I am incredibly proud and grateful to be bringing the Autism (Amendment) Bill to its Final Stage this evening. More than 10 years ago, another chairperson of the all-party group on autism introduced the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. When the former SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley introduced the Autism Act in Northern Ireland, it was the first legislation passed by the Assembly that mandated cross-departmental service planning and delivery across adult and children's services. It was a landmark piece of legislation, without which we would not be standing here today.
Unfortunately, despite the cross-departmental nature of the legislation, Departments have not fulfilled their duties to the autism community. We have heard evidence throughout this process that highlighted how the current service provision is leaving individuals and their loved ones without essential support. We know that waiting lists for diagnosis and assessment are frighteningly long for many and that that is not an acceptable situation. We need to do more than improve our resourcing and funding for diagnostic services. We need to ensure that diagnosis comes with support and that those who are waiting on diagnosis are not left without vital intervention.
The Bill aims to enhance the Autism Act 2011 and to improve services for every autistic individual, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum and what stage they are at in life, whether they are a non-verbal young child experiencing extreme distress in a nursery, a young woman in a secondary school feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or an older gentleman feeling isolated and needing support to manage social engagement and relationships. The Bill recognises that every individual with autism is unique, experiences their autism in a different way and needs access to person-centred supports and services.
Clause 1 strengthens the data collected to inform service provision by ensuring that prevalence data is collected on adults as well as children. Clause 2 introduces duties to ensure that training will be provided to Northern Ireland Departments and public bodies. An early intervention service for children, young people and adults and an information service will be created. Clause 2 also places a duty on the autism strategy to specifically address the needs of adults in various areas.
Clause 3 ensures that the autism strategy must be person-centred, multidisciplinary and cross-departmental; take into account international best practice; and be judged by measurable targets agreed in consultation with the autism community. Crucially, clause 3 ensures consistency of autism practice across Northern Ireland. Thanks to the Health Committee's amendments, consistency of practice needs to be achieved in education services along with health and social care trusts. That is to end the postcode lottery of waiting times for assessment and intervention.
Clause 4 introduces annual autism funding reports to be produced by the Minister of Health, setting out how funding for autism has been provided to meet need. Although there have been some concerns about those reports, they are intended to ensure that Departments meet their duties when it comes to autism funding. To give an example of that need, representatives from every health and social care trust stated in evidence to the Health Committee that current services were not resourced to meet demand.
Finally, clause 5 introduces an independent scrutiny mechanism in the form of an autism reviewer. That reviewer is not designed to be an autism advocate. There are many fantastic advocates out there. In fact, many of them are in the Public Gallery this evening. The reviewer is designed to monitor funding, law and practice and the effectiveness of services relating to autism. The reviewer will be able to commission independent research. The reviewer is to issue an annual report, which will be laid before the Assembly.
Crucially, the autism reviewer will be an individual appointed by the Department based on their qualifications and experience. The position will be paid, and the Department must provide the reviewer with all the necessary resource to carry out their functions. Amendments that were introduced by the Health Committee strengthen the independence of that role; they ensure that the reviewer cannot be a departmental employee or under the direction or control of Northern Ireland Departments. The autism reviewer must be truly independent from government and other organisations. The autism reviewer is designed to be an impartial individual who scrutinises the Departments' work for the better of the autism community. The individual must work for and engage with the entirety of the autism community, including the many incredible autism advocates whom we have.
I thank Members for their support and commitment so far to driving change for our autism community. I will save my full thanks for later, as there are many individuals who have contributed to the Bill's reaching its Final Stage today. I urge Members to continue in the spirit of collaboration that we have seen throughout the Bill's progress and to support the Autism (Amendment) Bill as amended at Further Consideration Stage. That will show the autism community that we have heard their concerns and that we are determined to make a difference.
Is mór an onóir domh bheith anseo anocht ar an Bhille seo. I am extremely pleased to be here tonight, debating this Bill. I welcome the Final Stage of the Autism (Amendment) Bill. I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Pam Cameron MLA, for introducing it. I also thank the all-party group on autism and Autism NI for their support in bringing this legislation forward. I acknowledge that we are joined in the Chamber by Kerry Boyd and Arlene Cassidy and by very many people who are watching the debate to see how the Assembly can make a difference to real lives in real ways.
