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Autism (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
Hugh O'Donnell (Liberal Democrat)
I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on the Autism (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.
This is a simple bill with a simple objective. The intention from the outset has been to provide, in a legislative framework, a level playing field for the more than 50,000 people in the country who have autism and to give them the same opportunities to access appropriate support, education and employment as every other citizen of our country has. On the basis of the research that I have been able to carry out, the overwhelming concerns that have been expressed to me during the bill's passage and my professional experience, I can say that many of those 50,000 people have been and continue to be let down by the systems that are in place.
It is unfortunate that time prevents me from addressing all the points that were made in the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee's report. I thank the people who helped me to bring the proposal thus far in the Parliament. In particular, I thank members who supported my proposal, including members who said that they were supportive but could not sign up to the bill in the first instance, such as Bob Doris, Ian McKee and Chris Harvie. I hope that those members will be able to show their support at decision time.
Without the support of the non-Executive bills unit and many Parliament officials it would have been impossible to progress the bill. I particularly thank members of the committee, who undertook their scrutiny with due diligence and carried out their duties objectively. They have produced a comprehensive report which, notwithstanding my disagreement with its conclusions, highlights some of the issues that I sought to bring to the Parliament's attention.
I reserve my strongest words of thanks for the more than 140 respondents to the consultation. I thank the autism organisations, local authorities, health boards, professional bodies, voluntary sector organisations—which would be relevant stakeholders if the bill were to progress—and, in particular, the hundreds of people with autism and their families and carers who took the time to contact me with words of support.
Members know that trying to make life better for the people of Scotland is—or at least should be—our reason for seeking election to the Scottish Parliament, regardless of our political affiliation. We must remember that the people of Scotland put us here, and we must do right by them, particularly those who are weak and vulnerable. Many members who are present, as well as those who are not, will know from their casework and phone calls that there are serious implications for thousands of people with disabilities in these times of financial restraint and cutback. There is an easy hit on vulnerable sections of our community, and we all have a moral obligation to speak up when we see injustice. We might all be in it together, but some are definitely in it more than others are.
Autism is a unique condition. It does not sit within learning disability or sit easily within the mental health sector and, consequently, those with ASD all too often slip off the radar when it comes to the services that many others take for granted. Although it has been argued that ASD is covered by other laws, we all know from our casework just how inadequate and patchy those services are. The bill was intended to try to fill those gaps and ensure that that level of discrimination was massaged out, but it has been suggested that it might be discriminatory to enact it. However, we must reflect on the fact that, although the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was itself discriminatory, it was acceptable because it reflected the needs of a sector of society that was being discriminated against. The same is true for the race relations legislation and various other pieces of legislation.
The bill does not create a two-tier system; we already have one. I ask members to look at the evidence and the consultation and tell me that there is not already a two-tier system for people with autism. The bill seeks to address that inequality in a small way by ensuring that those who are responsible for the delivery of services do it appropriately. What is so bad about that?
To address another challenge, what would be so terrible about other disability groups seeking legislation for strategies? Surely, especially where the most disadvantaged are concerned, if the Parliament exists for more than rhetoric, we should take seriously our responsibility and not simply make noises. We have seen the approach before: we addressed sectarianism in a bill, so why not address autism?
It has also been argued that the proposals would change nothing because a duty to "have regard to" guidance is not strong enough. Perhaps not. We all know that, throughout the country, there are people who seek to circumvent legislation if they think that it will save them responsibilities and save their purse a little bit of money, so why not make the bill stronger by
I recognise that the bill is not perfect. The committee made 27 recommendations in total, many of which could be addressed by amendments. However, at decision time, perhaps members will consider the people for whom the bill is intended to provide equal status and equal access to services. Perhaps the power of the whips will be ignored. I ask members to support the bill at stage 1.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Autism (Scotland) Bill.