Autism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:25 pm on 29th March 2018.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage) 2:25 pm, 29th March 2018

Somebody on Twitter recently asked which film made in Hollywood best bears watching over and again. Of course, I answered “Groundhog Day”. Sometimes, when we have such debates, it can feel a bit like groundhog day, because the same sorts of issues are repeated over and again. What is really important is that they generate some raising of awareness, which they do, and action from the Government.

I hope that having listened to today’s debate the Minister will take away some of the issues that have been raised and try to turn them into some sort of Government action. Hon. Members have been right to raise a number of issues, including that of exclusions, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). What is disappointing is that if we look at the statistics, we can see that exclusions were dropping in the noughties. As an ex-Minister, I can tell hon. Members why they were dropping: they were given serious attention at the centre of government and there was a real grip on bringing down the rate of exclusions, both permanent and temporary, for all children, including children with autism.

One problem—although I understand why the Government did this—of atomising our schools system by making them more and more independent and bringing in accountability measures that encourage sometimes perverse and unethical actions from headteachers is that, in my view, it leads to a rise in exclusions. It is generally thought better to get someone out of the way when the Ofsted inspection comes along, as the hon. Member for Henley said, or to have them excluded from the school if they would bring down the GCSE results. That is unethical, especially without a system in place for those children to be properly educated elsewhere. I appeal to Ministers to look very carefully at what is happening to those exclusion statistics and to get a grip of them from the centre.

It is understandable that the focus of most of the debates on autism tends to be about how it impacts on children. That is completely understandable, but we must not forget, and many hon. Members have not forgotten, that autism does not cease to be an issue when someone turns 18 and becomes an adult. Many of the services that might be available to children with autism fall away when they become adults. Parents get older and it is often more difficult for them to cope. Adults with autism face a complex world when they leave full-time education, if, as we hope, they have not been excluded from it, and the behaviours and traits associated with autism are often poorly understood, misinterpreted and sometimes even mistaken, as we have heard, for criminality.

A key problem is the difficulty in ensuring that services are joined up across the Government—across the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We had a debate on this very subject on 30 January in Westminster Hall, and it was suggested by a Government Member—I thought it was a very good suggestion—that the Government, with Cabinet Office oversight, should create something like the armed forces covenant and veterans board to ensure that every Department has someone focused on autism and its impact on families. In my experience, as a former Minister, to get Departments working together and to make progress, we need to get Ministers involved. Ministers have to be brought together, not just officials. It is possible to make significant change by ensuring ministerial leadership and bringing Ministers together across the Government.

The Minister will be about the third Minister to respond to a debate on autism that I have participated in recently, and I hope that she will go away and talk to other Ministers to ensure that they are thinking about how they can work to bring Government policy together on tackling the issues around autism. I hope that she will take seriously the suggestion from a Conservative Member in a recent debate that they should bring together a board or working group of Ministers from different Departments across the Government to tackle some of these issues with ministerial leadership.

When I spoke in that Westminster Hall debate at the end of January, I focused on how adults with autism were affected by the criminal justice system. That has also been mentioned by the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, Dame Cheryl Gillan, and I very much welcome her call for evidence to the group. I encourage other hon. Members to respond. I will certainly do so, and I will encourage my constituents to participate as well.

Some of the behaviours associated with autism, such as stimming—the repetitive physical movement that helps to reinstate a sense of calm in people with autism—are often misunderstood. This is particularly the case for a constituent of mine when he is in a crowded public space or travelling on public transport. When adults on the autistic spectrum come under suspicion of criminal behaviour, safeguarding becomes absolutely crucial, and I referred to that constituent’s case in the Westminster Hall debate. The safeguards in the criminal justice system did not protect him as they should have done under current policy and practice. His stimming was misinterpreted while travelling in crowded conditions on public transport, and that led to his arrest.

I appeal to the Government to look specifically at what happens to adults with autism when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and to find ways to ensure that the police—particularly the British Transport police—are properly trained and that all the services know how to deal with autistic people when they are arrested. I hope that Ministers will consider setting up that joint group. I do not expect her to commit to that today, but I hope that she will commit to taking the idea away and considering it further with other Ministers and reporting back to the House at an appropriate time, so that our debates do not just become groundhog day.