[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair] — Children and Young People with Autism

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 8th October 2008.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 9:30 am, 8th October 2008

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I would go so far as to suggest that the fact that that model was rolled out was due in no small measure to his perseverance and effectiveness. His self-effacement prevents him from claiming the credit for that important work.

I said earlier, in response to an intervention, that the elephant in the room is the training of the work force. My hon. Friend Mr. Scott, has rightly highlighted the NUT survey, which found that 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident teaching children on the autistic spectrum. I can add another statistic: 76 per cent. of respondents said that the lack or complete absence of continuing professional development was the principal barrier to effective provision for this category of children. We cannot be satisfied or indifferent about that, and it requires public policy responses.

Again, I welcome some of what is being done. The Government are to be applauded on the online development of the inclusion development programme, and specifically on the segment of it that will cater to the needs of autistic children or young people from 2009. Similarly, it is right that all new special educational needs co-ordinators will have to be qualified teachers. I congratulate the Minister on the Government's funding of the Autism Education Trust to the tune, initially, of £135,000 and, in the second year, of £320,000, if my memory serves me correctly.

I know the Minister, and he knows me extremely well. I hope that he will not consider me carping or churlish if I say that he and I have different roles in this place. He is a very senior, distinguished, respected and popular member of the Executive, whose responsibility it is to fashion policy and sell it to the nation, aided and abetted by the people behind him, whom it would not be appropriate to name in this Chamber. My role is rather different. I am a humble Back Bencher—more accurately, I am a Back Bencher who ought to be humble, which is not quite the same thing. However, the responsibility of right hon. and hon. Members on the Back Benches—be they on the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Ulster Unionist, Welsh nationalist or Scottish nationalist Benches, supported by the plethora of effective campaigning and advocacy organisations in the sector—is not to rest content with modest though welcome achievements, but constantly to raise the bar and challenge the Government to do more on such important matters.

I say to the Minister that there is a difference between a permissive and a prescriptive approach to training. I know that the Government like things to be done at local level and want a degree of flexibility, and it is all very well to say that there are opportunities for, an availability of or potential access to training, but it is another matter to say that it will be provided. It is another matter to say that staff back-filling will take place, that courses will run and that people will attend them. Autism-specific training is necessary not only for teachers and SENCOs, but for all members of the children's work force. It should be a prerequisite of obtaining qualified teacher status that one has had the appropriate training. Half a day's training on special educational needs as part of initial teacher training is not only lamentably inadequate, but a rather wounding insult to that sector of children and young people for whom it is our responsibility to cater. Far more needs to be done, and all SENCOs, be they new or old, should have appropriate training.

I am conscious that other colleagues wish to contribute their pearls of wisdom to the debate, and I strongly appreciate and respect the fact that at this relatively early hour, with a busy parliamentary day ahead of us, so many colleagues have come along. That shows the level of interest in, passion for and commitment to this incredibly important cause.

In some respects, policy is much better. I know that I will get myself into trouble with the usual channels on my own Benches, but, as I think the Minister knows, I long ago gave up any interest in securing a good term card from the Opposition Chief Whip. That is a matter of total indifference to me; I believe in paying tribute where tribute is due. I have every regard for the Secretary of State, who has taken a greater interest in special educational needs than any Secretary of State in recent memory. That is marvellous, and provision is better in some cases. There are plans for more facilities to be rolled out and for greater research, increased investment, peer review and all the rest, but the reality is that too many children and young people have suffered too much, for too long and with too little being done to help them. The time has come when we should say that up with this we will not put. We need to broker a step change in performance and activity.

In common with many right hon. and hon. Members on not only the Conservative Benches but elsewhere, I am an absolutely unstinting admirer of the late and great Sir Winston Churchill, one of the finest figures in the history of our country. He said to the House of Commons, on another subject, but pithily and fittingly for today's debate:

"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals"— one can almost hear him saying it—

"is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country."—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. XIX, c. 1354.]

To that proposition, so eloquently enunciated by the late Winston Churchill, I readily sign up, but I put it to colleagues, and this is the challenge, that if that is true, it surely is true in triplicate of our attitude to and provision for people with disabilities. Let us be explicit, those who have more severe autism often suffer from what might be called a hidden or invisible disability, but they are every bit as disabled as someone who is blind or partially sighted, deaf, mute or deprived of one of their limbs.

We have a responsibility to do more for a number of reasons, first, because it is the right and decent thing for a civilised society to do, and, secondly, because it is in the authentic self-interest of this country that we do so, for otherwise we will waste a vast, untapped, precious resource of talent and potential that could enrich our country. In an age in which a job for life is a relic of the past, and given the premium placed upon knowledge, education and the ability to communicate, it is vital that we do more to assist this category of children. It is not really about changing people's minds, although in some cases it is a matter of refining and improving their attitudes; it is about, in the competitive marketplace of political ideas and potential policy decisions, catapulting provision for autistic children and young people from the back of the minds of Ministers, decision makers and policy framers, to the front. Having so catapulted the subject, it is about keeping it fairly and squarely there into the future. Our sense of common humanity and our commitment to progress demand nothing less. There is so much to do, and people are waiting. They expect us to perform, and we must not let them down.