Backbench Business - Services for People with Autismbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 21st March 2019.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:33 pm, 21st March 2019

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.