Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Guest blog by Enid Grattan-Guinness, High Cross and Thundridge WI, Proposer of the COOL campaign

I joined the WI because of the resolutions. My mother was also an active WI member for the same reason. However it took me from 1972 to find what I thought was a really suitable subject that affected all of our members, and one which (at the time) I thought could be easily dealt with.

A member of my WI told us about a Federation current affairs meeting she had been to, where she had learnt about the lion mark on eggs. I was curious, and when investigating the egg and the lion for myself, I ran into the subject of the mislabelling of food. I read about an East Anglian MP who was trying to get the law changed on the label wording of imported pork which could be called 'British' if it had been processed in some way in the UK, even though it had come from another country whose treatment of animals may not match the stringent regulations in this country. He was doing this on behalf of the East Anglian pig farmers. I wrote to him, and he was delighted that I had picked it up and was thinking of making a resolution about it.

Enid Grattan-Guinness with pigs on a British farm

I wrote to my own MP, the Ministry in charge of food, the NFU and my local trading standards office, all of whom sent me a great deal of information. The most important information I found stated that there was an EU ruling with a loophole, which had originally been nothing to do with food but with making parts of white goods in various countries within the EU and the final assembly in one country, which could then say it was a product of that country. It was later agreed by the European court that this could also apply to food. Thus in the UK chickens and other meat could be imported from overseas, cooked and re-sold in various ways, and then labelled as 'British' quite legally.   

My WI agreed that it was a good resolution and that we had a right to know where our food came from, and encouraged me to continue with it. So I carried on with my research, and started on the resolution wording. This is not as easy as you might think, as a WI resolution has to be something that we as members can easily get involved with and follow up in our own way in our own areas, as well as writing letters to MPs and asking the government to do something about it.

The rest is history regarding it being short listed, and to my total amazement, being finally chosen as the resolution that year. I was well into my 70s when this resolution was chosen, which just shows that age is no barrier to your going ahead!

Following much campaigning by members, in 2015, EU rules came into force which introduced country of origin labelling for unprocessed, sheep, goat, chicken and pork meat products. This means the label must show the country in which the animal was reared and slaughtered.

In the UK the government has gone further, and worked with the large supermarkets to voluntarily put country of origin information on packaging. This means that the vast majority of fresh produce, meat, milk and dairy products now include this information.

Many members also went to their local shops and restaurants and lobbied the manager to give them what they wanted.

The issue of country of origin labelling is still live. The resolution and our strong campaigning locally and nationally have made it clear how important knowing the source of our food is to us and our families. This has helped make decision makers aware of other labelling issues that they are able to deal with, which perhaps would not have been dealt with had our whole membership not made it quite clear that we wanted honesty from our food producers.   

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Inspiring resolution

Guest post from Amelia Wilson, President of Nedderton and Bedlington WI, proposer of the mandate that inspired the Love Your Libraries campaign

Although I was initially nervous about submitting a resolution for consideration by the WI, I felt concerned enough about the proposed cuts to library funding and threatened closures that I reached a point where I could not let the opportunity pass.  Once I had composed my resolution, I was grateful for the support I received from my local WI members and the committee at my local federation. after proposing the resolution, it was so gratifying to watch it progress through the selection procedure and eventually find it accepted, although I was somewhat nervous about the prospect of addressing over 4,300 fellow WI members at NFWI Annual Meeting in Liverpool.

I felt fully supported in the debate from my fellow WI speakers on the day, from the guest speakers Erwin James and Sir Steve Redgrave, and to my delight, the resolution was passed by a large majority.

It is not every day I am called upon to address a very large crowd, but I would definitely encourage anyone who feels as strongly about any subject as I did about the library cuts to press on and confront their initial reluctance.  If I can produce a resolution, I am sure most members can enjoy the same success.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Gossip from the garden; citizen scientists!

Guest blog by Susan Jonas, proposer of the SOS for Honeybees campaign 

There is a wonderful podcast - ‘Gossip from the Garden Pond’ (Best of Natural History Radio 4) - three tales written by Lynne Truss which reveal the funny side of life in and around a garden pond and open a door into this fascinating world.