The Committee welcomes the Bill and its aims. It believes that the Bill can have a real impact and provide support and help to children, adults and young people with autism and to their families and carers. The Committee welcomes the aim of strengthening the consultation process to include people with autism and their families and carers. We, as a Committee, have believed throughout the current mandate that co-design and co-production are absolutely key to seeing services improve and to people getting the help and support that they need.
We welcome that the autism strategy must set out how the Department is to make provision for an autism support and early intervention service and that the strategy must set out how the Department will reduce waiting times for assessment and treatment. We are all too aware of the stories of our constituents, who have outlined the difficulties that they are having with waiting for assessments to take place and the length of waiting lists. The Committee hopes that the Bill will provide help and support at the earliest opportunity.
We welcome that the strategy must set out how the needs of adults with autism will be addressed; in particular, their needs in respect of lifelong training, employment, support, recreation, physical health, emotional and mental well-being, supported living, and housing. We also welcome that the Bill will introduce the role of an autism reviewer. The Committee believes that that role can have a real impact in reviewing the work of the Department in delivering for children, young people and adults with autism. The Committee places on record its thanks to the organisations that provided written and oral evidence to the Committee.
I thank Committee members for their consideration of the Bill. The Committee tabled a number of amendments at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage to strengthen the Bill, and I thank members for their engagement and consensus on the Bill's progression through the Committee process. I commend the Bill to the Assembly and look forward to seeing the real impacts and benefits that it will have for people with autism and their families and carers.
I will now make a few remarks as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. I am delighted that we are seeing a Bill that will further strengthen supports for all the people in our community who struggle with autism, with access to services, with waiting lists and with all that flows from that. Just on Saturday, I met a constituent who, over the past short while, has had to spend over £2,000 to access assessment and on services to support her child. That, Members, challenges the very idea of a national health service free at the point of need. We absolutely need to address that and work on it. It is clear that workforce issues are a barrier to services, and we need to see those issues progressed.
In particular, I welcome the way in which the Bill has come to pass through the work of the all-party group. My party colleague Cathal Boylan has been instrumental for many years in that all-party group, and its continuous work introduced a Bill that was brought to Committee Stage and worked on by the sector, the Committee, the Bill sponsor and all those who have an interest in ensuring that legislation will be effective, meaningful and make a real difference. I think, Members, that that is this Assembly at its very best. It is where we, inside this Building, are engaging with the people outside in our community who require support and require us to do our job as legislators. We then convert that information into real and substantial improvement. I welcome the Bill, and Sinn Féin is delighted to support it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill this evening. In doing so, I pay tribute to all those who have helped the legislative process and brought the Bill to its conclusion. In particular, I thank the Bill sponsor, Pam Cameron. It is great that any Bill gets through this place, but, as it is a private Member's Bill, I congratulate the Member on her work to make this a reality. It is the first private Member's Bill to go through with people watching from the Public Gallery. That is really appropriate as the Bill will reach out to the community to help and support it. It is absolutely wonderful that, on the first day that we have people in the Public Gallery, we see something like this reach its conclusion. We also have the all-party group to thank, and we had the support of Autism NI, which has helped to make sure that this important amending Bill has made its way through.
Autism is a complex issue, not only because there are many and varied needs in the spectrum of autism but because, for those who are living with autism, it does not always present itself in such a way that impacts on physical health or mobility but more on social and communication capacities. As MLAs, we have all heard the stories from constituents of how autism is affecting their lives. For instance, it has only been in the past few years that we have seen the advancement of information on ADHD, which has required a tremendous level of education and consultation. As a result of that, the local community has stepped up, and I commend initiatives in the areas that I represent. Those include the ADHD Hub in Newcastle, which was set up so that the families of those who have a diagnosis of ADHD have somewhere to go and make a contribution to their community. There is also the Downpatrick Autism Family Support Group, which was set up as a means to provide support for families in the Downpatrick area.
I know from my work in the Patrician Youth Centre in Downpatrick that it also has a programme for young people with autism, providing them with that special space and with opportunities to go out and mix with other young people. It is wonderful that the work that many in the Chamber have done in the past few years is helping to make those initiatives come alive and that people with autism are being given the opportunity to fully participate in society.
