I was just about to champion the right hon. Lady and celebrate her championing of those with autism and her work with the APPG. Lastly, Mrs Trevelyan, in one of today’s most valuable contributions, spoke of her son’s experience.
As we have heard, the National Autistic Society estimates that 16% of working-age people with autism are in full-time employment and only 32% are in any kind of paid work. Furthermore, 79% of people with autism are currently on benefits. One thing we could do in World Autism Awareness Week is consider how policies affect individuals with autism.
My constituent Macoist Fordyce, about whom I have spoken previously, has Asperger’s syndrome and recently applied for universal credit with the help of his mother, who felt compelled to highlight the treatment they both faced at their local jobcentre. I am not saying this to be political, as I simply want to inform the Government and give them an opportunity to address it, because that is exactly what this debate should do. Although my constituent had received an email at the time asking whether he had any physical disabilities, no consideration was given to what someone with autism may face. They were greeted by two advisers on arrival, who were behind a glass panel, knew nothing of Macoist’s autism and stated that he would meet a work coach on his next appointment. Mrs Fordyce tells me that she explained in detail how Asperger’s syndrome affected her son, including the difficulties involved in attending that initial appointment, but was informed that he would have to attend or his claim would not be processed.
Let us take a moment to think about how different and less stressful this situation could have been if the jobcentre staff had some training in autism awareness. Let us imagine the original appointment email had not just asked about physical disabilities but had asked whether there were any barriers that would prevent Macoist from attending. Let us imagine that on receiving the information that Macoist has Asperger’s syndrome, the jobcentre had sent through full details of what to expect at the appointment, including that a quiet room would be made available to try alleviate some of the anxieties he experienced. Let us imagine that the frontline advisers had read his application, in order to be aware of his disability, and then knew how to put in place the appropriate strategies to conduct the interview accordingly as they understood what my constituent might have had difficulty with, given that he had outlined that he had autism and that a neurodiversity toolkit is in place. I am sure Members will agree that Macoist and his mother could have had a more positive experience.
The “About Me” disability passport is an excellent idea that could certainly ease some of the issues faced by those with an autistic spectrum disorder. However, I question whether the Minister’s good intention in bringing forward this passport with access hosted on the websites of charities and other third sector organisations has actually come to fruition over the past year. I recognise that work is being done, but we can promote that work further and this is a prime opportunity to review those processes and make sure that we are doing this—certainly my constituent had never heard of it or come across it.
Mrs Fordyce reports that her son’s second appointment with the work coach was even more challenging. Again, no attempts were made to accommodate Macoist’s disabilities, resulting in a panic that might have been avoided if his first experience had been taken on board and referred to for the second meeting. The work coach was also unaware of Macoist’s autism, and was unaware that Mrs Fordyce was his appointee and refused to let her assist her son with his answers. No allowances were made for the challenges Macoist would face in completing his work commitment or holding down a position of employment, and they were told that he had to seek and be available for work or his claim would not be processed.
Sadly, the difficulties faced by my constituent in the welfare system are not confined to the jobcentre. On the work capability assessment, despite a phone call to check that Macoist would be seen at his 3 pm appointment and again checking on arrival at reception, at 4.20 pm Mrs Fordyce was called back to reception to be told that, after they had looked at Macoist’s assessment form, they had found there was no one with a specialised report of his assessment that would be able to do the assessment and that it would probably have to take place in a few weeks’ time.
In the course of my casework, I have submitted many complaints to both Independent Assessment Services and the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments. I have been told on many occasions that health professionals have to be trained and accredited experts approved by the Secretary of State, and it is not a requirement for them to be a specialist in any particular field. Perhaps simply expanding autism awareness training to those who work on a day-to-day basis in this area would be a starting point. This particular complaint has not yet been resolved, but it again highlights how the problems faced by those with autism in the social security system could easily be tackled by simply expanding on some of the brilliant initiatives and programmes that already exist.
Of course, in the Scottish Government’s work and in Northern Ireland there are many prime examples of areas where both the devolved nations and Administrations are doing things differently, and we can all learn from this across the board. On that basis, I ask the Minister simply to consider the work being done by the Scottish Government, and I recognise the work of the UK Government in this area. Many aims, strategies and initiatives to improve the lives of those with autistic spectrum disorder are already in place, but a key point to remember from this debate is that there is of course more that we can do. For an individual with autism, there is no benefit to the current system. I encourage the Minister to revisit the aims of the hidden impairments toolkit, the autism and neurodiversity toolkit and the “About Me” passport, and ensure that the targets are being met.