I beg to move,
That this House
has considered services for people with autism.
Every year, my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan, in her role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, moves a motion along the lines:
“That this House
notes that World Autism Awareness Week runs from
observes that autistic people continue to face a number of barriers to full participation in society;
notes that it is 10 years since the Autism Act became law;
and calls on the Government to improve support for children and adults on the autism spectrum, and ensure that the Autism Act is fully implemented across the country.”
My right hon. Friend cannot be with us today. She has asked me to explain that a close family member is critically ill and that she cannot leave their side. Though you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I send the love of this House to our right hon. Friend. She is a formidable champion of this cause, and someone to whom many of us have turned in our own hour of need. The best tribute that I can pay to her is to deliver the speech that she prepared and would have made today. These are her words:
“I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and look forward to hearing what she has to say. My thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate as we look forward to World Autism Awareness Week, a full seven days when people across the UK take part in activities to raise awareness of autism. I also thank the National Autistic Society for its ongoing support for the all-party parliamentary group on autism.
Hon. Members will be aware of my long-standing commitment to improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum, most notably through my role in spearheading the introduction of the Autism Act 2009—which has now been on the statute book for 10 years.
I was proud to introduce that Bill that became the only Act—which is the only Act dedicated to improving support and services for one disability. It was a landmark in the battle to improve the lives of autistic adults and their families. As a result of the Act, there has been a fundamental shift in how policy is developed and delivered for adults on the autism spectrum. For the first time, legal duties were placed on councils and the NHS to provide support to autistic adults in their local areas. In addition, the Act placed a responsibility on the Government to produce the national autism strategy, to set out its vision—and, importantly, to keep that strategy under review.”
Like my hon. Friend I pay huge tribute to our right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan and all that she has done on the issue for so long. I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech, and I wonder what he would say to a constituent who wrote to me about her son. She writes:
“My son is 21 years old and since leaving education has had nothing to do. He is not disabled enough to qualify for benefits but he is not able to compete for a job. He is caught in the middle.”
What more does my hon. Friend think we can do to help people like that young man with their future?
I thank my hon. Friend for his words and for championing his constituents. As he rightly says, some autistic people tend to fall through the gaps. Of course, all local authorities have a responsibility to take note when it comes to autism. We see individuals who are on the autism spectrum but are not receiving help because they might be outside a defined period. The extension of plans up to the age of 25 will go some way towards addressing that, but we still see people falling through the gaps. I will touch on some of the other areas that might address his concerns, or I will at least make calls to those on the Front Bench.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham continues:
“This year, it falls on the Government once again to review its strategy and identify what more needs to be done.
Each of us has about 1,000 people on the autism spectrum in our constituencies and it affects one in 100 people. We each will have many autistic people and their family members contacting us to ask for our help on areas from education to adult support, diagnosis to employment...”
The excellent speech mentioned the Government’s strategy. A perennial problem—it crops up all the time in my constituency—is the speed of diagnosis. The fact is that so many children with autism simply do not get an education. Surely the strategy must try to address that in a much better way than it has in the past.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Time and again we see that young people have to fail before they can be given the support they need. There are many examples of young people clearly failing when they go to a pre-school, but then they still have to move on to a mainstream school, where they will fail, before they can be given support. It should be blindingly obvious, and councils should look at those plans before children have to start primary school. Often councils say that they are not required to do that, but perhaps they do not know what their obligations really are.
The hon. Gentleman is indeed making an excellent speech. He also referred to parents. What is his view of the extent to which the needs of parents and family members should also be part of the strategy, not least because sometimes they do not understand the experience of their children and how best they can help? Family members also needs respite provision, for example, because of the demands of caring for children with autism. We should also recognise the amazing work that many specialist schools are doing to ensure that children with autism, who also have amazing talents, can express and develop their abilities.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. A couple of years ago I was very proud to co-author the “Autism and education” report, which she also worked on. It showed many worrying statistics. For example, one in two teachers just did not have the confidence to teach autistic children. Unsurprisingly, 50% of autistic children had a miserable time at school and were not looked at.
The hon. Lady is right to give credit to the parents, who are on an incredible journey and are struggling themselves. Battling for the support that they need at the same time as providing care is emotionally draining. We all work with those parents, and we have so much respect for them.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I also congratulate Dame Cheryl Gillan on all the work that she has done on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points, but does he share my annoyance about the fact that, unfortunately, autism seems to be one of those invisible disabilities? Many parents talk about the way in which others judge their children, saying that they are just being naughty. That failure of understanding goes to the heart of the problem faced by autistic children and adults, whose contribution to our communities is enormous, individual and highly important. We should be able to open our eyes to all the strengths that they bring to us, and make a space in which they can be understood through the services that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
The hon. Gentleman has put it beautifully. As he probably knows, a recent survey showed that 50% of autistic individuals and families were scared to go out, and did not go out, because they were worried about how they would be judged. That isolation is a huge challenge for us.
I am pleased that the debate is taking place in the main Chamber. We had a very moving debate some months ago in Westminster Hall, but this is such an important issue that it needed to be raised here. Unfortunately I shall have to leave soon. The debate was meant to start about an hour ago, according to my diary. I am so sorry not to be able to stay, but I am so pleased that the hon. Gentleman is raising the issue now.
Order. I do not know who told the hon. Lady that the debate would start at that time. Someone must have misled her, because there was no set time for it to start.
In that case, Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise.
My local authorities have some excellent care providers and support services, including Parent Carers Voice. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that services for children with autism should be financed through council budgets rather than the responsibility being pushed on to struggling families?
I think that we all face a real challenge. At a time when local authorities are themselves having to watch their budgets, it is the altruistic services—the support services—that tend to go. The challenge I face is that as authorities look just at their statutory obligations, they may end up spending more money to deliver those than they spent on some of the support services beforehand. I have every sympathy with the point that the hon. Lady has made.
May I pay my own tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan? The hon. Gentleman is doing a very good job of reading her speech.
What parents find most frustrating are instances in which a care plan has been agreed and is in place, and the local authority then tries to renegotiate downwards the sum that has been agreed. That causes problems for the parents and, obviously, for the person with autism, but is also causes problems for, in particular, specialist units. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is unfair, and the wrong way to go about dealing with this whole problem?
I certainly do. The challenge is to ensure that care plans are flexible enough to be built on, while also including an element of prescription so that there is a proper guide. What must not happen is plans being effectively reneged on when care and support are still needed. The hon. Gentleman made his point very forcefully. He also said that I was doing a good job reading the speech; I will carry on doing my best.
I was talking about the impact on services, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham puts it,
“from education to adult support, from diagnosis to employment, transition to transport. We know the many ways that an autistic person may turn to the state—and to us—for support, and how vital it is to make sure it is there to meet their needs.
The last national strategy ‘Think Autism’ in 2014 included wide-ranging actions. This was underpinned with revised statutory guidance, setting out clear duties on councils and the NHS to deliver on these actions—but we know that many local areas are not meeting all of their obligations. There are also questions about whether the Act goes far enough. As we reach the 10th anniversary of the Act, now is an appropriate time to ask these questions.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism, which I am proud to chair, is spending this year doing just that. We are holding an inquiry into what has worked, what happens now and, most importantly, what needs to change. We are looking very broadly, to reflect the needs of autistic people,” including in health and mental health; children, education and transition; employment; access to justice; adult support; and public understanding.
I welcome the APPG’s inquiry, and, in particular, the fact that it will look into the way in which adults with autism interact with the criminal justice system. I think that is an area in which the work of the Act could be extended. I pay tribute to the families who set up an organisation called Autism Injustice, and recommend its website, autisminjustice.org, to other Members and to people watching our debate who are interested in that interaction between autism and the criminal justice system.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to adults, but I remember going on a trip with the APPG to a young offenders institution that had tried to establish a wing that was autistic-friendly, and hoped to roll it out across the estate. He is right: a big cohort of the prison population are on the spectrum, and face particular challenges that need to be looked at.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of employment, which is vastly overlooked. Many employers do not know what adjustments they should make to become more autism-friendly, and people with autism are deprived of work as a result. Will the inquiry be looking at that issue?
A few years ago, Ambitious about Autism produced a big report looking looked at that specifically. I am fortunate to have in my constituency an organisation called Little Gate Farm, which takes people who have finished their education and makes them work-ready. However, it requires employers to give them a chance, and I am always writing to employers urging them to do so.
Let me give some examples. One young lad was obsessed with washing cars. We matched him up with a garage, and that is exactly what he does. Someone else was given a job in a bookkeeping firm. The big challenge there is ensuring that that young person takes time off, because they have so used to the routine. The initiative has become so successful that people are throwing themselves into work. We must do all that we can, as Members of Parliament, to pair and support people.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham says that we in the APPG
“will hold the Government’s feet to the fire to see those recommendations reflected in the new strategy.
