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.