Such examples also show the importance of the collection of data, which is very much part of the Bill, and of how that data is brought together and used to provide the services and direct the resources that are needed in our community.
I hope and firmly believe that the legislation will help those living with autism and their families. As we go forward, there is work to be done on how assessments are carried out of individuals who seek things like the personal independence payment (PIP), as that process seems to be particularly unfair and puts them at a disadvantage. Elements of the Bill will, hopefully, help to address those shortcomings in other Departments and in the work that is taking place. Much of the minutiae of that will be for a future Assembly to try to work with.
In bringing my comments to a close, I advocate the Bill as important legislation. It proves that this place can work and that, when we get together and have the right agenda for the right reasons, we can deliver results that help people in our community. If that is not the motivation for any of us to be in the Chamber, we need to go off and think about why we are in it.
I will close with words that I read by an individual with autism who spoke about the need for greater support and services. He said:
"On our own we simply don't know how to get things done the same way you do things. But, like everyone else, we want to do the best we possibly can. When we sense you've given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end."
With those words, I hope that we can realise that, in getting the Bill to Final Stage tonight, we are doing what we can to help people. That is why we in the SDLP are delighted to support the Bill.
I support the Bill at Final Stage, and I put on record my thanks to the Bill sponsor and the Health Committee for working so constructively on it.
The Bill addresses some troubling gaps in provision, and it provides lessons for other areas of our health service. Most of all, it reinforces the need to move beyond silos and embed multidisciplinary teams. The establishment of an independent autism reviewer, for example, may provide a useful example for other areas of scrutiny.
I repeat my thanks from previous debates to Autism NI for its work on the Bill, its support for the all-party group on autism and its swift responses to queries raised by me and my office as we considered the Bill. I thank the National Autistic Society, the trusts and the Department of Health for their very important input throughout the process. Finally, I thank the individuals who have been in contact with me and my office on the topic. The Health Committee staff worked amazingly, as always, and the Bill Office provided great support and guidance.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The key to all this, in the end, is ensuring that the Bill makes the difference that it is intended to make. Let us now proceed swiftly with implementation.
I will speak in favour of the Bill. It has been a long haul, and I start by thanking the administrative back-up in the form of Autism NI and the National Autistic Society, which have worked hard with us over a number of years. I have been on the all-party group on autism for 15 years, and I am delighted to be its vice chair.
I preface my next comment by saying that we have tried strategies and action plans. However, although the Bill has only eight pages and eight clauses, with five main clauses, that little blue document will, I hope, provide services for some of the most vulnerable. That is the way that I look at it. I am glad that the Minister is here tonight, and I look forward to his response. We worked very hard as an all-party group over the last two years to structure the Autism (Amendment) Bill so that it would enhance the Autism Act, which was passed in 2011.
I also welcome everyone who is in the Gallery, especially Wings of Hope Autism Support Group from north Belfast and the other people who have helped Pam and the rest of us to bring the issue to the fore and have supported us. It is good to see those people in the Gallery, because that is what it is about. The Bill is a private Member's Bill, and it is well supported. There was a good response to the consultations.
I will outline the three main objectives, or planks, of the Bill that I think are vitally important. The Minister will know them. As with every other piece of legislation, I and the members of the all-party group certainly do not want to see the Bill sit on the shelf. The pandemic was very difficult for us all, but I guarantee that it was more difficult for people who are on the spectrum and their carers.
I will not repeat all that has been clearly outlined by the sponsor of the Bill, who I thank. The first main plank of the Bill is:
"To enhance the autism strategy by strengthening the consultation process and the collection of data."
We have been trying for years to get that. We have written to various Ministers. We will work with the Minister and others, because this is a cross-departmental issue. It concerns not only children but adults, and it concerns the needs of over-19s and how their needs cross into the various Departments. I would like to see those Departments meet their responsibilities. An action plan back in 2016 outlined the responsibilities and roles of other Departments in delivering on their commitments, but that did not happen.
The second main plank is:
"To provide information on autism training for staff of public bodies; to set out details of an autism early intervention service; details of a new autism information service; and specific information on the needs of adults with autism."