My favourite is the tale of the Garden Spider – it includes the protestations of a wasp being wrapped up ready for lunch and the delights to be had from consuming a butterfly, but I did feel sorry for the bee as it got caught in the web! All these insects are pollinators to be welcomed in the garden, but many are facing far worse problems than being eaten by a spider.

In 2009, honeybees were in the news because their populations were declining, and without pollination many crops are at risk of failing. The resolution ‘SOS for Honeybees’, which was carried at the 2009 NFWI Annual Meeting, highlighted the plight of bees and identified loss of habitat as a possible cause. The response from WI members was overwhelming; some members trained as bee-keepers, and bee-friendly plants were planted in even the smallest window boxes- there was something for everyone to do!

The national campaign led to the WI’s involvement with the National Pollinator Strategy.  

Loss of habitat, disease, pesticides, climate change – or a combination of these – may all be contributing to the decline in pollinator populations. However there is a huge need for more research, particularly in the field.  Scientists require data as the evidence base for policy decisions, but how is this data to be collected?

At a ‘Bee Summit’ hosted by the NFWI and Friends of the Earth to coincide with the first anniversary of the publication of the National Pollinator Strategy, I was asked to speak about ‘Engaging the Public in Citizen Science’. This involves creating a partnership between professional scientists and enthusiastic volunteers. In the UK, there is a wonderful history of volunteers collecting data, particularly for birds, butterflies and mammals, so could we do the same for pollinators?

To try this out, I signed up for a citizen science project - ‘Bees ‘n Beans’ – at Sussex University.  This project was a little bit more than just data collecting; it was actually doing an experiment alongside about 500 other people spread across the UK.  The aim of the project was to study insect pollination in gardens and allotments.

My garden is where it all happens!  I call it my evolving work of art, a place to experiment and sufficiently 'messy’ to be attractive to pollinators.  For those worried the science might be too hard, rest assured there are no ‘right answers’.  This is an investigation! All that is required is some knowledge of growing plants, a bit of time and some space.  It is no harder than following a recipe, and the results can be a surprise...

So what did I actually do?

The broad beans and ‘rat-tailed’ radish seeds arrived from Sussex University in April with plastic pots and plenty of instructions about how to grow them. I started a journal to record everything I did and everything I saw. I made sure I treated all the seeds fairly – same compost, same watering regime, etc.

Four specimens of each plant were selected in May - one plant was put under fleece, one plant for hand pollination, one free for all, and a spare in case of accidents!

Hand pollinating the broad bean flowers was quite straightforward- the bumblebees joined in! 

The radish flowered in July - the small white flowers were of no interest to bumblebees but attracted hoverflies. I hand pollinated with a paintbrush. 

Small beetles attacked the leaves and flowers of most plants, but under the fleece the plant grew magnificently with masses of flowers!

I harvested the broad beans in August, counting and weighing the pods and beans. The radishes had no pods to harvest – this was all part of the experiment! 

All the data was sent to the professionals for analysis plus information about the pollinators I had noticed.

As well as providing vital data for large-scale research, taking part in this citizen science project was fun. Recording everything in a journal is quite revealing.  I had not taken much notice of hoverflies before, but now I recognise them as important pollinators. The fleece protected plants from predatory insects but there was no harvest. No pollination means no crops.

Hand pollination is quite time consuming and may not give the plants the extra ‘buzz’ to release pollen that insects give them. I saw Carol Klein on Gardeners’ World use an electric toothbrush for this purpose. Research shows that good pollination increases both the quantity and quality of yields. My blackcurrants are testament to this - I won first prize for them in the village show.

Resolutions give us a mandate for action but we still need to be engaged and given something positive to do.

We are helping bees by creating ‘bee-friendly’ habitats and using less pesticide in our gardens – now the researchers need a helping hand too.  The need for information is great and creating partnerships can make it happen.

