainability, home-grown crops, pricing and changed climatic conditions.  There are, no doubt, many other factors to consider too, but these and more will be raised across England and Wales with the WI Great Food Debates to be hosted throughout 2013.

Growing food in schools is also of great importance, so that children can learn from an early age the whys and wherefores of planting seeds and eating the vegetable or fruit it produces, which is crucial.  Why, even the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, has children digging and planting at the White House.  Imperative and necessary, but also very enjoyable.  Many of you, like me, will have such happy memories of holding one end of the line while my grandpa or father walked across the soil to push the iron holder into the ground to enable the digging of a straight trench, in which to plant potatoes, or following after them dropping seeds into the holes they made with the dibber.  Or emerging from the greenhouse where the tomato plants leave a green residue on the hands having touched them when watering.  Memories and skills that stand me in good stead now, and our children deserve the same.

Gardening, or at least what action to take with each tool or how to plant a seed, can be something a person suffering from dementia may forget completely.  Today I have attended the PM's Dementia Friendly Communities Champion Group where the participants were taken through a Dementia Friends workshop, which was a most moving and instructive half hour that enabled one to catch a glimpse of life for the dementia sufferer.  The Alzheimer Society website has all the information you need to sign up to be a Dementia Friend.  Be one of the million to have signed up by 2015 to gain some understanding of this debilitating and growing disease; then in true WI fashion, pass on your knowledge, cascade it to groups who can then form part of a Dementia Friendly Community.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Acting on food waste

2013 for the WI has begun with something long associated with the organisation:  food.  Last week, there was much media attention and talk about teaching cookery in schools more widely than is currently on offer, which is something that the WI has long called for, along with teachers, chefs and many more interested parties.  I have commented before that there are schools where cookery is taught to an extremely high standard and where produce is grown in school gardens and then served for lunches, which demonstrate excellent practice where possible.  However, the interviews came out of what needs to become an important discussion on food: how we grow crops, how we distribute food, how can we produce enough for all – is it to be had through huge factory farming projects, is there scope to deliver more through small-scale farming? Or do we carry on as we are?   By 2050, it is estimated there will be up to nine billion people in the world and there are fears that foods of all types will not be available in large enough quantities. 

In my last blog, I wrote in more detail of the WI’s Great Food Debates soon to take place, but today this very issue is hitting the headlines with the claim that there is far too much food wasted across the world.  Reasons given include a poor harvest and poor harvesting of crops; supermarkets rejecting harvests of fruit and vegetable because they are of the ‘wrong’ size or shape; sales promotions that encourage people to buy more than they need resulting in discarded food; and overly strict sell-by dates, as well as fussy consumers.  The Institute of Mechanical Engineers also comments that water used for these crops is being wasted.

Some four years ago, the NFWI worked with Love Food Hate Waste on a project to address many of these issues, and the wastage of food in particular.  This was undertaken with the aim of helping people to change food buying habits and attitudes in order to avoid waste, and the call today is that consumer attitudes need to change.  I am pleased that the WI is leading the way once again.

Way back in 2007 I attended a conference called “If Only Food Could Talk” when there was much evidence of waste from suppliers as well as consumers.  Locally grown and produced sustainable foods were also in evidence and part of the discussion.  That was five years ago; why do we take so long to listen, never mind to act?  Today’s headline must not be forgotten tomorrow.