After a very early start we had a pleasant scenic drive from Gloucestershire to Cardiff for the National federation of Women’s Institutes AGM . Our arrival was a little awkward as staff at the venue would not let us in until 9.30am. However it was warm and dry and the nearby shopping centre was open so time passed quickly.
Once inside we had allocated seating, mine, as a delegate, being in a superb position in the second row on the end, so I had a wonderful view of the proceedings. There were about 5000 WI members there and the one and only Peter, our County Secretary, who has got to be the bravest man in the UK.
Once everyone was settled we stood for the singing of Jerusalem. When sung by 5000 WI members this is a very moving experience. Suffice it to say it was spine tinglingly good.
Of course we were there for official WI business so there were a great many notices and presentations by the members of the board of trustees among others. They were very ably supported by their legal representative who seemed to have every detail and clause of our constitution at her fingertips. She managed to convey the meaning and reasons behind all the legal language to the satisfaction of members who gave her a resounding round of applause.
As a Link Delegate I was given an envelope containing results on the resolution voting from Benhall WI, Shurdington WI and Badgeworth WI whom I was there to represent. The envelope also had different coloured cards with the words, For, Against, Discretion on them, which were to be used in the voting. A very sensible and accountable scheme I thought.
Before the meeting proper got under way there was an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) to debate a Special Resolution designed to amend the Articles of Association. This is a result of two years of hard work and consultation carried out by the Trustees.
There followed some fascinating debates and very good questions from members. All were answered professionally and succinctly by the Trustees or the legal representative
When the votes were eventually cast the Special Resolution was carried by a huge majority.
The main agenda then started with the appointment of the returning officers and tellers which was carried. Then the trustees were introduced. 68.5% of WI had voted for the Trustees. This was followed by the adoption of Standing Orders. Every WI has received documents explaining all the details of the proposed changes at local, county and national level, and many gave feedback. The documents were then amended to take that feedback into account. The purpose and ethos of the WI as an organisation will not change. The changes are to bring WI into the 21st century and more in line with current Company law or Charity Commission rules.
Some of the changes were controversial, although after reassurance from Ruth Bond and others, they were accepted. Main topics of discussion were about subscriptions eg, 15 months for 12 and flexible payments.
Some fascinating facts emerged during these debates. Did you know that on mainland UK members must be 18 or over but on Isle of Man the age of majority is 16 so members can join at 16?
Again there followed some fascinating debates and very good questions from members. All were answered professionally and succinctly by the Trustees or the legal representative.
When voting got under way all were carried by over 96% of the vote.
It was then time for the Chair’s address. Ruth Bond is a warm, smiley lady who is obviously totally devoted to the WI as an organisation. She has been tireless in her 4 years as Chair, travelling the country and occasionally the world for high profile meetings with some very important people. She has ensured that the WI as an organisation is a force to be reckoned with and an influential member at any meetings. She has also travelled to many WIs and attended lots of Council meetings in different counties. Ruth told us of some of the very funny experiences she has had, and the amazing things she has heard while going about WI business. But basically she describes the WI as a force for good in our communities, a place to form friendships and a catalyst for change with our campaigns. She described the new GUIDE which we have recently received as a useful way of promoting WI for the modern age. It shows that WI members are creative, active, principled, and relevant. She then reminded us of all the good things that WI is involved in; MOODLE, Let’s Cook, Gardening in Schools, Crafts, Baking, Sharing talents to name just a few. She really did inspire us and fill us with pride in our WI. The only downside of Ruth’s talk was the state of Denman College. Although members have rallied round with fundraising to help out, what Denman really needs is for more members to book courses and stay overnight. It is operating at 88% capacity and needs £200, 000 by September in order to survive. There are many reasons why people do not make the journey to Denman, but members have said in the recent survey that they want it to continue. So we must try to help in any way we can. An appeal was launched for members and WIs to make a donation towards Denman of whatever they feel they can afford. Donations should be sent to Denman direct.
Next was the Treasurer’s statement. Stephanie Fort is our very able Treasurer and her full financial accounts were published in the Annual review which all WIs received. They can also be seen on the website http://www.thewi.org
In brief the WI is in a healthy financial position mainly due to the tax rebate of over £1million, which was received some time ago. This enabled NFWI to spend more than they were taking in over the last financial year. Recently it has been ruled that WI subscriptions should not incur VAT therefore NFWI is expecting a refund of about half a million pounds this year. So while we can expect a small increase in our subs for the next year, national may increase the proportion that WIs and County keep from the subs. This will be decided in July.
Following Stephanie’s excellent report, the meeting voted on the adoption of the accounts and auditor’s report. This was carried, the auditors were appointed for 2012/2013. Then the Annual Review was adopted unanimously as far as I could see.
This brought most of the official business to a conclusion so the next part of the meeting was the fun bit as far as I was concerned.
We were introduced to William Shawcross whom I am ashamed to say I had not heard of.
In July 2012, William Shawcross was appointed Chair of the Charity Commission, and is a widely renowned writer and broadcaster. In 1995 he wrote and presented the three-part BBC television series Monarchy and in 2002, to tie-in with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he again wrote and presented a landmark four-part BBC television series, Queen and Country. He has also written the official biography of the Queen Mother. He served on the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) from 1997 to 2002. He has travelled the world.
His father was the politician, lawyer, Chief British Prosecutor at Nuremberg and life peer Hartley Shawcross, who was a Labour MP in the Liverpool area for many years.
He is, in short, a fascinating man who holds the WI in high esteem. His mother was a member. He talked about the Queen Mum’s 65 years as President of Sandringham WI where our Queen is now President.
