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For the first time this was a hybrid annual meeting, with delegates present at conference in person, and also quite a lot present online.  Just as well, since I tested positive for Covid on the morning of the meeting, so I participated online while several friends from Bretherton WI who were attending in person undertook my voting duties, and supplied some information for me when the sound quality presented challenges online.  So, this is a hybrid report from a hybrid meeting! 

Chair’s report

Ann Jones, our (fairly) new national Chair, gave what I thought was a professional and informative report.  Ann spoke first about the challenges of lockdown, and its impact on NFWI.  Sadly, members have been lost and some WIs have closed down as they have no longer been viable.  However, on a more positive note, over 23,000 new members have joined in the last year, new WIs have formed, and existing members were thanked for their loyalty and commitment to keeping their WIs going in difficult times.  Ann commented that for many, the WI had been a lifeline during lockdown. 

Ann went on to present information about challenges faced by the Board of Trustees over the last year.  Financially, things have been difficult (see Treasurers report), but Ann was clear that the Board have tried very hard not to pass extra costs on to members.  Efficiency savings have been made – e.g. a move to digital mailing, a reduction in red tape, and allowing staff to work from home or in person.  Throughout her speech, Ann referred to issues raised directly with her by members, which I thought was a positive and inclusive approach.  She also stressed three points for members:

  • Only 4% of WIs nationally are not using e-mail now, but there is recognition that nobody should be excluded – e.g. the WI in Wales has been working with the Welsh Assembly regarding digital equality and coverage. 

  • 25% of members are regularly using My WI, which is an increase of 20%, but it is hoped that this will improve, as members can access a huge amount of information and ideas there.

  • Some rules and red tape are beyond the control of the Board (e.g. set by government/HMRC) but if members find examples of things that create barriers they are invited to contact Ann or one of the Trustees who are keen to consider change. 

Ann concluded by looking forward based on key recent achievements:

  • Be “bold and inspiring” – using our national and voice to promote the aims of the WI. 

  • Be “growing and relevant” – e.g. speaking out against violence towards women, inclusion of the WI in government committee on microplastics.

  • Ensure “recruitment and growth” – an initiative is to be launched to reward WIs with the biggest percentage of new members with £200.  Partnerships are also developing with other organisations, and work is continuing to overturn old fashioned stereotypes about the WI. 

  • Be “inclusive” – WI policy is to include all women, but this must be a living policy, with every member feeling welcome and able to thrive. 

Treasurer’s report

Jeryl Stone presented the annual review, which is available online.  There has been a significant decrease in income (25.6%) due to lockdown, but also of expenditure (30%).  As a result, spending by NFWI in all areas has reduced, except membership support which has been prioritised. 

Jeryl explained that NFWI remains reasonably stable, thanks to the use of reserves and the sale of Denman.  Reserves are now back above the level set by trustees, although instability of investment income and cost of living increases lie ahead.  Membership subscriptions still make up 72% of total income, but it was possible to offer all members three months’ free membership last year as we know.  Proceeds from the sale of Denman are restricted funds and will be used for education.  WI enterprises have suffered losses, but the online arm is growing again, and trading partnerships with companies like Hobbycraft are developing. 

An increase in subscriptions next year will be unavoidable, but the Board will work extremely hard to keep this as low as possible, having voted not to increase subscriptions this year. 

The Board of Trustees were then introduced to members.  Wales is well represented, but English members are still predominantly in the south – it’s creeping up though, with one in Lincolnshire and another in Derbyshire!  Several trustees are also members of virtual WIs. 

Ann Jones had invited Margaret Broom, Chair of Northern Ireland WIs, and Anne Kerr, Chair of Scottish WI’s, to address the meeting, which I thought was a nice idea.  Anne Kerr drew attention to the fact that Glasgow is hosting the ACWW area conference in September this year, and Margaret Broom spoke of how she always knows she is among friends when attending a WI event, even though she apparently doesn’t bake, garden, do craft or “fit the WI model”.  Well she did for me!

The resolution “women and girls with ASD and ADHD under-identified, under-diagnosed, misdiagnosed, under-supported” was proposed and seconded by two members who both have ASD/ADHD and who highlighted some key issues that need addressing:

  • The fact that men and boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed than women and girls matters, because people without a diagnosis often suffer mental health problems in consequence, have reduced life expectancy, and are overrepresented in prison populations. 

  • Much more work is needed to develop an assessment tool suitable for women and girls.

  • We can all try to be more alert to the difficulties faced by women with ASD and ADHD – e.g. by encouraging and supporting WI membership.

Professor Francesca Happe spoke in support of the proposal, emphasising that women are often good at creating a “mask of coping”, through copying behaviours they see in others which they assess as socially acceptable.  She reported that women who receive proper assessment often remark “now my life makes sense”. 

Professor Ginny Russell spoke against, although she made it clear that she did not disagree with Professor Happe’s position.  Her main point was against labelling people in general, and she favoured provision of services at the point of need (as happens at her unit in Devon) rather than waiting years for a diagnosis.

There were a considerable number of contributions from the floor.  Several members spoke movingly of their own experiences or that of female relatives, and some were troubled by the wording of the resolution.  There was overwhelming support for the resolution in the hall and among voting delegates, and the motion was carried by 96.5%. 

There were two speakers. 

Dr Kate Garbers spoke about her research and work in the area of modern slavery.  This was an informative talk, outlining common ways in which people can be exploited, and the difficulties in obtaining accurate information about the extent of the problem.  Five main areas were identified: forced labour; sexual exploitation (significantly higher for women); domestic servitude (ditto); criminal exploitation (e.g. “county lines”, begging, benefit fraud); and organ harvesting (people “donating” organs for which they are not paid).  Modern slavery can be present across all areas of the economy but particularly hospitality, agriculture, construction, and small enterprises like car washes.  

Kate advised that we can all be alert to the possibility that someone may be the subject of modern slavery – e.g. if a person has no documents, is socially isolated, has no money, or if something just doesn’t feel right.  The mnemonic A (for appearance and anxiety), C (clothing unchanged and cautiousness) and T (travel and time – e.g. people being picked up and taken to places regularly) could help with improving awareness.  However, she stressed that no-one should ever intervene or confront – concerns should be reported to the Police or modern slavery helpline. 

Sarah Clarke OBE is the first female Black Rod, and had previously achieved a successful career in sport administration, becoming the first woman Championship Director at Wimbledon.  She came across as a warm and genuine person, who spoke about lessons she had learnt from her upbringing which helped her career – one being “always walk the floor” i.e. listen to everyone to inform decisions.  Sarah recalled many times when she would make a winning point, only for a man at a meeting to claim it as his own (we’ve all been there!), and said she had always tried to have the courage to speak out even when you can’t control the outcome.  Sarah actually didn’t talk much about being Black Rod, but perhaps she is limited by what she can say there, and she was a popular and entertaining speaker. 

The meeting concluded by recognising all the Federations who have celebrated Centenaries in the last two years, including Lancashire, whose representatives – I’m sure you’re all pleased to hear - gave a huge cheer in the hall. 


Jane Elphick

President Bretherton W.I.

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