Our need to act is clear. Too many people”— as we have just discussed—
“still have to wait too long for a diagnosis—more than three years in some parts of the country. Getting a diagnosis can be a crucial milestone, helping to unlock vital support. Delays in being diagnosed can result in people developing more significant needs, or mental health problems.
National guidance from the health watchdog NICE state clearly that children or adults suspected of being on the autism spectrum should start their diagnostic assessment within three months of being referred to their local autism team. But we know there is a postcode lottery in waiting times for appointments, with many parts of the country falling far short of the three-month target. Alongside the National Autistic Society, we have been pushing progress on this issue in this very chamber for several years. Valuable research”— carried out by Norman Lamb—
“on behalf of the APPGA shone a further spotlight on these long waits and called for a mandatory minimum waiting time standard. I am pleased to have him on board again leading our inquiry on health and mental health, which heard evidence last week.
We also know that autistic people too often don’t get the physical and mental health care they need. They face high levels of health inequality, and evidence suggests that people may die early as a result, which has been highlighted by Autistica. It’s vital that all health and care staff receive autism training to ensure that our health service meets their needs and makes the changes and adjustments that it needs to—a key part of the Autism Act. I welcome the Government’s current proposals on mandatory training in autism and learning disability to all health and care staff following the dogged campaigning of Paula McGowan, a mother who tragically lost her son Oliver. It’s vital that this proposal is taken forward and that its impact is monitored. I hope the Minister will devote some time to make sure that this programme makes a difference.
I also welcome the inclusion of autism, alongside learning disability, as one of the four clinical priorities in the NHS 10-year plan to improve health services. This is a great step towards ensuring that the NHS supports autistic people as well as it supports everyone else. It sets out actions to reduce children’s diagnosis waiting times, reduce the number of autistic people inappropriately under section in mental health hospitals, and making sure that reasonable adjustments are put in place. But we need more details on how these, and other commitments in the Plan will be delivered (and how they will be funded). I would appreciate if the Minister could update the House on when we can expect to see this much-needed detail.
I am pleased to see the Government already thinking ambitiously about the future of the strategy. I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to extending the autism strategy to include children and young people, as well as adults, for the first time.”
My hon. Friend is making an exceptionally powerful speech, and I applaud his role as chairman of the all-party group. It is particularly impressive that he has been able to pick up the role in this debate of my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan in her absence.
Returning to the question of education, my hon. Friend touched on the subject of young people a moment ago. Does he agree that the Government’s recent announcement of an additional 37 schools across the country to provide special needs support for people, including those on the autistic spectrum, is a welcome recognition of the challenges presented to our education system by the increasing prevalence, regrettably, of autism across our communities?
I would like to highlight one story in my constituency that points out the need for such schools. It involves a mother of two autistic children, both of whom have to be schooled over 100 miles away from Ludlow, in the heart of my constituency, where she lives. She has campaigned with a local charity and not-for-profit group to open a new school—Overton school, just outside Ludlow, which is currently awaiting its Ofsted accreditation—partly so that other families who have to deal with the same circumstances will not have to travel 100 miles to visit their children.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know how much he campaigns to deliver the solution he talks about because I am fortunate enough to share an office with him. He is a great champion of his constituents, and it is welcome news that more schools will be funded. The Minister will have heard his powerful pitch for his constituency. I can also reassure all Members that I am only temporarily sitting in for my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham; she will continue to be the chairman of the all-party group. I will now make progress, as I know others wish to speak.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham continues:
“For many families of autistic children, securing the right support for their child at school is a very difficult task—much harder than it should be. I am sure we have all been contacted by constituents who are struggling to get the school provision and support their autistic children need—this may be a place at a specialist school, or support to enable them to thrive and make progress in a mainstream school…
There’s one other very important issue that I want to draw to the attention of the House and the Minister. That is the continued inclusion of autism in the Mental Health Act as a mental disorder.
What this means is that autistic people and those with a learning disability—particularly those who have behaviour that is described as ‘challenging’—can be detained under the Act when they do not have a treatable mental illness. When this is twinned with a lack of appropriate support, particularly crisis support, to prevent someone being admitted to hospital, we see the numbers of autistic people in these hospitals increase.”
I would like the Government to address that challenge and issue.
I will conclude—I have failed to deliver my right hon. Friend’s entire speech, but she will be delighted that we have had a debate about this and raised awareness, so I finish on the following note. She says:
“Autistic people—children and adults—need the right support, at the right time, in their local communities. The wider community needs to have a much better understanding of what autism is and how it affects people. There are things that all of us can do to make our society a more inclusive place for everyone—in World Autism Awareness Week and beyond”,
that should be our goal.
Order. Many Members wish to speak, so there must now be a six-minute limit. I would also like to say that our thoughts are with Dame Cheryl, and she has been missed today but she has certainly been well represented.
It is a pleasure and an honour to follow Huw Merriman and, in spirit, Dame Cheryl Gillan, who we truly salute today and all of this year as we mark the 10th anniversary of the Autism Act 2009. Both he and she will agree with me that there is still a lot to be done. I am proud to be one of the all-party group’s officers chairing one of the commissions marking that anniversary and measuring progress; the one I am chairing is on employment and autism and that will be the subject of my remarks today. I also thank my staff Mike Davies and Ravina Shah, who lead for me on autism, and the work of the National Autistic Society, particularly our regional rep Henry and the Bristol Autism Spectrum Service.
According to a recent report by the National Autistic Society, only 16% of working-age people with autism are in full-time employment, and only 32% of people with autism are in any kind of paid employment. That contrasts with the fact that 47% of working-age disabled people are in employment and 80% of working-age people without disabilities are in employment.
I am sorry, but I am going to try to stick to the time limit. A lot of Members want to speak.
The 2017 Tory manifesto pledged to see 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027. However, I am not sure that the Government are currently measuring the employment gap for people with autism, so I ask the Minister whether she is able to record the number of autistic people in work in the labour force survey and if not whether some progress can be made.
More than half a million people in the UK are on the spectrum, which is more than 1% of the population. More and more people are being diagnosed, with a twenty-fivefold increase in recent years. People often, although not always, need specific help to be able to find and keep a job, so I ask the Minister to urge Jobcentre Plus to provide adequate autism awareness training.
The National Autistic Society campaign “Too much information” launched in 2016 was the UK’s biggest ever campaign aimed at improving public understanding of autism. The campaign’s report found that 77% of unemployed autistic people want to work and that 40% currently working part-time wish to work more hours. People with autism want to work in a wide variety of roles and respondents to the survey found that ideal work environments vary hugely, from the arts and museum work to scientific research and development. We need to break stereotypes about autism and employment and recognise that the underemployment of people with autism is an issue as well as unemployment.
More needs to be done to improve the lives of people living with autism. I have changed my own employment practices by altering job descriptions to be more accessible, and I am very proud of the two fantastic members of staff I have employed as a result; they are brilliant. I was also, I believe, the first MP to hold a surgery specifically for people on the autism spectrum. I know others have followed suit, which is fantastic, and no doubt they have done a better job. I am committed to making Bristol an autism-friendly city; I made that commitment when I was first elected.
My constituents tell me that many people on the autistic spectrum encounter barriers to finding employment. It is right that we do everything we can to end social isolation. One way of doing that is to ensure that autistic people have the same access to employment as everybody else. Employers, trade unions and public services can all play a part in this. Unfortunately, that exclusion leads not only to autistic people feeling left out but to us missing out on their skills and qualities. They have potential which is too often untapped. This is also about their families and the wider economy. We should all pledge to do everything we can to increase the employment of people on the spectrum.
However, employers say they feel under-equipped and the National Autistic Society survey found that 60% worry about getting it wrong and do not know where to go for support and advice about this. As an officer of the all-party group on autism chairing the commission on employment of people with autism, I will be involving people with autism but there will also be discussions for us there about practical measures and the ways to get people with autism into employment that make sense and fit their potential, but do not discriminate.
I will continue to campaign for Bristol to become a truly autism-friendly city. I am delighted that so many of Bristol’s employers are so keen to join me in achieving this goal. I have spoken to many employers over the last year or so about that. Every single one I have met has taken various steps to make their employment practices more accessible. So may I ask the Minister what the Government will do in turn to help to close the autism employment gap? If she is not able to answer that today, will she consider coming to our commission inquiry to discuss it further?
I thank all those people on the autistic spectrum who have not just inspired me but helped me, taught me and frequently challenged me on how I as a politician and an employer can do better. Autism is in my family. My autistic teenage nephew is doing really well and has so much to offer and many talents, but he is going to need employers to understand his autism and that may in turn mean that they need help. So I want every one of us here to take that away from today’s debate: the need to help employers to do better to close the autism employment gap.
It is a pleasure to follow my south-west colleague, Thangam Debbonaire, in this important debate. The National Autistic Society says that there are around 700,000 people on the autistic spectrum in the UK, which is more than one in 100. This means that autism is part of daily life for around 2.8 million people, when we include their families. I therefore welcome this debate on services for people with autism, and I would like to raise two specific points in my contribution today.
