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Mrs. Gillan: That is my point exactly, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I sought to legislate for England and Wales, having been advised that Northern Ireland and Scotland would be outwith the Bill’s scope. His point highlights my problem. Around May last
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year, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton introduced a ten-minute Bill, but a magic two days before, a prevalence study was announced. However, it has not been delivered. That is yet another example of non-delivery. I cannot roll over on a set of promises. That is absolutely not possible at this stage.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am so pleased that my hon. Friend will not give in and that she is determined to press this matter. May I tell her about one of my constituents, whose son’s story is a testament to why this measure is needed? I refer to Mrs. Christine Gilliam’s son, Luke, who was not diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until he was 10—a late diagnosis. Mrs. Gilliam had to fight for her son’s statement of special educational needs, as so many parents have to do. He had to be accommodated in a mainstream school and was constantly bullied. There was a lack of support for his transition to adulthood and he ended up in Feltham young offenders institute. Mrs Gilliam wrote to me saying:

Is that not why the Bill is so necessary?

Mrs. Gillan: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is another example that must be familiar to many of us as constituency Members.

I hope that I have been generous in giving way to as many Members possible; that I have been able to give the House the flavour of the Bill, which is all that can be done on Second Reading; and that if the Minister chooses to speak, he will reiterate the promises that he has made outside the House so that we can, in this instance, have our cake and eat it. He has said that he will deliver without the Bill, but our ability to discuss it in detail today can only add to the body of knowledge in his Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I am delighted that so many Members have responded so positively. Again, that is nothing to do with me. It is a tribute to the organisations that have worked so tirelessly, and to the many colleagues who have worked tirelessly in the House. I also thank the staff in my office. A private Member’s Bill means an awful lot of strain and extra work for staff who are already overburdened with e-mails, letters and constituency work, and my staff are to be commended for the way in which they have stepped up to the plate.

I hope that the Minister will reaffirm his promises on the Floor of the House, and that he will give the Bill a fair wind into Committee. I also hope that the whole House will be able to put something on to the statute book that will improve the lives of many, many people throughout our country.

10.32 am

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to speak on Second Reading of this Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on being drawn first in the ballot. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, I also thank the hon. Lady for choosing the subject, and for all her efforts over the past few weeks.

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The results of the pressure created by the Bill are admirable, and are largely due to the culmination of support, awareness-raising and campaigning among the wider autism community over the past decade. Let me specifically acknowledge and thank the National Autistic Society for its commitment to championing the causes of children, adults, parents and carers who are affected by autism throughout the country. They continuously face an uphill battle when seeking support and guidance for those in need. The National Autistic Society has truly set a precedent in providing what is needed and expected: information, advice, advocacy, training and support for individuals and their families who are dealing with autism. The presence of the society, which has over 18,000 members and 80 branches across the United Kingdom, is widely felt in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Further thanks are due to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who is responsible for care services, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who is responsible for schools and learners, for the letter that they sent last week outlining the Government’s commitment to improving access to services, opportunities and, I hope, the lives of people with autism. I am delighted to note the Government’s commitment to a new strategy, and warmly welcome the latest developments. Indeed, I want to record my thanks for the efforts that Ministers have made to work with the National Autistic Society to develop proposals whose implementation will surely require an extensive collaboration between groups and individuals in Whitehall and beyond to ensure that the needs of individuals affected by autism are truly represented.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): A key part of that collaboration must be within local authorities, not just between different agencies. Those in children’s services departments need to talk to those in adult social care departments, so that the important transition phase works for the young people involved.

Mrs. Dean: My hon. Friend is right. We all know of occasions in our constituencies when those services have not worked together, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the proposed measures will ensure that that happens.

I fear that, owing to the tight time scales, the scope of the strategy may be too limited, and I hope the Minister will agree to meet me to discuss its progress and scope. I also hope he will assure me that the Government are committed to producing a comprehensive document along the lines of the carers strategy, and that it will have

as the Ministers state in their letter. Such clarifications will fill the gaps to enable the strategy to be implemented successfully.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): The hon. Lady mentioned the carers strategy. She may recall that in March 2006 I attempted to introduce a ten-minute Bill to enable the disability and carers allowance to be granted automatically to those diagnosed with terminal illnesses. I was given
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assurances similar to those that she seeks from the Minister that it would all go ahead, and such assurances had also been given in 2005. I caution the hon. Lady that, in the absence of a Bill, it has not happened, and that that is why the Bill should go into Committee. I fervently hope that she will support the proposal that it should do so.

