February 27, 2009

Autism Bill

John Bercow supports the Autism Bill which introduces a statutory requirement on local authorities to collect data on and provide services for people with autism and specifically to ensure effective transition from child to adult services.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I would like to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing the Bill, and on the way in which she spoke this morning—eloquently, sincerely, knowledgeably, movingly and with the legendary courtesy for which I think I can safely say she is renowned in all parts of the House. I would like to echo, too, the tribute that she and others have rightly paid to the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse and the miscellany of other organisations—13, I think—that form part of the coalition to drive forward the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), in his incisive fashion, made a completely unanswerable case for the Bill to go into Committee.

For the avoidance of doubt, I say to the Minister of State with responsibility for health and social care, whose integrity and commitment he knows I do not doubt for a moment, that the reason we need these measures in legislative form is simply stated. We are talking about a minority of people. They are an important minority and an increasingly articulately represented minority, but a minority nevertheless. Unless there is statutory provision for their entitlements, the danger is that, inadvertently if not calculatedly, because of all the other priorities of local, national, statutory and voluntary agencies, the interests and needs of the autistic child, young person or adult will tend overwhelmingly to be either relegated or ignored. That is why, in the absence of a critical mass of such people to trigger change on a regular basis, we need to take the opportunity to proceed with the Bill and to extract a series of legislative commitments. That is the statutory fail-safe that the autistic community seeks and is entitled to receive.

I want to be brief, and specifically to pose a series of questions to the Minister, with whom I have engaged over a long period on issues of this kind, and in whose answers I am profoundly interested. First, the Minister has said that the Government will commit £200,000 from the transition support programme to the funding of research into transition from childhood to adult services for people on the autistic spectrum. Will the Minister today guarantee in terms that that £200,000 will be explicitly ring-fenced for that purpose and that purpose alone? Would he be good enough to tell me and the House when the money will be made available, through whom it will be channelled, and what assessment of the nature, extent and results of the work will be made?

Secondly, the issue of training has rightly been addressed by the Minister and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. He will know that in practice it has often been difficult to get explicit commitments on particular training programmes. Will the Minister guarantee to meet the professional bodies to advise on how, in practice, the training commitment can be taken forward, and will he bear in mind that there is a difference between saying that there are opportunities for, and an availability of, training on the one hand, and saying that in practice the children’ work force, the health service work force and the other individuals who are relevant to delivering better services will attend training courses with the back-up funding of staff required to translate the aspiration for training into the reality we seek?

Thirdly, the draft strategy in April and the intended final autism strategy in December are an ambitious project. I do not sniff at it, but it is an ambitious project with a tight time scale. Can the Minister assure the House today that the time scale is not such as to inhibit the strategy, or to put it another way, can he confirm that the strategy will be absolutely comprehensive, so that we do not go full circle on the issue?

Fourthly, I ask the Minister in all courtesy to make one other commitment that would offer some reassurance. Would he undertake in his contribution to answer every point that has been made by a right hon. or hon. Member today, and in so far as time prevents him doing so, would he be good enough to undertake to write to Members whose questions or challenges he did not answer, and to place a copy of what I am sure will be an illuminating and comprehensive reply in the Library?

I conclude by saying that there are two reasons why we have to address these issues, rather in the superb manner that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham did, and do so in legislation. First, it says something important about the political DNA of our society if we are prepared to commit to a vulnerable section of the population whose needs and interests have for too long, under successive Governments, been inadequately recognised. Secondly, it is not just a matter of being nice, decent and compassionate. It is also a matter of the authentic self-interest of UK plc. If we can address the problems, deficits, weaknesses and denials of opportunity from which people on the autism spectrum suffer, we will be playing into many other agendas as well. Tackling those issues is relevant to the fight against anti-social behaviour and the challenge of improving mental health. It is important to the objective of securing better educational outcomes and bolstering the qualifications, training and expertise of the work force. It is profoundly relevant to the future prosperity of UK plc in an age in which a job for life is a relic of the past and the premium placed on knowledge, skills, practicality and the ability to communicate and engage is greater than ever before. I look forward with interest and respect to what I am sure will be a comprehensive response from the Minister.

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John’s other interventions in the debate

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): There is often a phenomenon of buck-passing between different agencies. Also, the needs of a child or young person often straddle the divide between different departments, which is precisely why we need joint strategic needs assessments‚Äîand joint commissioning to boot. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems that still exists in the education service as a result of a lack of training is quite widespread ignorance among the children’ work force of parts of the spectrum? I am thinking of a teacher who said to the parent of an Asperger’ child, “I don’t believe in Asperger’ syndrome.” It is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of fact.

Mrs. Gillan: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done, particularly in the area of speech therapy for children. He is absolutely right. I knew a little about autism, and I am learning all the time. Last night, on a car journey in the middle of the night, I read part of a book by Temple Grandin and a series of articles by her. I found them absolutely fascinating. To ask whether one believes in Asperger’ is almost demeaning. The more I look at the subject, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more I realise that we in the House have a duty to try to deliver measures to provide a framework in which we can give the right assistance at the right time to the right people when they need it.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful; the hon. Lady is generous in giving way. Does she agree with me that, more widely across the field of policy and in other legislation, the Government have a continuing duty to give particular consideration to people on the spectrum? For example, on the Government’ proposals for apprenticeships, in which I see much merit, does she agree that there should not be arbitrary academic requirements for accessing those apprenticeships? Such requirements might very well cut off opportunities for people on the autistic spectrum who would be well suited to an apprenticeship, but who might lack the formal academic qualifications that the Government have in mind.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I am looking forward to some productive discussions about young people with special educational needs in the context of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. There is a great deal to be said for offering alternative routes forward for children and young people with special educational needs, and I hope that successful amendments to the Bill achieve that.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is speaking authoritatively, as always, on this subject. She referred to the disappointment at the fact that the prevalence study had not yet taken place. So that we understand and so that those listening outside the House to this debate know of the reason for the scale of the disappointment, will she be good enough to point out how long ago that ten-minute Bill was introduced, and therefore when the commitment to carry out the study was made?

Angela Browning: The commitment to carry out the study was made in May last year, but I understand that it has not even been commissioned yet.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman and I have worked together on a number of issues over the years, and I am listening to his contribution with respect. What is more, he and I are partners in the House of Commons tennis team, so he knows that I intend him no slight or discourtesy, but may I, in all conscience, appeal to the hon. Gentleman, whose credentials I do not doubt, to conclude his remarks soon, to give others a chance to contribute and the Minister an opportunity to respond to the points made by other hon. Members in their short speeches?

Andrew Miller: Actually, I am about to conclude my remarks, so the hon. Gentleman does not need to appeal to me, either as a tennis partner or as anything else. He is a very good tennis partner, as the Minister knows. There is cross-party co-operation in all sorts of areas, which sometimes surprises the public. I have even played tennis with the Leader of the Opposition—

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. My very simple question is: when?

Phil Hope: We will be spending that money this year. The hon. Gentleman can get further details on exactly when and how from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, who is responsible for that issue in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. That is an important area of expenditure for researching the challenges faced by young people with autism in their transition to adulthood.