First, at my surgery last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a chap called Tigger Pritchard, who is the champion for the National Autistic Society in Cornwall. He is running a great campaign to make Bodmin in my constituency the first autism-friendly town in Cornwall, following the example set by the town of Aylesbury in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Lidington.
Tigger has been sending letters to businesses in Bodmin telling them of the opportunities that they have to help people with autism and their families to become less socially isolated. For example, if shops were to have a period of time in the day when they turned their music down or off, dimmed their lights, reduced till noise and developed staff knowledge of autism, people on the autistic spectrum would have more access to their services. Tigger has had a great response from businesses in Bodmin in the weeks coming up to April, which is Autism Awareness Month. My team and I will be meeting him again so that we can learn a bit more about autism. Should Bodmin manage to become an autism-friendly town, I hope that it will inspire many other communities in Cornwall and across the UK to become more autism friendly.
The second issue I would like to raise relates to the inquiry into the detention of young people with learning disabilities that is being undertaken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member. Following the 2011 Winterbourne View abuse scandal, the Department of Health and Social Care’s policy response, “Transforming Care” declared that hospitals were not places where people should live. The “Transforming Care” policy regrettably missed its target to move those who were inappropriately placed in hospital or mental health care to community-based support no later than
I encourage people to submit written evidence to the inquiry, so that we can explore how and where we can improve services for those on the autism spectrum. I also want to take this opportunity to encourage all my colleagues in the House to use Autism Awareness Day on
It is a pleasure to follow Scott Mann. I congratulate Huw Merriman on opening today’s debate, and I join him in paying tribute to the fantastic work of Dame Cheryl Gillan. I join others in sending our very best wishes to her and her family today.
I want to focus on children with autism. We know that, from the outset, families face an uphill struggle to obtain the help and support that they deserve, and I pay tribute to the work of a relatively new organisation in Liverpool called Autism in Motion, which seeks to provide a voice for parents. It was set up by three Liverpool mums of children on the autistic spectrum. National guidelines state that people should start their diagnostic assessment within three months of being referred to the autism team, but statistics obtained last year by Norman Lamb revealed a postcode lottery in waiting times for an initial appointment, with many parts of the country falling woefully short of the three-month target. In some parts of the country, it can take years to receive a diagnosis of autism.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to many families and indeed professionals who are challenged by these circumstances if the Government were able to put more resources specifically into initial teacher training and in-service training to help staff in schools to understand autism better and to support children with autistic spectrum issues better?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I shall refer later in my speech to the Abbotts Lea special school in Liverpool, which is a shining example of the very best practice that exists in our education system.
Delays in diagnosing autism mean that many autistic people do not receive the support that they need, which can really harm their life chances. For too many families, securing the right support for their child at school is a hugely difficult task, and can become an all-consuming battle. The passport to receiving this extra support is an education, health and care—or EHC—plan, which is intended to bring together a child’s different needs in education, health and social care. Autism is the most common type of special need for school pupils who have an EHC plan. However, as budgets have been reduced, local councils often struggle to respond to demand, leading to EHC plans being refused or delayed well beyond the 20-week cut-off date by which a decision on whether to approve an EHC plan should be made.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. In my experience—and, I suspect, that of others—the delays in getting an assessment are resulting in some parents having to pay between £2,000 and £3,000 out of their own pocket because they cannot afford to wait such a long time for their children to be assessed.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This is one of the many aspects of this challenge that makes life very difficult for the families of children with autism, and we really need to do better by them.
Even those families who do get a plan are often not given the support they need. A report published by the all-party parliamentary group on autism found that only one in 10 parents were very satisfied with the process of agreeing an EHC plan for their child, with 60% saying that they were dissatisfied. In Liverpool, a recent Ofsted inspection into how Liverpool City Council and the local clinical commissioning group catered for children with special educational needs and disabilities found “significant concerns” and “long-standing issues” in local practice. In particular, the inspection found serious weaknesses in the EHC planning process as well as in the quality of the plans that were being made. In response to these concerns, the city council is required to submit a written statement of action to explain how Liverpool will tackle the areas of significant weakness identified.
I am pleased that the council is responding with the urgency that that report demands. It has responded positively, but we know that Liverpool is far from unique. In fact, a majority—more than 50%—of the SEND area inspections nationally have resulted in the requirement for a statement of written action. This is a huge national challenge.
Across the country, devastating cuts in local government funding have contributed to a crisis in funding for children with special education needs and councils are struggling to meet their statutory duties for children with autism. Data from freedom of information requests and council reports show that councils are overspending massively. Overspending on SEND has trebled in the past three years, and it is continuing to increase, with councils having to raid their overall schools budget for millions to respond to demand. Cuts to local authority budgets have further reduced the kind of support that used to be in place for social activities for children with autism and additional support for their families.
Despite this challenging environment, there are brilliant examples across the country of great support for autistic children and their families. In Liverpool, we have some truly outstanding special schools, and it is not just me saying that: Ofsted says that they are truly outstanding, too. They include three in my constituency—Redbridge, Bank View and Ernest Cookson—which serve children with autism.
I want to focus on Abbot’s Lea School, which is in fact in the constituency of my hon. Friend Maria Eagle. The school caters for over 250 students from three to 19 years old, and its philosophy of education is the ASD model. I pay tribute to headteacher Ania Hildrey, who told me this week that she focuses equally on academic progress, specialist therapeutic support and development of life skills. She has transformed its curriculum, and she unapologetically aspires to be the best special school in the world.
Like so many other specialist schools, however, Abbot’s Lea is being held back from being able to provide the very best service, because local government funding does not go far enough to meet the demand for specialist placements or mainstream support. Ania told me that some of the welcome reforms in the Children and Families Act 2014 have not been implemented as planned, leading to poor school planning and a lack of joint commissioning. Delays in autism diagnosis often mean that schools receive referrals much later than they would like, and that limits schools’ ability to transform pupils’ lives.
Abbot’s Lea is keen to engage with both Government and the local authority to help shape the provision of education for children and young people with autism. I urge the Minister and her colleagues in the Department for Education to listen and engage with the concerns of brilliant headteachers such as Ania and with families in Liverpool and elsewhere and to work on a cross-Government basis to improve outcomes for children with autism. We urgently need to improve the quality of services provided to children, young people and their families, but that can be achieved only with proper resourcing and by ensuring that the barriers that still exist between our health and education systems are broken down. If we are truly going to make the progress that we all want to see, it is incumbent on us to listen to children and young people with autism, to their parents and families and to professionals, such as Ania Hildrey, who are working so hard to deliver the best in schools in Liverpool and around the country.
I am proud to be a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism and to have served as a governor at a special school in Dudley that had a particular focus on autism and Asperger’s. Ten years have passed since my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan steered the Autism Act 2009 through this House as a private member’s Bill, so it is a good time to reflect on not only all that has been achieved, but all that still needs to be done truly to deliver on the promises of that legislation to improve support and services for people with autism and their families.
In the time available to me, however, I will focus on issues that relate to children with autism. As Stephen Twigg said, nearly five years after the Children and Families Act 2014 became law, progress on implementing the new SEND system is still patchy at best. According to the National Autism Society, 42% of families are being refused education health and care assessments when they are first requested and more than 70% are waiting longer than six months for support at school.
As of January 2018, there were 825 pupils in Dudley’s special schools. That compares with, according to the Department for Education, 119,910 pupils with autistic spectrum disorder in state-funded schools in England. Of those, more than 70% were being educated in mainstream schools, and that has huge implications for teachers and teacher training. That is why it is so important that, since 2016, the new teacher training framework has made supporting children with special educational needs, but particularly autistic children, a core part of the initial teacher training. That training and support needs to be stepped up, so that everybody can be confident that every teacher in every school up and down the country is competent and confident working with children with autism. If teachers do not currently have a child with autism in their class, they will at some point, probably very soon in their career.
The issues of working with, supporting and educating autistic children are very real. As my hon. Friend Huw Merriman suggested, the behaviour of children with autism can be perceived incorrectly. Children on the autistic spectrum can often find themselves being chastised for not behaving in exactly the same way as other pupils. By not behaving in the way that teachers would expect, they can be punished in a way that may be appropriate for the class as a whole, but completely inappropriate given the special educational needs and medical condition of such children.
Government figures show that autistic pupils are four times more likely to be excluded from school compared with pupils who have no special educational needs. Clearly, there is an ongoing debate about the impact of exclusions, but there can be no doubt that the fact that autistic pupils are far more likely to be excluded has a severe impact on the life chances of children whose life chances are already impacted by their medical condition. That effect is most obvious in opportunities for future work and for training.
In many cases, the Government are making good progress on the target of getting a million more disabled people into work. However, the employment gap for people with autism is far wider. Just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time work, so it is essential that Jobcentre Plus staff and work coaches properly understand autism and that employers have the full range of support and advice they need to employ autistic people confidently.
