27 Feb 2009 : Column 481

27 Feb 2009 : Column 481

House of Commons

Friday 27 February 2009

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

The House proceeded to a Division.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 1, Noes 100.
Division No. 41]
[9.34 am


Bone, Mr. Peter

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Lee Scott and
Mr. Charles Walker

Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Austin, John
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Barrett, John
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Bercow, John
Berry, Roger
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brooke, Annette
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browning, Angela
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Alistair
Clappison, Mr. James
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Cruddas, Jon
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Davies, Philip

Dean, Mrs. Janet
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dorries, Nadine
Duddridge, James
Duncan Smith, rh Mr. Iain
Durkan, Mark
Featherstone, Lynne
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Francois, Mr. Mark
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Gidley, Sandra
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goodman, Helen
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Gove, Michael
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hammond, Stephen
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Heath, Mr. David
Herbert, Nick
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holmes, Paul
Hope, Phil
Howarth, David
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Hunter, Mark
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jones, Mr. David
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Kawczynski, Daniel
Kidney, Mr. David
Knight, rh Jim
Kramer, Susan
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Leech, Mr. John
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Lidington, Mr. David
Loughton, Tim
Luff, Peter
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Main, Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Miller, Andrew
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Milton, Anne
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Penning, Mike
Pound, Stephen
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Randall, Mr. John
Rosindell, Andrew
Selous, Andrew
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Stewart, Ian
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Webb, Steve
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Nigel Evans and
Mr. Edward Vaizey
Question accordingly negatived.
27 Feb 2009 : Column 482

27 Feb 2009 : Column 483

Autism Bill

Second Reading

9.49 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce the Autism Bill on the first available Friday for private Members’ business. So many people are behind the measure that it feels like an Oscars moment—I have to say an awful lot of thank yous. It is the culmination of so much work that it is important to put on record my thanks and the thanks of all those whom the outcome of the process should benefit.

First, I thank my colleagues. When I drew No. 1 in the ballot, I was inundated with proposals. After making a shortlist, I examined the options in detail. The National Autistic Society and the needs of people with autism touched a chord. When I chose the Bill, I robbed other colleagues of the opportunity to introduce it. I therefore thank my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who were further down the list and would have been willing to introduce the measure. I thank hon. Members of all parties who back the Bill to the hilt and have given up their precious constituency day to be here. The issue is truly cross-party and all parties seem committed to effecting lasting change for people with autism.

Since taking on the Bill, I have been deeply encouraged and motivated by the supportive e-mails, letters and other communications that I have received from throughout the country. The groundswell of support for the measure clearly shows that the time has come to right the wrongs that it seeks to tackle, and that change is long overdue.

I must place on record my gratitude to and admiration for the staff of the National Autistic Society, who have campaigned and negotiated tirelessly in supporting the preparation and development of the Bill, and have encouraged such a measure for many months and years. I will single out some individuals who may be known to some hon. Members; I should like to mention Matthew Downie, Ellen Broome and Gemma Bent, without forgetting Benet and Amanda, and the new chief executive, Mark Lever. I also thank the other 15 organisations that make up the Autism Bill coalition for their backing.

I extend thanks to the all-party group on autism and its chair, the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), for its excellent work since the group’s inception in 2001. The way in which the debate and the understanding of autism have moved forward is due in no small way to the work of the hon. Lady and her colleagues.

Lastly, I thank my colleague and my friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who has worked tirelessly and for such a long time to improve the outcomes and life chances of people with autism. Her passion on the issue has played no small part in what has been achieved so far, and I decided to try to push the measure through the House using the private Member’s Bill process partly because she has announced her intention to leave the House at the end of the Parliament. She will be much missed. She has been a redoubtable friend and champion, and the Bill is partly a tribute to her and her work.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 484

The Bill therefore has little to do with me and is the outcome of a lot of work by other people. That has led to the privilege that I have today of being able to do something for children and adults with autism and their families and carers, as well as charities and policy makers concerned about the needs of people with autism.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this excellent Bill. I, too, have received many e-mails from constituents who feel that it is especially important. What have the Government indicated that they intend to do about the Bill? Do they intend to support it or to try to talk it out or block it? It was rumoured that they wanted to try to stop the Bill because they wished to take the matter further, but does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government want to strengthen the measure, the best way of doing so is to take it into Committee and table amendments there?