The third objective, and this is an important one, concerns the role of an autism reviewer. That is the mechanism through which we will hold accountability. Whichever Members are returned in the coming election, I hope that they will pursue the aims of the Bill. If we are serious about looking after our people, there is enough in the Bill that ensures that we can do that.
Minister, as we started the process with the sponsor of the Bill, you gave an early indication that you would be keen to work on the Bill and with the group. We put a lot of work into it. At the very start of the process, when we introduced the Bill, people asked "Why autism?". Well, why not autism? The Autism Act was passed by the Assembly in 2011. It is in statute, but areas of it were never acted on. Therefore, we are having a second go at it, and this piece of legislation will support the Minister, but we are not saying that it is all down to the Department of Health.
I welcome the debate on the Final Stage. I am glad to be part of it, and I am thankful that we had a good team around us. I am grateful to the team that supported us and to all the Members over all those years who played their part in the all-party group on autism. I thank the sponsor of the Bill. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Health Committee for the key amendments that the Committee tabled at Consideration Stage, which clearly identified where we needed to go in order to enhance the Bill.
I am delighted that we have got to this stage and that I can say with confidence that we will agree the Final Stage. More importantly, I look forward to what the Minister and the other Members who will speak will say, and I obviously look forward to what the sponsor of the Bill will say when she makes her winding-up speech.
I will not go into a huge amount of what has already been said. I thank the Bill sponsor — my colleague and friend Pam Cameron, who is also the Deputy Chair of the Health Committee — for the huge amount of work that she undertook in order to see the Bill reach its Final Stage.
Like the Member who spoke before me, I hope that the Bill will not sit on a shelf gathering dust and that instead it will make effective change in the lives of those with autism. I fully believe that it will improve services. We all know families who call us or step into our offices and often feel like they are fighting a constant battle for their children or, indeed, themselves. We must not forget those who are diagnosed later in life, and I am glad that we took them into consideration in the Health Committee.
The Bill will effect positive change by providing improvements to the implementation of the autism strategy through steps such as the creation of an early intervention service and the creation of a central autism information service for autistic individuals, families, carers and professionals. The legislation will also ensure that the Minister reports to the Assembly annually on autism funding. The provision in the Bill for the appointment of the autism reviewer to monitor, review and commission work to promote and scrutinise the adequacy and effectiveness of services is vital.
It is vital to ensure that those with autism have the help and support that they need so that they are not burdened with constant battles that they should not have to fight. There should be help for those who need it most. For the people whom I represent in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, ending the postcode lottery for services is vital. That is why having a region-wide early intervention service is an important step. It should not matter whether you live in Belleek or Belfast, Lisbellaw or Lisburn: everybody deserves the same treatment, help and support.
I thank all those for whom today will be another weapon in their armoury and an achievement that they should rightly celebrate and of which they should feel proud. I thank those who engaged with the Committee, particularly Autism NI and the parents and young people who contacted us to tell their stories and seek help. It is really great to see members of Autism NI in the Public Gallery tonight. We salute you for the efforts that you have made to get to this point.
My hope is that the Bill will provide real and much-needed change to the system. Today is another good day for the Health Committee, which has brought forward another very important piece of legislation for people outside the Chamber. It is a privilege to support the legislation tonight.
I am delighted to speak in support of the Autism (Amendment) Bill at its Final Stage. It is a really important Bill, and I am pleased that it has got to this stage. A lot of work has gone into getting the Bill to this stage, so I begin by thanking the Bill sponsor, Pam Cameron, for bringing the Bill to the House. I also thank Autism NI for all the work that it has done; the all-party group on autism for the work that it has done to get the Bill to this stage; the Health Committee and its members for tabling amendments at previous stages that really strengthened the Bill; and, of course, all our constituents who raised issues that show the importance of improved services for those with autism. A big thank you to all those advocates for change.
The Bill and the autism strategy that will come out of it are real opportunities to make a positive impact on the lives of many children, young people and adults with autism, as well as on the lives of their families. However, we need to make sure that the Bill is implemented properly so that we can deliver real and positive change for so many families. We need to see proper investment in autism services and a clear commitment to tackling the disparity among trusts in waiting lists for autism assessments and diagnoses. That is one point that we have all encountered while going through the Bill's stages. I am very passionate about that, and it needs to be tackled swiftly. Finally, we need to ensure that there is the right offer of support and guidance for people with autism and their families to help them through any tough days that they have.