I will conclude as I have done in similar debates by reflecting on the words of Natalie, who was one of the parent-governors at the school where I was a governor. Natalie said of her son Will, who attended that school:
“Autism is only a small fraction of our son. It is not everything he is. Will is so much more than the label society has given him. We want him to be accepted, and for him to be accepted equally as a citizen of this country as his peers are.”
That is what all parents want for their children. In this 10th anniversary year of the Autism Act, we have a responsibility to do all that we can to make that wish a reality.
It is a pleasure to follow Mike Wood. I pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan for all her work over the past decade, and I send my best wishes to her and her family at this difficult time. I also congratulate Huw Merriman on starting this debate in her absence.
My interest in autism comes from the many constituents who have had cause to contact me. Some have autism or have a child or family member with autism and have faced a battle to secure the support and access to services they need. Too often, autistic people and their families face significant battles over a long period and across a range of public services, including education, health, housing and the welfare and benefits system. I have supported many families who have had to battle for assessment and diagnosis. Even when they succeed in getting a diagnosis, they often do not receive additional support. I have helped constituents with autism who are struggling to access the benefits they need, because DWP assessment processes are simply not fit for purpose for people with autism. Most heartbreakingly of all, I have supported constituents whose loved ones are in institutions, long-term hospital care or, as in one case, supported housing where their needs are not being met and where they have in fact suffered abuse and neglect.
Autism is not a learning disability and it is not an illness; it is a form of neurodiversity. I commend the work within my own party by Neurodivergent Labour, which is working to ensure policy commitments to create a society that works for everyone living with autism and other forms of neurodiversity. Autistic people often have very special gifts and talents, like the young man who spent time doing work experience in my office after his GCSEs last summer and who completed the most brilliant analysis of crime statistics in my constituency I have ever seen.
My experience is that autistic people are too often being let down across many public services, because schools are often not well enough equipped to meet their needs, because health services are not arranged to be accessible and because there is insufficient supported housing in small community settings, so far too many children and adults with autism are still in long-term hospital accommodation.
We must call out the impact of austerity on school provision for children with autism. Teaching assistants have a vital role in providing additional support in the classroom for children with autism, in helping to shape curriculum content to meet their needs and in helping to explain and mediate to manage their anxiety. Schools that are being forced under this Government to make teaching assistants redundant will run a greater risk of failing their students with autism.
Understanding that challenging behaviour in people with autism is often a symptom of anxiety not a sign of misbehaviour and that the route to addressing it lies in de-escalating and managing fear and anxiety rather than in greater discipline would be transformative in the classroom and prevent many exclusions. The Government have introduced new training in autism awareness for trainee teachers, but there is a huge knowledge gap in the existing workforce that needs to be addressed with properly resourced training for teachers and support staff.
Austerity is also contributing to increased difficulty with diagnosis and in accessing support post diagnosis. Many local authorities are being forced to raise the threshold for support because, across both child and adult social services, they are struggling to discharge even their basic statutory responsibilities. We need additional resources to be put into diagnosis and post-diagnosis support.
It has long been reported that there is a very significant under-diagnosis of autism in women and girls, and there is now emerging evidence that, for far too many women and girls, an autism diagnosis happens only after they have been admitted to hospital due to severe mental illness, whether an eating disorder, depression or an attempt to take their own life. This is simply unacceptable. What practical action is the Minister taking to address under-diagnosis in women and girls and to stop a lack of support on living well with autism resulting in an unnecessary deterioration in mental health?
It is astonishing that, eight years on from Winterbourne View and with “Transforming Care” due to end imminently, we are still living with the scandal of people with autism, a learning disability or both living in long-term hospital accommodation, where far too many of them are still subject to human rights abuses, including prone restraint and neglect.
This Government have failed to implement “Transforming Care”—there is no denying it and no escaping it. Private psychiatric hospitals, which are no place for any young person with autism to live, have been allowed to expand at huge cost to the public purse, while there has been paltry investment in delivering community-based supported housing in which we know people with autism can thrive. Will the Minister commit to renewed funding to deliver “Transforming Care” today?
Finally, my constituents Isabelle and Robin Garnett, whose son Matthew I have mentioned many times in this Chamber following his detention at St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton under the Mental Health Act 1983, where he suffered appallingly, have launched a new campaign this week. #HumanToo is a campaign to give visibility to people living with autism in our community and against the abuse and neglect that far too many have suffered. Such a campaign should not be needed, but, shamefully, it is. I ask the Minister to support this campaign, not just with words but with meaningful action to ensure that every person living with autism has access to the support, services and understanding they need to live well and to fulfil their talents and potential in our communities.
It is a pleasure to follow Helen Hayes, who opened by saying that autism is about neurodiversity. Autism should probably be included on my list of interests, because I talk about it so often. My son is about to turn 20, and he has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. He is in his first year at university, and he is thriving precisely because, along with his personal courage, he had the great fortune to have teachers who took the time to learn how they could help him stay in a mainstream school. He has proved it is absolutely possible for these mostly young men, but some young women too, to thrive in adulthood and be everything they are born to be.
I want to raise three points. First, autism is classified as a mental health disorder in the fifth edition of “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”—an American diagnostic tool that is used globally—which is simply wrong. The Government need to take on that global network of conversations by saying it is unacceptable.
I have a particular beef about mental health, as everyone knows. Mental ill health is where medicine needs to come in and support people, because mental health is something we all have every day of the week—sometimes it is in good order, and sometimes it is not in such good order. Mental ill health is something specific. Those who are autistic do sometimes suffer from mental ill health because of the pressures put on them by situations they find too difficult to cope with, but they are not suffering from mental ill health by being autistic. Will the Government please do more to take on this international classification, which is simply wrong and drives all the wrong outcomes?
The visible symptoms of autism include difficulty with social interaction and, indeed, a lack of interest in social interaction. There is some interesting research going on at Stanford University’s school of medicine into why that might be, and there is a particular brain pathway, the mesolimbic reward pathway, that causes people to enjoy social interactions. If the pathway is not stimulated, it may not develop at all.
There is also work to identify neurological activity between the left and right sides of the brain, and those who are autistic seem to have much less interactivity between the two sides of the brain, which also reduces the social skills that we consider to be neurotypically normal. It is important we tackle this, because we need to get the classification of autism right. If we identify where autism sits in relation to the bit of us that is not like the rest of us, we will start to make policy that fits those with an autism diagnosis.
Secondly, I am proud to be a member of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, and I am working with Thangam Debbonaire on employment, specifically in the military. I am trying really hard to get the Ministry of Defence to let me do some work on why having an autistic spectrum disorder is currently an automatic disbarment from applying to the military in the United Kingdom. I have not looked at whether that is the case globally, but it is a fundamental failure on our part.
There are many senior members of our military who are clearly on the autistic spectrum, and they are brilliant leaders in their field. Many more young people are now being diagnosed, thank goodness, but they are being disbarred because they are listing themselves as having an autistic spectrum disorder, which should not be the case. We are losing the opportunity to employ the brilliant minds with extraordinary focus that we need in some areas of our military for the nation’s good. I challenge the Minister to help me break through that Main Building wall to see whether we can make some progress.
Thirdly, like everything, if we get this right at the beginning, we can make better progress. The diagnostic system is just not good enough. I paid a very large sum of money to get my then eight-year-old boy, James, diagnosed through the private system, which gave him and us a tool with which to work. We were very lucky to have great teachers, too, but that diagnosis gives parents a sense of power that they can look after their children.
We keep struggling on how to make progress, and I raise it again. Will the Minister please sit down with me and others to think about how we could have regional diagnosis centres? It is difficult to ask every single one of our 150 councils to have great teams of psychiatrists and healthcare professionals to get this right. Why do we not have regional centres?
When pre-school teachers see that young children who are not neurotypical have particular attributes and socialisation issues, and so could clearly be autistic, we could send those children to get a diagnosis very early. That would reduce the huge costs of mental ill health and school exclusions that often result, which the state is picking up. By the time these children are 18, they are often unable to interact with society in a constructive way because they have been battered for too long.
Can we please consider having regional centres of excellence for diagnosis to ensure we scoop up these young people much earlier and to ensure that we get the very best out of them? Alongside my son, I see many extraordinary young men and women who will bring great value to our country. We need to make sure that we do not lose any more of these children along the way.
May I, too, congratulate Dame Cheryl Gillan, who, sadly, cannot be here because of that family situation, on her speech? I also congratulate Huw Merriman. I think he would agree that he proved that, as the old song says, there’s nothin’ like a Dame, but he did an admirable job in delivering her speech and in answering interventions from colleagues from across the House.