At Sussex University, the Buzz Club organises citizen science projects which connects enthusiastic volunteers with large-scale research.  This year I am taking part again – this time with two projects ‘All About Alliums’ and ‘Bees ‘n Beans’!

The Buzz Club offers citizen science opportunities across the UK and more information can be found on their website

You can also take part in citizen science projects through Open Air Laboratories.

Susan Jonas speaking at the 2015 Bee Summit (credit: Amelia Collins)

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Guest blog by Susan Baines, proposer of the More Midwives campaign

I am proud to say that, “I am a Midwife”. I have been one since 1986 and prior to that I was a S.R.N. specialising in Gynaecology. So all of my working life I have been involved in the care of women. Currently I am a Lecturer in Midwifery and an Independent Midwife. Over the years I have witnessed, and also been pro-actively involved in, many changes directed at improving services for women during the childbirth continuum. However, upon reflection I can conclude that modernisation has not achieved all it set out to and that some aspects of care are currently a lot worse for women than at any other time I have ever practised. 

When I started my career, midwives were community based and knew women and their families personally; they were a point of contact for a myriad of social concerns and were respected and valued. Today it is argued that pregnancy is more complicated and professionally demanding than before, with the Midwife needing to draw on far more technical skill - as a result her practice is often driven by a fear of litigation and is therefore often defensive. This serves to impact on the choices and support women receive. There is a reputed shortage of 3500 trained Midwives currently and some NHS units are at breaking point. Staff shortages impact adversely on normal birth and home birth statistics, and postnatal care is in some areas a postcode lottery.  A lot of Midwives are working on their good will in order to do their best for women in their care.

After my two adult daughters left home, my husband and I returned to the small town where I had been brought up and I looked for a WI to join. There was none. I therefore decided to set one up. In 2011 Horwich WI was created and I became President. Our numbers slowly grew and one day a communication arrived via our secretary asking members for ideas for resolutions.

Our treasurer was at that time pregnant and I remember we chatted about her experiences and frustrations with local maternity services and her rushed and limited antenatal appointments.  It was then that I proposed to the membership that we create a resolution about Midwifery care and particularly about training, recruiting and employing more Midwives so as to better support mothers.

Everyone seemed so eager and there was a buzz around the room as the group recalled their experiences. It was so interesting to hear from our more mature members that they could recall with clarity their Midwife’s name, such had been the impression she had made upon them. Younger members on the other hand could not do so, as they had received team care and had never seen the same Midwife twice antenatally or known the Midwife when their labour had started. 

Our resolution was sent to the Lancashire Federation. We were surprised and delighted to later hear that ours had been short listed, especially being such a new WI. I recall that the next few months were a frenzy of presentations with other local WI’s in order to drum up support.

I was asked to present the resolution at the AGM at the Royal Albert Hall and I remember feeling unusually very calm, even though faced with thousands of faces. I think this was because I really felt we were “one” in the auditorium. Everyone was so kind and supportive. The resolution achieved 96% in favour and was duly passed.  My spirits soared with the huge backing of the WI membership. I felt that we as women were standing together to support women and Midwives.

A few weeks later I was invited to attend WI headquarters in London and become part of a joint research advisory group looking into women’s experiences of maternity services. I was in the company of Elizabeth Duff from the NCT, and Jacque Gerrard from the RCM.

In May 2013 the research study ’Support Overdue: Women’s Experiences of Maternity Services’ was published.  The study made three salient findings: that choice remains an aspiration and not a reality for most mothers, that current maternity care is fragmented, and that postnatal care is a postcode lottery.

From the offset, WI members worked pro-actively to increase awareness of the issues faced by mothers and their Midwives including writing to their local MPs. The NFWI also collected almost 30,000 signatures calling for urgent action, which were presented to the Minister of Health Dr Dan Poulter in October 2013.

To date, the NMC has been receiving more complaints from mothers about their Midwifery and Maternity care experiences than ever before and I feel this is due in part to the increased awareness and pro-activity of over 215,000 WI members up and down the country. Women talk to other women and this is extremely powerful dialogue regarding the standards of care they should expect to receive.

