Autism Bill - Third Reading debate

John Bercow welcomes the Bill's progress to third reading and praises the work of all those involved.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), with whom I have been pleased to work as a co-conspirator for improved children’s and young people’s services for an appreciable period of time. Today is a very important day. It is one that we should mark, that we should celebrate and that we should regard as the springboard to greater things.

I begin my hopefully brief remarks by apologising again for my late arrival in the Chamber. I was detained in my office for a short period on other matters, but I certainly did not want to miss the opportunity to be present today.

Most of the substance of what is in the Bill has been covered and I do not think that it will benefit from further repetition. I want to say a few thank yous, and to underline what I think is important about the issue and this place. First, thanks, of course, are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who has piloted the Bill through the House with the combination of eloquence, skill and patience for which she is renowned in all parts of the House. That was a considerable feat, because at first the Government were not keen on the idea of the Bill. My hon. Friend, with good-humoured insistence, kept it up, pressed the case and would not take no for an answer. She was absolutely right to adopt that approach.

I want to pay tribute to the Government, too. I always felt that the Government had good intentions in this matter. I did not subscribe to the rather tedious, old-fashioned, boring and partisan view of some people that the Government were out to scupper the whole idea. The issue was about how to achieve the objective, not whether to do so. As someone who has worked with the hon. Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman), for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and the Under-Secretary of State, I know that the Government are serious about these matters and that they have done a considerable amount on the subject. That is an issue of public record.

It is obvious that, if we work together, we maximise the chance of progress. What is more, we do what the country expects us to do as Members of Parliament, which is to recognise when an issue has a salience and urgency that completely dwarf and diminish the significance of the partisan battle. People out there in the country who have an autistic child or know someone who does could not give a tinker’s cuss whether it is a Labour Government who agree to the passage of such a Bill, a Conservative Administration, a hung Parliament or a grand coalition. Many of them, frankly, could not give a tinker’s cuss about party politics at all. Even if they do, the significance of the issue is far more important to them.

Mrs. Gillan: It is such a shame that my hon. Friend was not here for the opening speeches, because I was able to make the point that this House has been acting at its best in a cross-party way. Had he been here, he would have been able to hear that. That has been the special thing about all the people who have been intimately involved with this Bill and who have personally made contributions to it.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and I would have greatly enjoyed hearing her speech. I have never doubted her commitment to work on a cross-party basis—after all, she was the one offering to do so. However, there are always cynics who do not necessarily think that it is a good idea. It makes sense and we have benefited from it.

As far as the media are concerned, and perhaps I can conclude on this point, I think it was the late Enoch Powell who said that politicians complaining about the media are like sailors complaining about the sea—it is a completely pointless and fruitless activity. Doubtless that is the case, but it is sad that when we work together in a concerted, principled and effective fashion it gets no attention or coverage. The media are just not interested. What a shame. They ought to be. We have done the right thing—

Mrs. Gillan: I said that in my speech.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is saying from a sedentary position that she made all these points in her speech. I am sure that she did, with great eloquence. I have already explained why I was not here and have apologised for the fact. There is no harm in underlining the strength of opinion on this matter.

Liz Blackman: On that point, there is no harm in repeating that message several times in this Chamber.

John Bercow: I rather expected that the hon. Lady would be tolerant of and sympathetic to the point.

Let us go forward in a spirit of togetherness and determination to make things better. I think that we all agree that this subject is important. I sometimes make the point that politics is, in one sense—and perhaps only one sense—analogous to a market place. Just as in a market place, huge numbers of products compete for custom, so, in the field of politics, huge numbers of issues compete for attention and priority. On the basis that people of good will can fairly readily forge consensus about what needs to be done on the issue of autism, the challenge then is to catapult the issue from the back of opinion formers’ and decision makers’ minds to the forefront of their minds and, having so catapulted it, to keep it there. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and others have succeeded in achieving that objective today.

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JOHN'S INTERVENTIONS IN THE SAME DEBATE

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): First, may I apologise for my tardiness in coming to the Chamber this morning? What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right, and does she agree that it is not only a question of children without statements but who are on the spectrum—perhaps with Asperger’s—being vulnerable, but that there is a very real sense in which they can be more vulnerable than anyone else for precisely the reason that she offers: that they do not have what she calls an insurance policy and what I call the comfort blanket or safety valve of a statement? My son is on the spectrum. He has high-functioning autism and he is very fortunate to have a statement, but I have lost count of the number of children I know who are similar to him but who do not have that protection.