Mrs. Dean: I am mindful of the fact that the National Autistic Society has said that

I hope that the Minister’s response today will satisfy that requirement.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady will know that, having set targets on child poverty, the Government are now deciding to legislate to try to eradicate it. If legislation is good enough for child poverty, why does she oppose legislation for people with autism?

Mrs. Dean: The Government’s proposals involve amendments to section 7 of the relevant legislation. That will enshrine the measures in statute, so that authorities will have to respond.

Mr. Dismore: I think that the intervention from the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) was quite important. What she was effectively saying was that she did not trust the Government, and the implication of that is either that she has conceded that the Conservatives will not win the next general election, or that she would not trust her own side if they were in government.

Mrs. Dean: My hon. Friend has a point.

The discrepancy between the policies that we debate in Parliament and the reality of life for parents, professionals and people with autism has been a deeply held concern of the all-party parliamentary group for autism since its inception in 2000.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred to the Government’s record. The Minister himself admits that their record is unsatisfactory, and that people with autism have been let down. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) was promised a prevalence study nearly two years ago, but it has not happened. Why is the chairman of the all-party group rolling over, when if we keep the Bill we can put pressure on the Government to deliver?

Mrs. Dean: I have had many meetings to discuss the prevalence study, and I know that there are valid reasons—which the Minister will give later—for the fact that it has not begun. As chairman of the all-party group, I have been made aware of the facts over recent months.

I should like to continue with my speech now, because I think it important to mention some of the actions that are necessary and some of those that have already been taken. In a moment, I shall describe the actions taken by the all-party group in the last few years. It is not all negative; there have been some successes. The all-party group has specifically focused on the objective of raising awareness of issues affecting people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and their families and carers, both in Parliament and through Government policy changes.

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In the past nine years, we have commissioned a number of research studies, including our manifesto for autism in 2003. It set out four general principles and 11 specific objectives to deliver better services and support for people with autism, to be achieved in the following 10 years. It was developed as a result of extensive consultation across the autism movement, with contributions from people with autism, parents, carers, local groups and national organisations.

The general principles of the manifesto called for the following: all people working with people with autism to be properly trained; research to be carried out, especially into causes, costs and effective interventions on autism; improved service provision for those with autism; and improved tracking and planning of services for people with autism at all local and national agencies. In order to raise awareness in Parliament of the manifesto, the officers of the all-party group on autism tabled an early-day motion to enable Members to put on record their support for those objectives, and the overwhelming support it received was most welcome.

In October 2008, the all-party group launched “Half way there?”, a mid-term review of our manifesto. It found that in the five years since the manifesto was published the profile of autism had risen among both the general public and parliamentarians and that there had been significant progress towards achieving many of the principles and objectives outlined. The Government’s announcement of a national strategy for adults with autism has been warmly welcomed by the all-party group, as it removes some of the fundamental obstacles to progress.

Other key initiatives also delivered progress during the time frame. In the 2005-06 parliamentary Session, the Department of Health published a note to clarify the obligations of local authorities regarding adults with autism. That was the first Government document specifically on adults with autism. It stated:

Additionally, the launch of a Government-funded Autism Education Trust in November 2007 strengthened the focus on training teaching professionals and aimed to improve education support for all children with autism. In 2008, the Department of Health committed to developing an adult autism strategy, with the creation of a senior autism adviser post within the Department to ensure a continuing focus on, and sufficient attention to, autism. That adviser now provides leadership to local agencies in removing barriers that prevent those with autism from accessing the support and services they need. These Government commitments on autism signalled a real commitment to bringing about change. Progress has been hampered, however, by systemic shortcomings in the way information is collected and services are delivered.