I wish to thank my WI, Lancashire Federation and NFWI for their support of women and for their support of Midwives.

You can read more about the campaign so far and its successes here: 

Friday, 1 July 2016

Climate Change Impact on Gardeners

Guest blog by Kate Mawer – WI Climate Ambassador, Braunston WI, Northamptonshire Federation

As an amateur gardener I enjoy the uncertainty that working with the seasons brings. Gardeners are adaptable people, it is no surprise when a late frost catches us out and an apple crop is poor or when a mild winter brings more devastation from slugs to our hostas. The changes we experience year on year can be part of the fun and is what maintains our passion for gardening. This year my herbaceous perennials are looking wonderful, filling every gap in my garden, and the new planting in the village community garden has established quickly because of the spring and summer rain.

It is the greater occurrence of more extreme weather events that is the concern of the gardener. I am fortunate that my garden is not in a flood risk area and so I have not had to replace a garden that has been devastated by floods. As chairperson of the Braunston Village Gardens Association gardeners are telling me about how they have had to replant their produce gardens this year as they have lost a high proportion of their first plantings due to the wet and increase in pests. This is costly, time consuming and demoralising.

As gardeners we are custodians of biodiversity. Extreme weather events create uncertainty. Gardeners may be put off by the challenges of new diseases and unfamiliar pests that are difficult to control. It is a concern that for some the solution is to replace plants with hard landscaping or artificial turf reducing the opportunities for wildlife to thrive and ironically further adding to the issue of flooding.

Climate change is complex. Planting Mediterranean gardens and investing in a water butt system, at one time popular suggestions for gardeners coping with climate change, is not a solution when the dry summer has been replaced by one of the wettest on record.  

I, like other gardeners, appreciate the physical and emotional health benefits of this hobby. We will continue to garden and even thrive on achieving successes despite the unusual seasons. We are significant players in terms of food production, wildlife conservation and flood control and understand that working with others now to limit carbon emissions will make a significant difference and benefit the gardeners of the future.

 Join the October Week of Action!

Join us from 8th-16th October in a Week of Action to celebrate the people, places and things we want to protect from climate change, and make sure MPs feel that love. People all over the UK will be lobbying their MPs in their local area, and we'd love you to be involved.

We'll be seeing nature walks, tea parties, classic lobbies, community energy visits and all sorts of other events to show MPs why you would like them to take action to protect your community from the impacts of climate change. All this will involve MPs so that politicians see, feel and hear how much their constituents care about what we could lose to climate change.

More details, including an action pack and a range of resources to support you, are available on the NFWI website at

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Women’s Institute: More activism and adaptation than Jam and Jerusalem

Guest blog by Johanna Wilson, Borough Belles WI

The office where it all happens...

It felt strange to be entering the heart of the Women’s Institute in London. While I am the Social Media Officer for the Borough Belles WI and have been a proud Belle since last year, that’s only part of the reason I am here. The other? Curiosity. I moved to London to work as part of the Charityworks Graduate Scheme, which offers the opportunity for trainees to explore the charity sector further. Hearing from organisations across the sector got me thinking: while I understand how traditional charities work, how does an organisation like the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) work? An organisation that is made up of smaller charities with their own boards, that operates on a federation model and whose campaigns are determined by the membership. I got in touch to find out more about how the NFWI supports members to campaign, and the Public Affairs and Communications teams were kind enough to let me visit for a day to find out for myself!