I take an interest in this subject, as do many Members, through constituency casework, and I have particularly focused on adults with autism. Understandably, there is often a lot of debate about children with autism, but those children grow up to be adults, and often many of the difficulties can arise when that cliff edge comes and children with autism become adults. Sadly, this often ends up with adults with autism coming into contact with the criminal justice system, as happened in the case of one of my constituents, whom I will not name for obvious reasons. The trait of stimming is shared by many people with autism, but it is not generally understood by the general population. It is the repetitive behaviour of some with autism in order to calm a situation, but it can be misinterpreted sometimes as a criminal action. In the case of my constituent, that led to his being arrested on two different occasions by the British Transport police when he became nervous travelling on public transport. This ended up with his being inappropriately cautioned and that remaining on the record, despite the fact that that caution was later withdrawn, in recognition of the fact that he had not been given the appropriate support that adults with autism are supposed to get when they come into conjunction with the criminal justice system.
What has been highlighted is that travel is also traumatic for people with autism. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Cardiff airport on training its staff to support children and adults with autism when they are travelling through the airport?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating Cardiff airport on that. Going through an airport, with its security and everything that comes along with it, is a stressful enough situation for anyone, so the fact that the airport is doing that is very much to be welcomed.
Lord Bradley, a former Member of this House, produced a report in 2009 on how not only people with autism but other individuals with mental health issues come into contact with the criminal justice system. At the end of last year, he and I, along with some families of adults with autism, arranged to meet the new head of the new Independent Office for Police Conduct to talk about the way the police often deal with adults with autism when they come into contact with them, and with the complaints that then come when those adults with autism have been treated inappropriately and not according to the guidelines originally envisaged by Lord Bradley back in 2009.
Michael Lockwood, the IOPC’s new head, is to be given some credit for engaging seriously with this issue. We can see a sea change in attitude on this issue from the new IOPC when compared with the former Independent Police Complaints Commission. For example, he has agreed to meet and engage with the families of those who have had cause to raise complaints with the IPCC and the IOPC, and to involve them in designing the ways in which the IOPC will respond. There is a recognition that often these sorts of inquiries can be confrontational, whereas what is really needed is to get to the heart of the matter and the truth, and to make sure that lessons are learned and spread throughout the criminal justice system, particularly in the police force.
One thing that is being done by the IOPC, which I welcome very much and think should be done in other organisations, is that it is recognising that employees in these organisations will often have children with autism or relatives with autism, and that they can bring some expertise to the organisation when they are interacting with those with autism. For example, the IOPC recognises that many members of its staff are from families that have experience of autism and that they can bring an expertise within the organisation when looking at these cases where complaints are raised. I welcome that, because that sort of learning is what needs to take place across the police, the courts, the prison system, adult and children’s services across the country, and the NHS.
My hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire, who is no longer in her place, was talking earlier about what was going on in Bristol. In the case of my constituent and a couple of other families, I welcome the fact that, as I understand it, adult services in Bristol have agreed to review some of the cases they have dealt with in recent years, with a view to publishing a report, appropriately anonymised, that can provide lessons learned to people right across the country. That is very much to be welcomed.
My constituent has got together with other families to help set up an organisation called autisminjustice.org. I recommend that Members look at the stories on the site about the way in which these families have come into contact with the criminal justice system. The organisation’s long-term aims are to ensure:
“That criminal justice and care professionals are aware of and follow existing guidelines and policy relating to autistic people in a way that properly safeguards them.
That these professionals, as well as the general public, understand autism so that autistic people’s appearance and/or behaviour is not misunderstood and misrepresented in a way that puts them at risk of serious harm.”
Those are very laudable long-term aims.
I appeal to the Minister to engage with those families, with that organisation and with other Departments across Government to make sure that government is working in a joined-up way on this. Those of us who have been Ministers understand that it is not always easy to get out of the ministerial silos that Whitehall imposes upon us, but government works best when Ministers from different Departments get together with a common purpose. Surely on this issue of all issues, where there is cross-party support in this House and general agreement on what should happen, we should in no way be inhibited by Ministers not being able to work together. I urge the Minister to do as much as she can to work across Whitehall on this issue.
I, too, wish to start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan, and I am glad that all our thoughts are with her.
In my constituency, I am very fortunate in having numerous institutions, be they charitable or, as it were, full-time, and individuals who do a lot to take things forward, examine them and do the research on autism. I wish to make two mentions to start with. First, it was through this issue that I was introduced to Dame Stephanie Shirley, whose work in this area is phenomenal. She has spent a huge amount of her own money taking forward research in this area, and she is a beacon when it comes to providing a focus on dealing with autism and showing us what to do. Secondly, I would like to mention a charity called Music for Autism, which was set up with the Orchestra of St John’s. It uses music to influence the lives of those with autism. Those who have seen it in operation will know that it is a fantastic experience to see how members of the orchestra lap up the opportunity to work with those with autism and help enrich their lives. That is a great achievement.
I wish to concentrate on three areas. First, I want to follow Kevin Brennan in commenting on the treatment of those with autism in the justice system. That needs to be concentrated on in three areas in particular: the police; the courts; and among prison staff, if it eventually comes to that. Only two things need to be done to take this issue forward in a big way. First, we need to identify those with autism at a very early stage, because as the hon. Gentleman said, that helps to make sure that we do not end up in a whole lot of disputes at a later stage. I am aware that the courts have put a lot of effort into making sure that they are autism-friendly for people appearing before them. I am also aware of a number of prisons that support people with autism; I think there is a pilot scheme, and I hope it will be rolled out across the prison system and that we can learn the lessons from it.
The second issue I wish to mention is education. Several Members have already mentioned education, but I wish to cover a particular aspect: the involvement of people with autism in designing training for teachers. Several Members have hinted at that point, but I do not think anyone has tackled it as boldly as I am going to. The involvement of people with autism in the training of teachers is absolutely essential. They can provide help with training and influence how it is devised in many ways, all of which will lead to more choice and to our paying special attention to the needs of those with autism.
Finally, I wish to comment on autism and jobs. Last year, I was appointed a special envoy for an autistic charity called SPACE—I am never good with acronyms, but I think it stands for Supporting People with Autism into Continued Employment. I became the envoy for that charity to promote the idea of Members taking on staff with autism in their offices. As a way of demonstrating that, I enthusiastically took on a young man from Hornchurch who has autism. When it came to saying goodbye to him at the end of his period with me, I really regretted that he was going. He had been an outstanding worker and made an outstanding contribution to my office. It had been a great experience, not only for him but especially for me and my staff. If we can encourage more of that, we will have a much better way forward for those with autism.
It is a pleasure to follow John Howell, whose contributions are always well worth listening to. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to have this debate, of which I was happy to be one of the co-sponsors. I also thank Huw Merriman for setting the scene on behalf of Dame Cheryl Gillan, who would have been here had she not been detained elsewhere.
The National Autistic Society definition of autism sets the scene:
“Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. There are approximately 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.”
Without the right support or understanding, autistic people can miss out on an education, struggle to find work and become extremely isolated. As an active constituency Member of Parliament, every week in my office I deal with and try to help people who have autism and their families, including on benefits, educational assessments and family issues and pressures.
The National Autistic Society’s “Too Much Information” campaign highlighted how, in spite of increasing awareness around autism, there is still a significant lack of public understanding, and there genuinely is. Research shows that although 99.5% of people in the UK have heard of autism, only 16% of autistic people and their families think that the public really understand them. Half the autistic people and their families said that they sometimes do not go out because they are worried about the public’s reaction to their autism.
All that is certainly true, but I was also sent a link to a few blogs by a parent in Strangford, who said:
“I don’t have the words to explain it but this is how I feel:”
“I am not a warrior mom. I am not a superdad.
I am tired.
I just want what everyone else has—time to enjoy my kids, without the constant, mind-numbing terror of worrying about their future.
I don’t WANT to be an activist. No-one does.
Nobody woke up one day and said ‘Hey, I want to take time and energy away from my family to fight for someone’s rights.’
Plus, I want to feel the positive effects NOW! I ain’t doing this just for other people, honestly, I am doing it so that I too can benefit from the changes.
So instead of patting me on the head, shaking my hand, congratulating me on how selfless I am, blah di blah blah blah…help a brother out…give a sister a break.
Do SOMETHING DEFINITE to help change things, NOW and for the next generation. Ask me, I have ideas.
Otherwise, miss me with the…platitudes, please.”
That is a heartfelt request from one of my constituents. I want to help this father who contacted me and who feels like that, and all the parents like him. We have a duty not to offer platitudes about rainbows and sunshine or individually unique snowflakes, all of which are lovely and touch the heart emotionally. We have a duty to provide physical support and practical advice. We have a duty to provide respite for parents who are on the brink of a breakdown, and for siblings who feel invisible as they strive not to add to their mum and dad’s concerns because they are dealing with enough. We have a duty to provide respite to the child and to introduce them to people outside their circle in a controlled and helpful way. I do not believe that we are fulfilling our duty.
