Autism Bill

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 27th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio 12:35 pm, 27th February 2009

I want to make an extremely brief speech. The debate today has not actually been about the Autism Bill, and I have not yet heard anybody who suggests that it is anything other than a very good idea. The subject of the debate has been about whether the Bill is necessary, about the Minister's claim in his letter, to which I referred in an earlier intervention, that

"Legislation could make delivery of change more difficult", and about whether the Minister has a better method of doing it through statutory guidance. His claim is that there will be statutory guidance, that there will be money behind it, as detailed in his letter, and that it will be a more effective method.

First, there is no evidence that such a method will be more effective. My hon. Friend Angela Browning, who has a long record of interest in these matters, is extremely clear, as I have been from my constituency activities, that the existing statutory guidance often produces no effect. Why not? Many of those on the ground do not know that it exists. My hon. Friend pointed out that if it is invoked in court, it is effective, but the problem is that the Department conspires through inaction to allow it not to be known by many of those on the ground. That would probably also be true of further statutory guidance.

Secondly, and more importantly, there will probably never be any statutory guidance or, if there is, it will probably take a very long time. Why do I say that? I accept that I am being slightly more rebarbative than some of my colleagues, who have been very generous to the Minister, but I have some personal experience of this in the recent past. I spent some hundreds of hours on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and we negotiated extensively with a parallel and equally admirable and well-intentioned junior Minister. The officials in the Department were extremely resistant to the Act and a series of documented assurances were reported in Hansard, each of which has been falsified. In particular, an assurance was given that a detailed spending assessment would be produced for all the money spent by central Government in every locality in Britain. That has not been produced. Not only has it not been produced, but a total travesty of that assurance has been produced. Are the Government embarrassed? Not in the least. Where is the junior Minister? Somewhere else. What is the Secretary of State saying? Nothing. She will not attend meetings or answer questions.

To quote an earlier intervention during a speech by a Labour Member, "cast-iron" guarantees were given but they have been falsified in practice. Does that and can that apply to the present case? Certainly it can. We have the evidence of the prevalence studies, which have not happened. No mention of them is made in the Minister's letter. There is no explanation of why the prevalence studies have not happened.

The fact is that the junior Minister does not have the capacity to deliver, the Department shows no sign of the will to deliver and—this is my main point—however well-intentioned the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families are, the Government have all sorts of other priorities. I do not blame them for that. We are in the midst of an enormous national crisis.

Only one person matters in this Government. It is usually the case that the one person who most matters in a Government is the Prime Minister, but in this Government only one person matters and that is the Prime Minister. We have had neither sight nor sound of the Prime Minister's being involved in this matter, and I would not expect that, because he is concerned with a major national crisis. The idea that the junior Minister can stand at the Dispatch Box and guarantee to the House that provisions including the expenditure of significant sums of money, legislative time and his Department will be delivered is plainly ludicrous. We do not know whether they can be delivered and the Minister does not know whether they can be delivered.

I now come to my fourth and final point. The truth is that if the Government as a whole were genuinely signed up to delivering what the Minister says that he wants to deliver, they would allow the Bill not only to go into Committee, but to come out of Committee and to become an Act. All it does is seek to deliver the same things as the Minister says that he wants by other means to deliver. Nothing about the Bill would prevent the Minister from issuing statutory or other guidance if he wished to do so once the Bill was an Act. The only basis that the Minister has for trying to prevent the Bill from becoming an Act is the statement in his letter that

"Legislation could make delivery of change more difficult".

I have yet to understand on what basis such an assertion could be made. As my hon. Friend Anne Milton said during her excellent speech, there is no evidence that legislation will make the delivery of change more difficult. Indeed, there is every reason to suppose that legislation will make the delivery of change easier. Why? Because there will be better understanding on the ground of what is required; the Government will be subject to a stronger requirement to enforce what is required; and, in the final analysis, it will be easier for people to take cases to lawyers and the courts, because what is required will be clear in primary statute.

The facts are that the Minister has no argument, no effective jurisdiction and no guarantee, he cannot offer the House a guarantee and he has no logic to back him up, other than the logic of trying to make sure that the Government are not constrained to do the things they say they want to do. There is therefore no reason for the House to believe that they will do those things better without the legislation than they will with it. I hope that my Conservative colleagues and others in all parts of the House who share our ambitions will support the Bill, which my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan has rightly introduced.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website