The WI has a proud history and has thrived since it was founded in 1915 to help develop rural communities and encourage women to become involved in food production during WW1, becoming what is now the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK. The model can be a bit complex to get your head around. Your own WI is an individual charity while your Federation provides opportunities and support for a number of WIs. The National Federation is a national charity which represents WI members across the UK and provides guidance and support to Federations and WIs, and a lot of their work goes unseen; in fact, some WI members don’t even know they exist. When I visited the office, everyone was pretty excited preparing for the upcoming Annual Meeting (AM). The AM is the key date in the NFWI’s calendar. It’s not only a logistical challenge for the Events team and an important WI tradition. It is the votes of the delegates at the AM that sets the organisation’s campaign work for years to come. It decides who they’ll be working with, where they’ll be focusing their energies, what actions members can do and what message they’ll be sharing. Though there are a lot of stages to the process, every resolution is proposed by a WI member and shortlisted by members. These resolutions are then debated throughout the organisation by local WIs before being brought to the AM, and once a resolution is adopted, it becomes part of a bank of mandates dating back to the earliest days of the WI, and can be worked on at any point in the future.

When discussing the campaign resolutions put forward this year with the team, there are clear benefits to both. Food poverty is a huge challenge, with food bank use in the UK at a record high and eight million people in the UK struggling to put food on the table. At the same time, dementia care is an issue that is growing in importance and dementia carers are currently saving UK services £11 billion annually. The WI currently has no resolution on unpaid care, an issue that still predominantly affects women and in the Public Affairs department they have to keep an eye to campaigns that could open up other avenues for work (the fun thing about writing this retrospectively is that I now know both of these resolutions have passed!) There is a huge variety in WI campaigns work, both on a daily basis and in the new campaigns that have been chosen by members. Just a few of these are:

  • More Midwives: The WI’s Midwives campaign has been widely celebrated and since its launch in 2012, NFWI research has been cited in NHS England’s National Maternity Review and the WI have contributed to The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence’s first ever safe-staffing guidance for midwifery services. One staff member at NFWI was so inspired by the campaign that she has since gone on to become a midwife herself!

  • Care Not Custody: In 2008, the WI passed a resolution calling for an end to the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems and has been working with the Prison Reform Trust towards this. This was a campaign of particular interest to me, not only due to my interest in mental health but also because the charity I work for runs Liaison and Diversion services. Mental health in the criminal Justice system is sadly still a huge challenge, but following on from the trial sites and despite delays, the NFWI is hopeful that a full rollout of these services will be announced soon - a huge success and a promise of support when people need it the most.

  • Climate Change: While this campaign is a longstanding one, there will be a lot of new actions and campaign work coming up. So watch this space, or if you want to get in on the ground floor, apply to be a volunteer Climate Ambassador and work with NFWI to look at climate change in your local area (details here).

Yet what seems most surprising is the continuity of campaigns. To celebrate the centenary last year, we Belles did a whistle-stop tour of the century, and looking at what previous campaigns have been, some issues have clearly remained at the heart of the Women’s Institute. Yes, it seems unlikely that a resolution 'that this meeting, remembering that our young Queen has duties as a wife and mother urges the nation as a whole not to overwork her Majesty' (1952) would get passed now, but the WI has spent one hundred and one years speaking out on the environment, education, women’s rights and rural services, and will be fighting for these issues as we move into the next century.

The team are quick to acknowledge the challenges they face and where they plan to make improvements. The WI is still an organisation that is predominantly rural and while the number of women living in rural areas who are members is fantastic, there are practical challenges to communicating with them. There was even a case of one WI streaming the Centenary AM for their members, which promptly took out the internet in their whole town! Because of this, WI Life is the only consistent way to reach everyone, which brings its own challenges in terms of sharing information quickly, especially for those of us who are used to checking our emails religiously! The WI has a huge geographical reach, which can make it challenging to make sure campaigns are relevant to all members. It’s not rare that proposed resolutions don’t address the current situation in Wales or the Islands who have separate parliaments and work in a completely different legal framework. The Public Affairs team always has to have a view to the wider picture.