It is a really positive day. As I have said, I am delighted to show my support for the Bill. I am sure that every other Member will support it as well.
I support the Bill. I stand here as a proud south Armagh man. I stand proud of the invaluable contribution of my south Armagh predecessor and family friend Dominic Bradley, a Bessbrook man, who introduced the Autism Act 2011. That Act was described by Dr Arlene Cassidy of Autism NI as "landmark legislation". I will quote her verbatim:
"It is the most comprehensive, lifelong, cross-departmental single-disability equality legislation in Europe and in the world."
I stand here proud of my SDLP colleague John Fee, a Crossmaglen man, who was the first person to mention autism in the Assembly — the first person — God rest him. Sadly, much of the promise of the original Autism Act has not been achieved. That is why the Autism (Amendment) Bill is so important. We must deliver on the promise of the Autism Act for the one in 22 children who have autism, the 18,000 children in the North who have autism, and all the adults who have autism.
I applaud the Bill sponsor, Autism NI and the National Autistic Society. I see Kerry Boyd and Arlene Cassidy in the Public Gallery, smiling from ear to ear. They know the work that they have done, but they know that the work starts now. We must deliver for children and adults with autism. I thank the parents and advocates, many of whom are in the Public Gallery. They are all very welcome. It is good to see them here; it is the first day that we are open. They know how important the legislation is. I thank the children and adults with autism for their voice.
Amidst all the doom and gloom, of which there has been so much in recent days and weeks, today is a positive day. I stand here as a proud Member of the Assembly; proud that we have sought to provide children and adults with autism with the support that they deserve.
I am pleased to respond to the Final Stage of the Autism (Amendment) Bill. I will start by commending the Bill sponsor, Mrs Pam Cameron, for her work in taking the Bill forward, and her commitment, determination and grit to see it through to this stage. I also commend the Health Committee for its commitment to and scrutiny in the progression of the Bill; the stakeholders who have contributed to shaping it and bringing it to Final Stage; and the campaigners, parents and grandparents, including those who have joined us tonight.
I echo the words of a Member who spoke previously in giving my thanks to the Health Committee for its work in taking forward the private Member's Bill. Earlier, we had the debate at the Further Consideration Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. The moving of this private Member's Bill to this stage also shows the determination of the Chair, Deputy Chair and members of the Health Committee to progress a number of pieces of legislation to the betterment of health and health provision in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, I was not available to participate in the previous debate on the Bill. My tenure as Health Minister did not grant me exemption from COVID at that particular point. I will start this evening by acknowledging that, as has been mentioned, autism has been debated in the House on many occasions. A number of individuals have been named: Dominic Bradley, Kieran McCarthy of the Alliance Party, my predecessor, the Rev Dr Coulter, and Cathal Boylan, who is the remaining Member of that cohort. However, when we speak now of those names and their contributions in this place to autism causes, we can add Ms Pam Cameron to that list for her private Member's Bill.
As the mandate draws to a close, I hope that we will see significant improvements emerging as we work collectively and, hopefully, as a refreshed Executive in the coming months and years. However, I must reinforce, once again, that we can only achieve that progress if we work together.
Undoubtedly, elements of the Bill will present challenges and will require significant resource and investment from the next Executive, I am reassured that the overall direction of the Bill is reflective of the thinking and planning of my Department and across a number of Departments. Work is under way to increase understanding of autism and to ensure that the necessary support and interventions are provided at the time and place where they are most needed: in our health and social care sector, in education, in employment and in housing.
I hope that the Bill and the work that is being undertaken by my Department in implementing the current interim autism strategy and in the development of a longer-term strategy, which will be published next year, will see improved accessibility, increased consistency across our Province and real progress being achieved.
My Department places great importance on ensuring that there is an opportunity for the views of autistic people, their families and carers to be listened to and captured in the work being undertaken in developing and implementing the autism strategy. At the centre of that, the autism forum, which was established by my Department last year and is co-chaired by people with a first-hand lived experience of autism, is taking a prominent role in ensuring that the views and needs of autistic people are captured in the shaping of policy and strategy across Departments and in our health and social care sector. That collaborative approach ensures that autism is not simply regarded as a health problem but that policy reflects the wider lived experience of autistic people, their families and their carers.