The all-party group’s current research takes the form of an inquiry into the transition from school to adulthood for young people with autism. We have received an outstanding response from parents, carers, professionals in the autism sector and from people with autism. People have been extremely keen to tell us about their experiences of transition and the changes they would like to see to improve the services so that young people
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with autism can fulfil their potential, lead happier lives and make a positive contribution to society. For this reason, I was extremely pleased to read in the Minister’s letter of last week that the Government had confirmed their commitment to funding further research on transitions for young people with autism. When only 34 per cent. of students in mainstream schools are being issued with transition plans from children to adult services, that is an essential step forward. Can the Minister reassure me that this money will be ring-fenced to look specifically at improving transition for young people with autism? Additionally, as chair of the all-party group on autism, I ask the Minister if he is willing to share with me that strategy, ahead of publication.

One of the many themes that appears to be emerging from the all-party group transition inquiry is that, once past school age, many adults with autism—especially those with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s—are not deemed eligible for support by social services. I suspect most Members will have come across cases in their constituencies where that has happened. Many of those individuals are told that they do not fit the criteria for support from their local authority’s learning disability team, nor do they fit the criteria for the mental health team, and they therefore fall through the gap between the two services. Overall, 63 per cent. of adults with autism say that they do not have enough support to meet their needs. I therefore seek the Minister’s clarification about how the new strategy will tackle that issue and so ensure that local authorities and NHS bodies will be obliged to remedy the current failing.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): First, like many Members, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing the Bill.

Does the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) not agree that the issue is far broader than she has described and that it involves not only social services, but other Government organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, which often provides advice on job opportunities, and that this Bill is needed in order to start a much broader debate about support for people with autism, particularly young adults?

Mrs. Dean: The hon. Lady is right: the appropriate strategy needs to apply across society, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government’s proposals address that need.

Many people with autism, particularly adults, also face barriers to accessing services because social care professionals and others have inadequate knowledge of the condition. It is vital that those providing services to people with autism understand the disability and are fully trained to communicate with people with autism effectively and to facilitate them in explaining their needs fully. Can the Minister assure me that the new strategy will address that issue?

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and the all-party group for the considerable amount of work they have done on this issue. I am struck, however, that she has asked the Minister on a number of occasions for reassurances on progress. Does she not accept that one of the best ways of being reassured about such progress is through the passage of this Bill today? If she is still reluctant to back it, will she explain why?

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Mrs. Dean: I refer again to the letter that went out from the National Autistic Society, which referred to today’s debate providing the opportunity to secure Government commitments that have been previously given, and, as chair of the all-party group, that is exactly what I am trying to do. I think that the Minister will have the opportunity to respond later and will be able to address those matters.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs. Dean: I want to allow other Members to speak and I have given way quite a lot, so I shall continue.

I want to ask the Minister not only about the new strategy addressing the issues I have raised, but about what specific steps he will take to address the lack of autism training for teachers, social workers and NHS professionals—and also other professionals, such as those at Jobcentre Plus, as the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) mentioned—so that they are capable of working with young and old people with autism. Will the Minister meet representatives from the relevant professional bodies and discuss possible actions to address that lack?

The autism strategy is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to effect a step change in service provision for people with autism, and improve the outcomes for them. I look forward to working together to provide solutions for children, adults, parents and carers affected by autism throughout the country.

10.49 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing this Bill, and for the vast amount of detailed work she has obviously undertaken? We must also all reflect on the point she made that autism touches many people’s lives.

The Bill has undoubtedly been a catalyst for the Government bringing forward a raft of proposals and, like others, I welcome them. They cover both children and adults, straddling the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health, which is very important. This Government have really taken the agenda for children with special educational needs forward. All that is acknowledged.

In the past year, we have had many debates on special educational needs and children with disabilities, and in most of them we have raised issues relating to autism and to children with autism in particular. Let us consider the statistics that I and others have quoted on previous occasions. Some 45 per cent. of parents of children with autism say that it takes more than a year to receive support, and 50 per cent. of parents feel that their child is not in the right setting. More than one in five children with autism are excluded from school, 67 per cent. more than once. More than 40 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are bullied. An estimated one in 100 school-age children is on the autism spectrum. It is a developmental disorder—a hidden disability that is particularly reflected in a lack of social skills in certain settings.

We have been assisted in all our debates by the unstinting work of the National Autistic Society, and by TreeHouse in particular. I congratulate them on their continuing work.

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