Yet it is the strengths of the WI that stand out, and the strength of its members that makes it so formidable. Members of the WI are there because they want to be there and the organisation is member-led. While the small public affairs team doesn’t always have the detailed policy knowledge needed for a new campaign, they are able to create strong partnerships with national organisations, where their partners bring the resources and political links and the WI bring 220,000 engaged and passionate members across the country. The range of campaigns means that there’s always an action to do or somewhere to push for change; from specific climate change action weeks to legal changes around country of origin labelling on food. While the old-world “Jam and Jerusalem” stereotype can linger in the minds of some press offices and production companies, the variety of what the WI does and the women who are members have broken down this stuffy reputation over time.

As the make-up and lives of members change, the NFWI is re-examining their ways of communicating and selecting resolutions. Work to review the resolutions process and consider ways to improve it is underway. The NFWI is also currently organising a full members’ census. With new members joining all the time and new WIs being started every week, now is a perfect time to ask members for their views on campaigns, Denman and ensuring education is accessible for all, as well as something as basic as how people would like to be contacted. The NFWI always looks to change and evolve to ensure that the WI represents every member, old and new, while keeping true to the its roots and ethos.

The Public Affairs team’s newsletter relaunched recently, so you can sign up here to receive regular updates. If there has been one takeaway message I left the NFWI with, it is that the members are at the heart of what is done here and they want to hear from them, not only about their ideas and requests but even just about what they are up to. Hearing from members is what keeps the NFWI connected and they’re always looking to hear from more people - remember, any member can submit a resolution. So finally, all that remains is to say a big thank you to Lisa, Oliver, Jana, Emma, Joanna, Charlotte and Fiona for hosting me for the day!

Thursday, 2 June 2016

How to find your voice

This is guest bog from Lewis Shand Smith, chief ombudsman at Ombudsman Services, exploring the complaints landscape in the UK, and offering advice on how WI members can find their voice when it comes to making a complaint.

Last year, there were 52 million complaints about products and services according to new research from Ombudsman Services.

However, the third annual Consumer Action Monitor – the most comprehensive multi-sector survey of its kind in the UK – found there were a staggering 66 million complaints not acted upon, indicating that we’re only really seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Having your wrong put right

Consumers are ignoring millions of problems each year because they would rather suffer in silence than go through the perceived hassle of complaining – but it’s not as complex and time-consuming as you might think.

If you’ve ever had an issue with a retailer or your energy or communications provider then you’re not alone. A quarter of all complaints in the UK relate to an issue with a retailer, with faulty products the most common cause of dissatisfaction amongst consumers. The most problematic sectors were telecommunications and energy.

Whatever your age or issue, you shouldn’t have to put up with slow broadband or shoddy customer service. All consumers have the right to complain and a right to independent redress if the company you complain to doesn’t help.

An ombudsman covers each of these sectors, which provide free, quick and simple ways to reach a resolution.

As a result, we’ve prepared a number of helpful tips below to help you become a better complainer if you have a problem with a product or service you’ve purchased:

How to make your complaints heard
1.    Firstly identify what you want to achieve, have a clear idea of what it is you want to achieve from complaining. Would you be happy with an apology, the wrong put right, or do you want financial compensation?

2.    Don’t get emotional – keep your anger in check and don’t get mad. Be assertive without being aggressive

3.    Don’t be embarrassed – it’s your right to complain if you’re not satisfied

4.    Admit your part in the problem if you have any fault

5.    Address one complaint at a time, ensure what you say is clear and fair

6.    Keep records of all correspondence, paperwork, bills and receipts, if asked to send them anywhere make sure you send photocopies and keep originals

7.    If you’re not getting results complaining directly to the company, identify the person or organisation who has the power to make changes and help

8.    If your complaint has not been resolved quickly (normally within eight weeks), you can take your complaint to an organisation like Ombudsman Services

Changes to the law that will help you
In July 2015, new legislation come into force requiring all businesses in the UK to offer their consumers access to independent redress for any unresolved complaints. If they aren’t signed up to an alternative dispute resolution scheme, like Ombudsman Services, they must explain this to their customers.

It’s not compulsory for all companies to belong to an ADR scheme, but it shows that the company values customer service. Tread carefully if you decide to buy a product or service from a company that doesn’t have an independent way of resolving your complaints.