I am heartened that there is now greater recognition of the needs of autistic people and that that is being addressed through cross-departmental working. My officials are actively engaged in policy and strategy development and are invited to participate in projects to ensure that autism is represented at the table through collaboration in a number of cross-departmental and health and social care projects around recreation, supported living and housing, employment and learning, as well as health and well-being. Representatives from each of those projects are engaging with the autism forum to ensure that the views and needs of autistic people are reflected and captured.
By way of an example, my officials are working with the Civil Service central training unit in the Department of Finance, in the Centre for Applied Learning, to develop an e-learning course entitled, 'Supporting autistic people'. It has been co-produced by the autism forum to bring lived experience to the fore. The course will be available to all civil servants in the spring and will set out how public servants can support autistic people in the workplace and in our public services. It will also recognise the role of carers and will provide advice as to how they, too, can be supported in the workplace.
That is not the only aspect of the cross-departmental work that the autism forum has been engaged in. At the last autism forum meeting, in January, representatives from the Department for Communities and the Department for the Economy had informative and productive discussions about the work that is being undertaken on skills and employment to support autistic people and, from the views captured, have gained considerations that will inform the development of future support and actions.
At the next forum meeting in April, representatives from the housing sector will attend to discuss how the needs of autistic people are reflected in the provision of housing. At that meeting, a further session will be facilitated for discussion with colleagues from our health and social care sector. In recent months, my Department has been engaging extensively with that sector on waiting lists for autistic assessment and support.
I have stated many times that I share the concern of many about waiting lists for assessment, and the situation is not unique to autism. We have much to do to improve all our waiting lists for access to services and support across Northern Ireland. I can assure Members that the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) has been proactive in meeting trusts that have lengthy waiting lists in order to determine the underlying causes and develop plans to address them. That will form part of the ongoing engagement to keep waiting lists under review and to develop regional consistency in accessing support and services across Northern Ireland.
Physical health is paramount for us all. We look forward to support and physical activity being more inclusive and accessible for everyone, with barriers to participation being removed. Additionally, collaborative working between the Department of Health and the Department of Education has been greatly strengthened in recent years by the formation of a special educational needs steering group co-chaired by my Department and the Department of Education. A joint health and education oversight group has also been established. It comprises departmental officials from the two Departments and representatives from the Education Authority (EA) and the health and social care sector. Both groups are proactive in ensuring that the specific needs of children and young people in education, including the needs of those with autism, are addressed.
The Bill provides for the appointment of an autism reviewer. That appointment will establish an independent and robust oversight mechanism to drive further progress and demonstrate through reporting the difference that the autism strategy is making and that outcomes are being measured and met. Although it is stressed that the role will be independent, my Department will welcome the appointment of an individual to provide an oversight mechanism and form a meaningful and collaborative role alongside the work of the forum. It is vital that the reviewer be totally representative of all sectors that are engaged in working with autistic people. My Department will ensure that the appointment process reflects those values.
I acknowledge that the Bill will introduce an annual autism funding report. I have conveyed my concerns to the Committee about the ability to deliver on that clause. A number of other Ministers and Departments have expressed the same concerns. Owing to the multidisciplinary approach to autism, support must be delivered through a range of programmes of funding and pathways of care that are based on presented need, such as mental health issues, behavioural challenges, an eating disorder or a learning difficulty. For some, that may lead to an autism diagnosis or present as a coexisting condition that will require individualised support and care. It therefore may not be possible for Departments or the health and social care sector to provide the breakdown of funding for autism as a specific condition. I must make Members aware that the identification and preparation of funding reports will require changes to our funding streams and additional resources for all Departments, our health and social care sector, our education sector and our employment sector. That will take time to achieve.
I thank the Member. I do not want to deviate too far into encompass by starting to talk about IT systems and the need for funding, but encompass will provide that data collection. The Bill sponsor and a number of Members have mentioned how a regional approach to data collection will be a strength. Encompass is a computerised system that will cover health and social care across Northern Ireland, and we have not had that up until now.
