My Lords, like previous speakers, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for obtaining this debate, and I congratulate her on a remarkable speech in opening it. It was of a standard which has so far been maintained by the other speakers.
I have one thing in common with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in that I, too, am not an expert on this matter. However, I am speaking in this debate largely because of the interest I have gained as a result of a member my family being autistic. I have seen at first hand, although not as a parent, the problems that autism can cause for families. Here, I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is undoubtedly right in saying that if you have a good family background, the problem can be more proportionate than it would otherwise be. Even for the best of families, where the parents are deeply devoted to an autistic child, the problems of having that child can be immense because things do not work as well as they should.
I draw attention to my interests in the register, and point out that as a judge, or a person who spends his working life largely judging, you become very much involved with prisons. At one time I was president of the Prison Reform Trust—I believe I am still technically president. I see the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, who helped me very much when I was chair. He is nodding his head. The fact is that you need to go around prisons to see what the consequence can be of young people not getting the assistance that we know they need. The sad thing is that the majority of youngsters you meet there have a mental health problem of one sort or another, and sometimes dyslexia. I would not say that that was a mental health problem but it is one that, like an earlier speaker, I suffered from myself at one time, so I am very conscious of the difficulties that it can create.
At the moment I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Under the able chairmanship of Harriet Harman, the committee is taking an in-depth look at the people we are talking about today. The report will not be available until the summer but it is probably good for the House to know about the sort of evidence that has been presented to us. The adviser to the committee and our clerk from the Lords have kindly helped me to, I hope, tread on the right side of making revelations about what the committee is considering without prematurely disclosing some of our evidence.
From the evidence that we have received, there is no doubt that there are still substantial problems in this area for those directly involved. Evidence from parents and people who work in this area indicates the sort of problems that occur. My belief is that, unfortunately, although there has been the progress that previous speakers have mentioned, it has been nothing like as great as it could have been if the efficiency with which the health was provided had been greater. People caught up in the situation of doing what is right for a child who has problems of this sort find that they are pulled in different directions, and that they do not get the sympathetic hearing they would expect to receive. It is very disturbing that this should be the situation.
There is also the fact that, all too often, instances of separation and restraint occur because the children, if they receive help, are in institutions that cannot care for them. I accept that there are huge difficulties in managing the complex issues in custodial settings, but surely we can manage to ensure that our system works in a way that is compatible with the real needs of the people seeking help.
I notice that my time is running out, so I shall sit down.