In Northern Ireland, we are certainly not fulfilling our duty in the way that I would like us to. A number of families with children with challenging behavioural problems—children who have met the criteria to be considered for overnight care, which is so important—have been told that they will have to wait several years before they can access overnight respite care. According to the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board statistics for 2014-15, there were 4,031 children in need, known to social services and with a disability, and 1,210 children with a disability who had received respite care. There are 10 respite facilities across Northern Ireland, each of which has between five and eight beds that can be used to care for children overnight, but more than 1,200 children are trying to access those beds.
In my previous job in the Northern Ireland Assembly, I was pleased to be a member of the all-party group on autism. We fought a campaign over a period of time. The Autism Act (Northern Ireland) came into law in 2011, after I had left the Assembly, but I would have had some input into the process through the all-party group.
In the limited time I have left to speak, let me outline what the autism strategy has done in Northern Ireland. The autism strategy for Northern Ireland runs from 2013 to 2020, and the action plan ran from 2013 to 2016. We focused on the following issues: awareness; accessibility; children, young people and family; health and wellbeing; education; transitions; employability; independence, choice and control; access to justice; being part of the community; and participation and active citizenship. We published a progress report on the autism strategy for 2013 to 2020 and the action plan for 2013 to 2016. It is a pity that we do not have a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, because these issues would fall under the remit of that Assembly, rather than here. The Assembly still has that responsibility, even though it is not functioning in the way it should be.
It would seem that we have got to the breaking point, which concerns me greatly. It would seem better to have in place a preventative scheme for the families of those who struggle and live the daily autism battle, so that they do not have to reach the breaking point. I am particularly pleased to see the Minister in her place; we will have a positive response from her, as we always do, and I look forward to that response. The overwhelming feeling that I get is that parents are weary—weary from lack of sleep; from fighting the same battles with the child every day; from dealing with people’s expectations of how their child should behave; from fighting to get recognition for their child and to have adequate support in place to reach their potential; and from knowing that their other children are not getting the attention they need. They are just weary, and they need more help, right now.
It is always a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon after a rare opportunity to hear him contribute to a debate. His contributions are always well thought out, passionate and well structured on behalf of his constituents. I definitely agree with him about the need at some point to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running, doing its job again and tackling the issues that need to be tackled on behalf of Northern Ireland. Just ramming business through this place in a day is not what any of us really wants to see. We want to see the politicians who were elected to serve Northern Ireland doing so.
Let me come to the main substance of the debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan and to my hon. Friend Huw Merriman not only for securing this debate, but for the passion that they bring to this issue. Obviously, our best wishes go to my right hon. Friend, who is facing a family situation.
This is an interesting debate. When I was about 12, I sat the Mensa IQ test and got a reasonable rating.
That was interesting, because at that rating you are not that far off the autism spectrum. A lot of people forget that the dividing line is not very big. Many people around that mark will show some traits. For example, if we go to a talk on this matter and find someone very interested in politics, when we ask them what party they support, they say, “I don’t really support a party, but I love analysing election nights, with all the statistics.” I asked such a person to reel off election results in the local area—I was in Coventry at the time on the city council, and they were absolutely able to do that, because that was their special interest. They were very passionately interested in politics, but when they were asked, “Which party are you thinking of joining with all this interest?”, the answer was, “Well, I’m really into that. I’m into the analysis of politics.” That was their special interest.
This is about having a real understanding of autism. What started changing some of my perceptions about people with autism was when I had a volunteer activist who struggled slightly socially in certain scenarios. However, when we were carrying out—of all things—a telephone canvassing session with an automated dialling system, this guy was an absolute star. The rest of us were struggling. The rest of us were finding the whole process very difficult, but he absolutely engaged with it. It was pushing his mind to run slightly faster, and he had ability enough for the whole team. He was given a script, which enabled him to engage brilliantly with people on the phone. That was where his ability came through. In fact, what would normally be seen as a disability became a huge ability. That is why, as a Member of Parliament, I became very keen to challenge perceptions—for example, as has already been touched on in this debate, when someone is seen as naughty. We need to make it clear to employers that, when it comes to people with autism, it is about how they are supported when they enter employment.
I remember doing some work on this with a team when I was deputy leader of Coventry City Council. We looked at why people had left particular jobs—in programming or in engineering. Their skillset was there, their knowledge was there and their strengths were all in that area. What we found was that they were struggling with things such as the lunch room and the office environment—places where they had to interact with people. Everyone else assumes that such interaction is quite simple, but the perceptions of how these people would deal with them were different.
I welcome the fact that support is being provided, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister how much further we can go. We are talking not just about an employer doing a favour, but about an employer sometimes bringing in an absolutely unique talent who may be able to address a job in a way that, bluntly, most of us in this Chamber would struggle with. Sometimes the way an autistic mind works can become a massive advantage in engaging in areas such as IT and tech.
That all means that we need the appropriate levels of support. I do have some concerns over the pressure on higher needs funding in Torbay. I recognise that the Government recently provided some extra funding, but there has been an issue in Torbay. I do not think that we are unique in this, as some of the other smaller coastal unitaries face an issue with the deficit. Traditionally, their funding levels are lower than other areas, which makes it harder for them to deal with such issues. They are paired up with larger—bluntly, more wealthy—counties.
We also need to be clear that this issue is not just about learning, but about having fun. I welcome the fact that support services are available in the Bay. For example, the ASRUS Group meets at the YMCA in Dartmouth Road, Paignton. It is not just about providing education support, but about providing social support to build skills.
This has been a worthwhile debate. I have enjoyed sitting through most of it and listening to the contributions. It will be interesting to hear from both Front-Bench speakers what their thoughts are on this subject. Some people who have absolutely unique talents and some of the greatest minds on this planet may be just on the autistic spectrum, or only just below it. That is where we need to change our perception. It is not about someone with a disability, but about someone who may have a unique ability that we could unlock with the right support.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, who made many powerful points. I commend my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan for securing this important debate ahead of World Autism Week and thank my hon. Friend Huw Merriman for his outstanding representation of her in the Chamber today. I also commend the all-party group report, “Autism and Education 2017”, which was written in partnership with the National Autistic Society.
I am a member of the Education Committee, which is also looking into the needs of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. The autism APPG’s report contained some shocking statistics. The one that really upset me was that fewer than half of the children and young people on the autism spectrum going to school say that they are happy. It says that a lack of understanding from their peers and their teachers is the main reason for such unhappiness. The thought of any child or young person not looking forward to their day at school is, to me, so incredibly sad and utterly avoidable. We need better understanding and a co-ordinated resourced approach.
I do not wish to take up much of the House’s time, but has the hon. Lady had a chance to meet my constituent, Deborah Brownson, who has created extraordinary facilities through the online autism plan to help parents and children who are facing difficulties? If she has not met her, she should and join the campaign to get Government support for what Deborah is doing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have not met Deborah, but I absolutely look forward to doing so. May I task him with connecting us?
Almost immediately after I was elected to this House two years ago, calls for my assistance arrived from families living with autism. They have told me about living with the daily fight for support, for a diagnosis, for professional advice, for an education and health care plan, for the necessary resources to actually carry out the recommendations in the plan, for reasonable adjustments in school and for flexible working arrangements with parents’ employers. As one of the many parents who responded to my call for information ahead of this debate said, “Everything is a fight. To get help is a fight and to find anything that you are entitled to is a fight.” Each family I met said the same thing over and over again. Families talk of the agonising wait for a diagnosis, in the hope that a diagnosis will bring some certainty and a joined-up forward plan but, all too often, it does not.
We in Copeland live in a rural and remote community, so one may have expected self-sustaining groups to form to support each other; it is what we do. Groups such Shine for Autism, Autism Around the Combe, the West Cumbrian Autism Society and the award-winning Sellafield Site Autism Support Network have been formed out of absolute desperation and in recognition of the fact that so many people are living with autism and these groups could make a real difference. And they do. I pay tribute to all the volunteers and parents who selflessly support others. The resilience and concept of helping each other make me so incredibly proud of my community, but it is not fair or right, or sustainable in the long term, because the parents I speak to say that they are “at the end of their tether.”
This fight is resulting in relationship breakdowns and mental ill health conditions, and in parents having to reduce their hours, or having to give up work altogether because of the lack of childcare for families with autistic children. Autistic children are three times more likely to be excluded from school for a fixed period than children who do not have any special educational needs and, with just 16% of autistic adults in full-time work, the UK is missing out on talent and much-needed skills. Child and adolescent mental health services came up time and again as being a critical but under-resourced source of help in Copeland and across Cumbria. Too many children and young people are being left without education, mental health support or any reassurance of a plan.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham introduced the Bill that became the Autism Act in 2009, and 10 years on it is time to recognise the calls for training for school staff, for reasonable adjustments in schools and for guidance and resources for local authorities to provide the full range of educational provision and support. I am delighted that the Academy for Autism will be opening in West Cumbria in September and that the outstanding Mayfield specialist school in Whitehaven will move into its brand-new facility later this year, too.