In establishing the role of the autism reviewer, my Department will give due consideration to the interaction between the reports to be produced and the responsibilities placed on Departments to present funding reports alongside progress reports, which the current Act requires to be laid before the Assembly at intervals of not more than three years. I must, however, reinforce the point that, without our three-year Budget, our financial outlook and the ability to address our services for the coming years will be both compromised and challenging.
Many difficult decisions will have to be made about the competing priorities that we are facing. This means that we must manage our funding expectations, look at ways of working collaboratively and be innovative in our approach to achieve outcomes, because society and those in need of support must not suffer as a result of this. As representatives, we look to Departments and the health and social care sector to achieve that. We must also look at how we work as an Assembly to lead by example.
I look forward to the Bill reinforcing my Department's actions for the next autism strategy and to the next phase of collaborative working. I encourage you all, as representatives of our society, to concentrate on progress and working together to see the real outcomes achieved for autistic people, their families and their carers. Let us take this opportunity to work together and focus our efforts on making a difference where it truly matters.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to stay within your good books and briefly express my thanks to everyone who contributed to the Bill and its progress.
I thank past and present members of the all-party group on autism, and the secretariat at Autism NI, for all their work and resource. The fact that this is the second private Member's Bill coming from the all-party group on autism speaks to the commitment of the group. I thank Dr Arlene Cassidy and Kerry Boyd, CEO of Autism NI, for their passion, commitment and absolute determination to see change for the autism community. I thank Kelly Maxwell for contributing her wealth of experience and wisdom. I thank all of Autism NI's staff, who worked so hard on the public consultation that shaped the Bill, and all the individuals, family members and professionals who contributed their views and experiences. This was one of the larger consultation responses in the Assembly, which speaks to the desire to see the legislation brought forward. The Bill would not exist without the efforts of autistic individuals, their families, friends, advocates and professionals to see meaningful change.
Special thanks must go to my daughter, Hannah Lewis, who has a huge passion for autism with her previous work with autistic adults and her psychology studies. Many late nights and weekends at home have been spent in ensuring that the Bill progressed to each stage. Arlene and Kerry were on hand, literally day or night, to ensure that we made it to this Final Stage debate.
I thank the Bill Office and the drafter for their invaluable guidance throughout the process and their commitment in pushing to make sure that the Bill was ready as soon as possible, despite their incredible workload. I thank my Health Committee colleagues for scrutinising the Bill and bringing forward amendments that strengthened the legislation, and, of course, I thank all who gave evidence to the Committee, which helped to shape the proposed amendments.
I thank Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission; Shirelle Stewart, director of the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland; Professor Laurence Taggart; Professor Roy McConkey; departmental officials; and the clinicians working in our trusts for all of their contributions. My thanks also to the Clerk of the Health Committee and his team, who worked tirelessly to facilitate the many additional meetings needed to process so much legislation in this mandate.
I thank the Members from all parties who indicated their own passions to make a difference in their constituencies, and who engaged in the collaborative spirit in which the Bill was introduced. I thank Members for their support and the House for its commitment to driving change for autistic individuals.
I specifically thank the Members who contributed to tonight's debate. Colm Gildernew, Chair of the Health Committee, led the Committee through the scrutiny process. Thank you for doing that and for leading on those amendments. I thank Colin McGrath, Paula Bradshaw, Deborah Erskine and Health Committee colleagues, who have been dealing with an incredible amount of work in Committee. I also thank Cathal Boylan, the vice chair of the all-party group on autism, who has a long-held interest in the subject and has always been supportive and there at the right times to push the Bill on. I thank him for that. I also thank Nicola Brogan and Justin McNulty for speaking in tonight's debate and sharing their thoughts on and encouragement about the Bill.
I also thank the Minister for contributing to the Final Stage debate and for his comments. I know that they are being pored over and examined as we speak. I assure him that he and any future Health Minister will have to deal with any of the developments and scrutiny of the implementation of this vital legislation. We want the changes that the autism community needs so badly to take place.
I give a final thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and your office for allowing the previous date to run well over time. That allowed us to reach Final Stage at this point in the mandate.
It is a good day for the Assembly and the autism community. Tonight, we are all voting autism. Thank you very much.