Angela Browning: My hon. Friend has devoted a lot of time to, and developed a lot of expertise in, this topic and related subjects, and he is absolutely right. It is very important that the practical application of what we are legislating for today does not lead to silos being created and to the exclusion of the very people who need help the most, but who are not able to articulate that.

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John Bercow: The hon. Lady has rightly paid gracious tribute to the NAS. I am always conscious that there are unsung heroes and heroines who are actively working and deploying all their skills behind the scenes to secure our objectives. Therefore, rather than confine myself to paying tribute to the NAS, I am inclined to invite her to pay particular tribute to its chief executive, Mark Lever, to Amanda Batten, to Beth Reid and, last but by no means least, because she is a precocious talent, to Ellen Broomé.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I am very pleased to support it, although I am rather conscious of all the people whom we are not mentioning. Thus, I shall not go too far along that line, except to say that my unsung heroes include the support groups that I meet in my constituency, one of which is for adults with autism and Asperger’s and another of which is for parents whose children are at school and have such conditions. Their needs are very different, and that brings home to people the real battle that parents have all the way along the line. I wish to echo the earlier point that parents’ greatest fear is what will happen when they die—that never fails to touch my heart—and we know that we have to make things better for that reason.

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John Bercow: To build on the point made by the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), does my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) recall that TreeHouse’s “Constructive Campaigning” parent support project research found that teachers and other staff had not been adequately trained, or trained at all, and still did not recognise the condition of Asperger’s? I am thinking of a quote from the TreeHouse research, in which a teacher said to a parent, “I don’t believe in Asperger’s syndrome.” Of course, it is a matter not of belief, but of fact.

Anne Milton: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, it is pretty shocking when one hears of a teacher saying that, but one will hear the same story from families and charities working with, say, children with epilepsy. Children with epilepsy will have absences, will be low academic achievers, and may well be 12, 13, 14 or 15 before anybody realises that they were not just staring out of the window vacantly or failing to pay attention, but had epilepsy. We hear that time and again. I do not want to wander too far from the subject before us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but bear with me for one moment while I say that there is a need to raise awareness within the teaching profession, and many other professions where people come into contact with children with a multitude of different needs. People in those professions should be alert to conditions such as epilepsy, and should signpost children and their families to possible diagnosis. However, today we are talking about autism.

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John Bercow: My hon. Friend is making an admirable speech, but in referring to the DWP she prompts me to highlight an issue often mentioned but as yet not resolved—the off-putting complexity of the application form for disability living allowance. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would help if the Government looked at that again? It is true, to be fair, that the form has been substantially shortened over recent years, but I think I am right in saying—I have some personal experience—that it is still 52 or 54 pages long, and it does not lend itself to speedy completion by people who are not used to having to provide essay-style responses to testing questions.

Anne Milton: My hon. Friend makes yet another excellent point. If I recall correctly, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who is not in the Chamber today, introduced a ten-minute Bill on exactly that point a couple of years ago, when he was shadow Minister for People with Disabilities. He pointed out the huge complexity of some forms, which would defeat many of the brightest of us. If we assess people’s needs, and one of their needs is to access services and benefits readily and easily, simplification of the forms must inevitably follow.

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John Bercow: I certainly have no desire to strike a discordant note; as I said, I admire the way in which the Government have taken this matter forward. However, I am a little concerned by the idea that whereas there is a duty to act on the part of the local authority, the responsibility of a foundation is merely to take something into account. It seems to me that it is quite easy for an organisation to say, with a nod and a wink, “I’ve taken it into account, and I’m now pursuing the policy that I want to pursue.” There is real concern out there that taking into account must also mean translating into practice.

Ann Keen: The hon. Gentleman, whose earlier contribution demonstrated so well his commitment to the subject, raises the “nod and a wink” approach. I believe that when the Bill goes through the other place, it will be so strong that a nod and a wink will not be involved: foundation trusts will be there to deliver best practice.

John Bercow: I am grateful for that, and I am reassured.

Ann Keen: As I said, I do not propose to go through all the definitions in detail. [ Interruption. ] I think that Members are indicating that they are relieved about that. However, I would like to draw the House’s attention to the commencement arrangements in clause 6.