The Department for Education increased the total high needs budget across England from £5 billion to just under £6 billion in 2018, and funding is set to rise above £6 billion in 2019-20, so there has been much progress, but I urge the Minister to consider a different approach in rural and remote areas, as we are missing out, our children are missing out and the country will miss out on the abundance of talent and skills, which are so desperately needed. My call to the Minister is: please help me to find a way to better help these dedicated groups in the vital work they do.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I place on the record my sincere thanks to Dame Cheryl Gillan and pay tribute to her work. We, like others, are thinking of her at this time. Huw Merriman did an excellent job of putting that on the record and should be very proud.
It is a pleasure to sum up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. It has been an excellent debate, despite the time pressure. It is incredibly annoying to sit through debates knowing that people are having to pack so much in, so I hope that we can have more of these debates. We have heard excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle, for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Dudley South (Mike Wood), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for Henley (John Howell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster). All made very powerful speeches, either about their constituency casework or their experience with family members. I was particularly moved by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who spoke about her 20-year-old son and how he is thriving. We all wish him well.
On a personal level, I want to thank a constituent of mine, Aileen Orr, who lobbied me to attend this important debate. She was right to say that, as has been backed up today, there is still not enough knowledge about autism and many people can still be quite ignorant about it, which is a point on which we must all reflect. World Autism Awareness Week is a good opportunity to give this issue the focus it deserves. Particularly in a Parliament so dominated by Brexit, such debates remind us that there are other issues that people want us to focus on, and there is a lot of unity in here today.
As Members would expect, I want to focus on the situation in Scotland. We have made good progress, but there is still a lot more work to do, as I will come on to. Last year, the Scottish Government refreshed their strategy for autism, which runs from 2018 to 2021. The review was a good opportunity to listen to people and to look at where we could improve, and I am grateful to our Mental Health Minister, Clare Haughey, who just two days ago announced a complete review of mental health legislation and autism legislation—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made a point about the two things being treated separately. It is good to see that recognised.
Among the themes arising from the review were the need for professionals across various areas to get more training in autism—that point has been made today—and issues of work and employment. The 16% figure that the hon. Member for Bristol West mentioned makes it clear that a lot more work needs toIt was not lined up for this debate, but on Monday I had the pleasure of visiting Aultmore Park Primary School, in my constituency, which is celebrating its 10th birthday this week. There is a language and communication resource on the school complex that works very closely with the school to make sure that the children attend from primary 1 to primary 7 and access the excellent opportunities. There was a lovely and exciting atmosphere in that school on Monday. It is such a pleasure to have it in my constituency.
On education, I know from my constituency caseload that we still have a lot more to do to support families. Like many other Members, I remain incredibly frustrated about the waiting times—in Scotland, they are often between one and two years, which is far too long—and in that regard I pay tribute to East End Carers, based in Shettleston, and the Happy Club, based in Provanhall. So often it is these voluntary charities that provide emotional and practical support for families, particularly in the period immediately after a diagnosis.
Part of the reason for the long diagnosis process is a lack of educational psychologists, which is a major issue in Scotland. There is only one university—Dundee, I think—where people can train to be educational psychologists. I encourage our Ministers north of the border to look at that.
Not enough is being done for schools. Teachers can study psychology. Some people teach and are also qualified psychologists. Is that not something that should be looked at?
The hon. Gentleman is right to put that on the record. I am married to a primary school teacher and, although aspects of her teacher training dealt with autism, she would probably feel that she has not been given enough support. More often than not, she will be able to say, anecdotally, “This child in the class might have autism but has not had a diagnosis yet.” So he is right to put that on the record.
More often than not, a lot of housing associations do not have a proper understanding of autism. A lot of families come to me and say, “I need a house with a garden so that my child can play safely”. This chicken-and-egg situation, which I see regularly, can be quite frustrating.
I am conscious of the time—there is a heavily subscribed debate after this one—so I will round off by saying that it is of fundamental importance that autistic people and their families are understood and welcomed in their own communities and can be supported to be as independent and active as they wish to be. I thank all hon. Members who have participated in this debate. I hope that, when we debate it next year, we will be able to celebrate some progress because, if we have learned one thing today, it is that we still have a lot further to go.
Our thoughts are with Dame Cheryl Gillan, who is a true champion for those with autism. I also thank Huw Merriman for securing today’s debate and his excellent speech, which set the tone for a very constructive debate.
This is a timely debate not just because it comes in advance of World Autism Awareness Week, but because this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Autism Act 2009, passed under the last Labour Government, which put a duty on Ministers to publish and regularly review their autism strategy and to produce statutory guidance to implement at a local level. We have heard from several hon. Members on the all-party group on autism, which is holding an inquiry into the Act’s implementation ahead of the Government’s review. Ahead of that formal publication, I hope that the Minister will give us the Government’s views not just on the changes that we have seen over the past 10 years, but on what more can be achieved in the years ahead.
I am sure that the whole House will want to thank the National Autistic Society, Autistica and Ambitious about Autism—and all the other charities that represent and serve people with autism—for the work they do, the support they give and the services that they provide to all those people. There is a charity in my constituency called The Whole Autism Family, which is run by Martin and Anne-Marie Kilgallon in Mirfield, who do phenomenal work. They have two sons with autism, but the support they provide to other families is simply phenomenal and I am very grateful to them for their work.
In responding for the Opposition Front-Bench team, I think it is important to note that, although I am shadow Minister for mental health, autism is not a mental health condition, as Anne-Marie Trevelyan also mentioned. I hope that we all aspire to a society where people with autism have as good mental health as the rest of the population. Unfortunately, however, we are very far short of that aspiration. It is estimated that up to four out of five autistic people develop mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and four out of 10 children with autism have multiple mental health problems.
In the worst cases, autistic people end up in mental health hospitals, which are usually not appropriate, and they are sometimes there for extended periods. The transforming care programme was aimed at tackling that problem, but we have heard evidence that it has fallen far short of its aims. The NHS long-term plan sets a target for reducing the number of autistic in-patients in mental health hospitals by 2023-24. But if we are to achieve that, there must be investment in better community mental health support that is appropriate for people with autism. The need to tackle this issue has been thrown into stark relief by the appalling cases of abuse of people with autism that have had significant media coverage in recent months, as Scott Mann mentioned.
There are still more than 2,000 people in totally unsuitable in-patient settings, when they should be supported in the community. That is not only unconscionable; it is exorbitantly expensive, with the average package costing £3,500 a week. The Government announced last year that they would be asking the CQC to conduct a thematic review into the seclusion of people with autism in in-patient settings, but this will take far too long to tell us what we already know—that these placements should be ended. Will the Minister today finally commit to ending placements in assessment and treatment units and to working with her colleagues to provide the kind of community-based support that people with autism deserve? The Minister will also be aware of the call to reform the Mental Health Act 1983, which defines autism as a “mental disorder”, allowing autistic people to be sectioned without having a separate, treatable mental health condition. Perhaps she can tell us what plans there are to address the legislation, as well as to provide the right kind of support services.
Perhaps the obvious starting point regarding support for people with autism is getting a diagnosis in the first place, and a number of hon. Members have quite rightly spoken about that today. The quality standard on autism recommends a maximum three-month period between referral and the first diagnostic appointment, but it is clear that the standard is not being met anywhere near widely enough, with reports of delays of years rather than months. I have certainly experienced that issue in my constituency surgeries.
When I spoke on this subject a year ago, I noted that we were about to implement new standards on data for waiting times, which had been patchy until then. We are now nearly a year on, and we should therefore have data for the first full year next month, with publication due this summer. The long-term plan also contained a welcome and specific commitment to reducing diagnosis times, so I hope that the Minister will update the House on any early findings, on when the final data will be published and on the Government’s plans to make improvements.
Similarly, in previous debates, we have heard about the need for better data on who is being diagnosed. The National Autistic Society found that over three quarters of those using their adult services are male, and there is a concern that the lack of recognition for women with autism may be partly behind those numbers. There are also age effects, given that autism was not a recognised condition when many older people with autism were growing up. In previous debates, the Minister has said that the Department expects GPs to include autism in the primary care register and will be working with NHS Digital to achieve that. Perhaps the Minister could update us on the progress in that regard.
Too often, there are significant barriers to accessing the right services after diagnosis. One recurring theme is the need for better training, which the guidance states all staff should have access to, but the reality sometimes sadly falls short. Last month, the Government launched a consultation on mandatory training, which is welcome, but for this to work it must be co-designed and co-delivered by people with autism. Can the Minister tell us whether this will be the case and, perhaps more importantly, whether her Department will provide funding so that the autistic people providing their experience to this training receive a proper wage for their labour?
Early intervention services are key for communication and language skills, which are closely linked to life chances for people with autism. In education, too, services for children with autism and other special needs have been first in line for cuts, as we have heard from other hon. Members. With the Government taking billions out of the schools budget between 2015 and 2017, I know all too well the pressure that schools in my constituency are under. As the vast majority of school budgets are spent on staff, this is the area of greatest pressure. For example, the support staff, who are so vital to children with special educational needs, are often the first to go, and one-to-one support for children becomes impossible when the money simply is not there. Thousands of children in England with approved education, health and care plans are still receiving no provision, and that proportion has increased fivefold since 2010.
