On Friday, 10th June, Women’s Institute delegates from all over the country descended on Brighton for the annual meeting. Those from further afield made a long weekend of it; others travelled down for the day. As you would expect from the WI, everyone was seated and ready when the NFWI Chair Janice Langley stood up to address the meeting right on time. Then four thousand ladies stood to sing “Jerusalem”. There is something uniquely rousing in giving voice with four thousand others to the anthem of our suffragette sisters. Sets the tone for the meeting.
Janice spoke twice from the rostrum, reminding us that the Women’s Institute is not merely a women’s group but also a group of women who set out to make a difference. She explained how the three tiers: local, federation and National level all aim to educate and to inform. Denman College is at the heart of WI training and is in dire need of funds. If every WI member donated £1 that would be £226,402 towards the £2 million total required. In this digital age communication is the key, through social media and the website. The WI is keeping up, with online training provided through the “Moodle” and short skills videos. A “members only” section is coming soon. Click here for Women’s Institute.
The first campaign proposal that was put to the meeting was “We call upon HM Government and the NHS to provide facilities to enable carers to stay with people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia that have been admitted into hospital. “. During the discussion points were raised concerning the possibility that carrying the motion might result in carers being pressurised into staying at the hospital. I do not recollect anyone raising the most obvious issue: how on earth will our cash-strapped NHS find the resources to allow carers to stay alongside their patients in hospital? The motion was carried by 3305 Yes votes and 856 No votes – a majority of 79.4%.
The Hon Treasurer’s report involved figures in the millions. Suffice to say; last September there was a deficit incurred by the NFWI’s and by Denman College. WIE Ltd and WI Life made a profit, and the organisations pay each other. The aim is to get Denman College to be completely self-supporting and the treasurer reminded members to make full use of the facilities.
Our first speaker was Rona Fairhead, BBC Trust Chairman. So elegant. So assured. A pilot and a scuba diver AND three children back at home. How does she do it? But I digress.
Rona remarked that the WI and the BBC have much in common: they both set out to make a difference and they both shine a light on things that matter. It is essential to keep the BBC independent, answering to the Nation not to the State. Listening to her I felt confident that she would lead the BBC Trust to achieve the greater efficiency and leaner management that is her goal.
As the Conference broke up for lunch a few delegates, ever-practical, settled down in their seats to eat their packed lunches. Others wandered downstairs to browse the stalls while most nipped outside for a breath of sea air. Brighton sea front is such a vibrant place and many delegates found a perch along the sea wall to eat their sandwiches while listening to a local singer. Then they strolled along the beach past the volleyball pitch to buy an ice-cream before returning to the afternoon session.
The second resolution to be debated was “The Women’s Institute calls on all supermarkets to sign up to a voluntary agreement to avoid food waste, thereby passing surplus food on to charities thus helping to address the issue of increasing food poverty in the UK.” This was carried with 5146 Yes votes to 856No votes – a majority of 82.7%
Our second speaker followed. Baroness D’Souza is Lord Speaker in the House of Lords. She spoke eloquently and explained that the House is essential for revising and scrutinizing draft legislation then giving it back to the House of Commons six months later, more fragrant and more fertile than the original poorly drafted clauses. The Baroness commented that the Lords needs to be smaller, tighter and more professional.
The meeting finished with a sing along à la ‘last night of the proms’ in honour of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday. All those who brought flags were enthusiastically waving them in time to the music. I was relieved to be able to stand up and stretch my legs as we belted out “Jerusalem” for the second time. Whoever designed the Conference seating clearly has never had to sit in it, with their legs cramped for too long in one position.
Disgorging such a massive crowd back onto the streets of Brighton had to be carefully coordinated. For the next hour a continuous stream of coaches drew up at the Conference Centre to collect its passengers then slide back into the Brighton traffic and make its way home. Would I go again? Yes. It is a privilege to be amongst such a large group of like-minded women. More importantly, I intend to read up much more diligently on next year’s campaign proposals and to pay more attention. That is where the WI can still make a difference in today’s world. To quote Janet, “The Women’s Institute is everything you want it to be and what you make of it.”