Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:16 pm on 29th March 2018.

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Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 3:16 pm, 29th March 2018

May I make a little bit of progress? I will take questions if I manage to get through this wad of paper.

In reference to a point made by the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), there were representatives at that meeting from all the other Government Departments, including the Department for Transport, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and the Home Office. The hon. Gentlemen were absolutely right to point out that this subject reaches all Government Departments. It was clear that the complexity of autism and the multifaceted nature of the needs of those on the spectrum pose particularly challenging questions. Frequently this results in regional disparities that are far too wide in autism diagnosis waiting times and in the services someone can access once they have a diagnosis. Some areas are doing well, but others are not, and we need to ensure that good practice is identified and shared across all areas.

Many Members have highlighted particular challenges that autistic children face in school. My hon. Friend John Howell explained exactly why it is important that autistic children are well supported in their education if we are to raise their attainment and improve their life chances. The Government congratulate the all-party group on autism on its report about education in England, which was published in November. It is really important that support for young people with autism is targeted where it will be most effective. The recommendations of that report are being considered by the Department for Education and will be key to its plans. As my hon. Friend said, all teachers are now trained to help children with conditions such as autism as part of their teacher training. Since 2011, we have funded the Autism Education Trust to provide autism awareness training for more than 150,000 education staff—not just head teachers, teachers and teaching assistants, but support staff such as receptionists and dinner ladies, thereby encouraging a whole-school approach to supporting children.

Exclusions were mentioned by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, my hon. Friend Martin Vickers and the hon. Members for Cardiff West and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin). We are funding work via the Autism Education Trust to provide advice to parents and professionals on trying to cut down the number of exclusions. We have introduced the biggest reforms to special educational needs and disability support in a generation; introduced education, health and care plans that are tailored to a child’s needs; and given councils £223 million extra funding to help them to introduce these significant reforms.

Diagnosis was mentioned by many hon. Members. Adults and children should not have to face long waiting times for autism diagnosis. We will continue to work with partners to try to address these long waiting times. This is also a key part of the task and finish group that is being led by NHS England. We have included autism indicators in the mental health services dataset, with data beginning to be collected from 1 April this year. This is a real step forward. We need such robust, comparable data to be regularly collected and monitored so that we can be certain of the true extent of the problems not just on waiting times for diagnosis, but on post-diagnostic outcomes. In the Think Autism strategy, we are clear that there should be a pathway to diagnosis, care and support in every local area so that we improve recognition, speed up the process of diagnosis, and meet individuals’ advice and support needs.

I have previously described my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan as a force of nature, and today we saw another example of that. She spoke about regional centres of excellence—a fabulous idea—and said that there is nothing wrong with people with autism; they are just different. I had the pleasure of meeting her different and fabulous son James for an evening in Edinburgh last summer. I would hate to be on the receiving end as somebody she encountered in a shop giving her fine young gentleman a hard time.