If we let children with autism down in education, the impact is felt when they become adults seeking employment. My hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire spoke with great knowledge about the challenges of employment for those with autism. There is an urgent need for improved in-work support services for disabled people across the board, and the autism employment gap is even wider than the disability employment gap. Over the past 10 years, there has been no real change in the numbers of autistic people in full-time work, and the National Autistic Society found that less than a third of autistic adults are in paid work, even though more than three quarters do want to be in a job.
The NAS has called for an autism employment pathway, an awareness programme for employers and targets for getting people with autism in to work. I hope that the Minister can tell us the Government’s response and address points such as making sure that Jobcentre Plus staff understand autism and responding to the call for autistic people in work to be recorded in the labour force survey. Apprenticeships and other specialist schemes could also provide a route into employment, with tailored support for people with autism. Will the Minister update the House on progress in implementing the recommendations of the taskforce chaired by Paul Maynard and on what steps the Government have taken to expand the Disability Confident scheme?
Finally, there are the services aimed not just at people with autism but at the rest of us to ensure that we are aware and understand the condition. The research has long shown that most people with autism feel that their condition is not understood, as was recently highlighted by the National Autistic Society’s “Too Much Information” campaign. Only 16% of autistic people and their families think the public understand autism, and half of autistic people and their families are sometimes afraid to leave the home because they are worried about the public’s reaction. The contributions we have heard from Members across the House today show just how much more there is to be done to provide the services that people with autism need. I hope that the Government have heard that message and will now act on it.
I would like to start by adding my voice to those paying tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan. It is thanks to her pioneering autism private Member’s Bill that we now have an adult autism strategy. This year, it will be 10 years since that Bill passed into legislation as the Autism Act—10 years during which she has been the most fantastic, steadfast and passionate champion for autism and autistic people. I think that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we all send our love and our thoughts both to her and her loved one.
I thank my hon. Friend Huw Merriman for so beautifully representing my right hon. Friend and her words today, and indeed all the other Members who have contributed to the debate, as well as the Backbench Business Committee for selecting it, particularly in the run-up to World Autism Awareness Week next month. Several Members have made some excellent points. I will try to get on to as many of them as possible in the time allowed, but I will write to anybody I miss out.
Much progress has been made to improve the lives of autistic people since the first cross-Government autism strategy. There is now improved diagnosis and greater awareness, and more organisations are ensuring that they make reasonable adjustments. However, 10 years on, it is very clear that there is still so much more that we can do to ensure that public services meet the needs of autistic people. The autism strategy was updated in 2014, but this year we are undertaking a comprehensive review, “Think Autism”, to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. As Jim Shannon pointed out, it is so important that young people and their families feel supported. We want our autism strategy to work for autistic people of all ages, and that is why, working closely with the Department for Education, we will be extending our strategy to include children. That refreshed cross-Government strategy will be published towards the end of this year.
People with a learning disability and autistic people continue to face significant health inequalities. This must be addressed. It is absolutely that right that learning disability and autism are both now clinical priorities in the NHS long-term plan. Autistic people must be at the heart of any improvements we make to their care and support. That is why last week the Government launched a national call for evidence to hear the views of autistic people, their families and their carers, as well as those of professionals. We want to know what is working, but also what needs to be done to transform care and support. In the week since that call for evidence, we have already had 875 responses. I would urge hon. Members across the House to share our call for evidence in their constituencies and via their social media networks.
I am delighted that so many Members across the House have taken the opportunity to highlight some of the amazing work and fantastic organisations in their communities. Autism-friendly communities such as the one in Bodmin that my hon. Friend Scott Mann spoke about—he wins the prize for the most intriguingly named constituent: Tigger Pritchard—sound like a way to support people much better.
As many Members have said, raising awareness is not enough. It is acting on that awareness that makes a real difference. We recently launched a consultation on mandatory training on learning disability and autism for health and care staff and will report the findings in the summer. Crucially, that applies to not only medical professionals but all health and care staff. For example, we all know that a negative encounter with a receptionist or front of house staff can immeasurably change our experience or perception of services. Work is under way in other sectors such as education, employment, prisons and transport to raise awareness of autism and adjust services to make them more accessible.
Stephen Twigg and many others talked about the importance of early identification and timely and accurate diagnosis of autism. No one should have to face a long wait for an autism diagnosis, but we hear far too often that the NICE recommendation of a wait of no more than three months is exceeded. There is a geographical disparity, and this postcode lottery must end. The NHS long-term plan commits to testing and implementing the most effective ways to reduce those waiting times. Critically, we are collecting data to support that, which will be published later this year for the first time. This will mean that each area can be held to account and action can be taken.
As my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison said, it is not just getting a timely diagnosis that matters but having timely information, support and services after that. This summer there will be new and improved guidance for health and care commissioners and a best practice toolkit, to improve diagnosis and post-diagnosis services for autistic people. Health Education England is also developing an autism core skills and competency framework for health and care staff and staff in organisations with public-facing responsibilities.
My hon. Friend Mike Wood and a number of other Members highlighted the particular challenges that autistic children face in schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said that children have to fail before they get the support they need, and that is why including children and young people in the autism strategy for the first time is so important.
The SEND reforms that the Government introduced were intended to support all young people to achieve their potential in education. Since 2014, we have invested £391 million to help implement those reforms, but we know that there is more to do. We have funded the Autism Education Trust to provide autism awareness training for more than 195,000 school and college staff—not just teachers, but administrators and support workers—which I hope will go some way to helping diagnose women and girls, who we know are very much under-represented in the diagnosis statistics. We also know that a disproportionate number of autistic children are excluded from school; my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South mentioned that. Edward Timpson is currently reviewing how schools use exclusions, so that we can better understand why that is the case and what we can do about it.
Thangam Debbonaire and many other Members highlighted the need to do more to support autistic people into employment. It is a lost opportunity all round that only a relatively small number of autistic people are in work either full time or part time. Through the Disability Confident scheme, we are helping employers to promote the talents and abilities of autistic people, and Access to Work has a hidden impairments group that gives guidance to employers.
My hon. Friend Kevin Foster spoke about the huge value of these people in the workplace. My hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan told me something I did not know—that autism spectrum automatically disbars someone from the military. I will be raising that with the Minister for the Armed Forces, not least because I fear her infinitely more than I fear the Minister.
My hon. Friend Helen Hayes and many others spoke about some of the tragic cases where autistic individuals have not received the right care and support in mental health in-patient settings. We are committed to learning from those and working harder than ever to improve how care and support is provided. Some people will need access to time-limited in-patient services, but this should be as close to home as possible for as short a time as possible, with discharge plans in place. When people do need to go into hospital, they must be safe from harm and abuse, and they should never be subject to inappropriate or restrictive practices.
Kevin Brennan and my hon. Friend John Howell spoke about improving the criminal justice system. In the initial police learning and development programme, police officers are already given training, and many police forces have developed their own. Liaison and diversion schemes are being rolled out with 100% coverage expected by 2021. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also spoke about how autism should not be classed as a mental disorder. We will be keeping this very closely under review, as she made a very good point.
The Government are fully committed to improving the lives of autistic people, but there is much more to be done, and Autism Awareness Week is a great reminder of that. Our refreshed cross-Government autism strategy, which we will publish later this year, will help to deliver this and provide the route map for the years ahead.
Thank you for chairing us this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I have heard it said that Parliament is not delivering for the people. May I send a message and invite everybody here to join me in sending a message to people with autism or Asperger’s and their families? With the voices of my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan, Thangam Debbonaire, my hon. Friend Scott Mann, Stephen Twigg, my hon. Friend Mike Wood, Helen Hayes, my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Kevin Brennan, my hon. Friend John Howell, Jim Shannon, my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), my hon. Friend the Minister for Care—I thank the Minister for all her commitments this afternoon—and the many others who intervened, the message is that we understand the challenges autistic people have to go through every day, and we will be by your side and will do our best to make sure that you have the services you deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered services for people with autism.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me, first, how we can get on the record that over 1 million people have now signed the petition calling for the revocation of article 50 as the best way to stop the Brexit madness that seems to be engulfing the country, and secondly, whether you have had any indication from the Leader of the House—she said this morning that if it got to 17.5 million signatures, she would start to consider it seriously, so only 16.5 million more are now needed—that she is planning to make a statement to the House?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have not received any indication from the Leader of the House that she intends to come here today. He will know that, under the e-petitions system, the Petitions Committee will consider any petition that receives more than 100,000 signatures for a debate. It is a matter for that Committee when such a debate is scheduled. I am sure it will be looking at this petition in due course, and I am also sure there will be ample opportunities in the coming days for the hon. Gentleman to make his views known. In the meantime, those on the Treasury Bench will have heard his request.