Mr Shawcross gave a wonderful talk about charity. He said there are 160,000 charities in the UK, mostly small. He described UK as a nation of ‘doers’ and charities as ‘little platoons’, The WI has thousands of these little platoons including family, friends and helpers. He defined them as forming a “Living Tapestry” which is a phrase used in the Beveridge report of 1944. He defined society in the words of Edmund Burke as, “a contract between the living, the dead, and the unborn”. He described the WI and other tolerant and charitable institutions as Oak Trees providing shelter and protection.
As Chair of the Charity Commission, he is very aware that some charities are set up by unscrupulous people with uncharitable aims including fraud, terrorism, and politicisation. These are quickly rooted out.
Mr Shawcross had a wonderful voice and I could have listened to him all day. But it was soon time to move on.
Next there were presentations for the winners of the Lady Denman and Huxley Cups as well as the Elizabeth bell and National Quiz Trophies.
This was followed by a talk about Denman College which reinforced what we had already been told. But this talk focussed on the great learning opportunities being offered now. There are 240 new courses this year covering cookery, craft, lifestyle, history and heritage. It was stressed that all the rooms are now beautifully appointed and en-suite.
There was then a vote for Anglesey Federation to become Incorporated which was passed. Did you know the difference between incorporated and unincorporated WIs? I didn’t but it was clearly explained by the legal representative.
After this it was a very welcome lunch break. I went off to find a park to sit in and was lucky enough to find a bench near the Cathedral. It was a beautiful sunny day and I sat next to a friendly local who chatted nonstop about her lovely family while I ate my packed lunch. I then had time to mooch around John Lewis and Marks which was fatal as I came away with unplanned shopping!
After lunch our next speaker was Griff Rhys-Jones. He said he was happy to be there as he was born in Cardiff and considers himself Welsh through and through. He surprised some members, including myself for being extremely smart and unusually serious, although he still managed to be very amusing and a fascinating speaker.
An active conservationist, Rhys Jones is the president of Civic Voice, the national organisation representing Britain’s civic societies, which campaigns for better places in the built and green environment. He is well known to WI members for his work on Comic Relief and the Restoration programme.
He talked with passion about conservation issues and linked it very well with our resolution on the High Street. He is anti the Government’s proposed changes to planning laws. He encourages us all to get involved in the debate about our towns, parks and buildings through neighbourhood forums. He believes that High Streets must smarten themselves up and ‘become destinations by knowing their value’. He likened them to our ‘front rooms’ which should be attractive and welcoming to visitors. He quoted several towns which have become destinations through lively markets or restoring old buildings. His talk was very inspiring, topical and very well received.
The next part of the day was the Public Affairs Resolution. This is what I was particularly interested in as I am on the Public Affairs Committee in our federation (GFWI). I had enjoyed the local Campaign and Debate Day and the Resolution Day very much. I felt that Gloucestershire members had the opportunity to be very well informed on this resolution and I hoped that all WI members had discussed it fully before voting. As I said I had the results of the vote for the 3 WIs I was representing, which were quite varied.
The proposer Marilyn Haines-Evans gave an impassioned and knowledgeable account of the state of our High Streets now. The seconder, Sybil Grahame, said High Streets must be fit for purpose in a changing world. Sean Spear was the first expert speaker for the resolution. He is from the Campaign for the Protection of the Rural Environment (CPRE). He stressed that we must revive the High Street, not just hang on to what we have. For the local food sector, which is worth £7billion to the economy, to flourish, we need a healthy High Street. He quoted Ledbury as a town which saved their High Street in the face of plans for 2 large supermarkets. They used the CPRE toolkit “From Field to Fork” in their campaign
There was an expert talking against the resolution who was also very knowledgeable and a very good speaker. He predicted that in the next 5 years 50% of shops would close and 30% of towns would be affected because of fundamental changes in the way people shop. High Streets must reinvent themselves, focusing on their differences and local strengths. They must diversify becoming once again places where people live, where there are pleasant leisure facilities, small offices and workplaces, a healthy night time economy, and where public services like police, health centres, libraries etc come together.
There was a lively debate from the floor before the vote for the resolution was carried by an 87.4% majority with 5266 for the resolution and 758 against. The proposer said that the mandate sets the WI an ambitious challenge but they would do all in their power to achieve it.
Our final guest speaker was John Humphrys, journalist and foreign correspondent, who has been presenter of Radio 4s TODAY programme (which has 7 million listeners) for over 25 years. He also chairs Mastermind on BBC2. But today it was Mr Humphrys answering the questions set by WI members! John was very open and honest about his background telling us he learned to read from old Superman comics when he was young. He also said that he was inspired to be a journalist by Clark Kent, who was Superman!
His ambition now is to interview the Queen but from what he said it is not very likely to happen any time soon!
Mr Humphrys spoke warmly about the WI saying it is a vital tool and the essence of democracy in our country. He said WI has more members than most political parties, which makes it very powerful when campaigning.
Mr Humphrys came over as a compassionate and insightful man. He has written several books and was selling them at the end of the AGM in aid of the Kitchen Table Charitable Trust, which he set up some years ago to give small grants to schools and orphanages in Africa. It is a mark of how popular he is that he ran out of books to sell while there was still a very long queue to buy them.
There only remained the Chair’s closing remarks. Ruth talked about the 2015 celebratory AGM for our WI Centenary. Events are being planned from January 2014 when a Baton will go from Federation to Federation. There will also be commemorative gifts available and a commemorative stamp. After consultation and much consideration of costs it has been agreed that the 2015 AGM will be at the Albert Hall. But in order that all members have an opportunity of being a part of the day, the proceedings will be beamed to venues which local federations will hire for their members.
The day closed with a very patient guest, composer and conductor, Jonathan Willcocks, who taught us a song. He is working with WI on ‘Singing for Joy’.