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reflects my views, but I will leave the Minister to speak for himself, because he has the option to change his mind, following the discussions that I had with him before Second Reading. I want to give him that opportunity and those options, so I do not want to prejudge any actions by him or the Government.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I support the Bill’s objectives. The National Autistic Society wrote to me—I think that it probably wrote to all Members—stating that it was

It goes on to say that today’s debate can be used to secure those commitments and explore the details. I agree that the debate is important for that purpose. Given that the National Autistic Society says that the Bill has already achieved its purpose, why does the hon. Lady persist in wanting to get it into Committee? [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman’s presence in the Chamber on a Friday is ominous because the ghost of past speeches by him hang over Friday proceedings. I am delighted by what the Government have put on the table—I make no bones about that. It is a tribute to the negotiating skills of the National Autistic Society. However, if the Government are to deliver their commitment, they have nothing to fear from examining the Bill clause by clause. The subject has been deserted for a long time and it is about time that the voices of those affected and their families were heard loud and clear. If the promises are as good as the paper on which they are written, there is nothing to fear from having a Committee stage, during which we can examine the Bill in detail.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Of course, everyone welcomes the Government commitment to taking the matter on board. However, does my hon. Friend agree that Second Reading today has led to that commitment? The Bill’s going into Committee and coming back to the Floor of the House on Report would maintain the pressure on the Government. It would
27 Feb 2009 : Column 485
mean that we continued talking about the Bill for the next three to four months, and that is no bad thing. If any hon. Member speaks at excessive length today to talk out the Bill, he will prevent Parliament from focusing its attention on the measure, and his constituents should note and remember that.

Mrs. Gillan: My right hon. Friend makes a valid and accurate point. There is no malign intention in pressing the Bill. After it was suggested to me that the Government’s commitments were good enough for the Bill to be withdrawn, I looked up precedents. A Labour Member withdrew a Bill recently after it had gone into Committee and another Member withdrew a measure on a much smaller matter, so there is little precedent for such behaviour. I believe that I would let people down by not trying to get the detailed discussion that having the No. 1 private Member’s Bill affords.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she is doing today. I declare an interest as the vice-president of the National Autistic Society. Like my hon. Friend, I support and welcome what the Government have said that they will do. The National Autistic Society’s endorsement shows that it has taken the Government’s word about the outcome of their promise, but it is incumbent on us as parliamentarians to ensure that the public know Parliament’s intention and to scrutinise line by line, so that what happens is clear. If I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope to demonstrate how the National Autistic Society has taken the Government’s word in the past about promises that have yet to be fulfilled.

Mrs. Gillan: It is that questionable track record that leads me to believe that I have a moral imperative to try to press the Bill. If the Government choose not to support the Bill in the Lobby or when we attempt closure later in these proceedings, that will be a matter for the hon. Members concerned, as the Bill is private business.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on taking the Bill forward, which, as she knows, is something that I, too, considered. As a matter of naked self-interest, I suppose that I would want her not to take her Bill into Committee, so that my future private Member’s Bill would have more of a chance. However, I do not take that view. It is very important that the Bill should get into Committee. In particular, I hope that there will be an opportunity in Committee to consider the important transition arrangements for young people with autism who are reaching adulthood. That is a neglected area that needs proper consideration.

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He should please forgive me for omitting to mention his name in dispatches, but I am grateful for that generous offer, as I know a lot of people outside the House will be too.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): A number of us attended a useful meeting with the Minister earlier this week, and we trust that he has the personal commitment that he says he has. However, the history of the thing, as he has acknowledged, including
27 Feb 2009 : Column 486
in The Observer, is not a happy one. Promises have been made in the past and not delivered. That is why we need a law. He is a Minister, but who knows what may happen in future? We know all the vagaries, but if we have a law, we have to do what it says.

Mrs. Gillan: Indeed, my hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I shall come to later. There is indeed something of a track record of having changes of Minister—something that has caused a problem with promises that have been given in the past.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. As a patron of the UK Autism Foundation, I, too, declare a vested interest. Does she agree that the people who really matter are the young adults affected, the children with autism and the adults with autism whom we are trying to help with this Bill, and that the best way to help them would be allowing the Bill to go to Committee?

Mrs. Gillan: I agree entirely, and my hon. Friend has a marvellous track record in dealing with the matter.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs. Gillan: If hon. Members will forgive me, I should like now to make a little progress.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I would like to make just a little progress, but I promise that I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

Autism is a lifelong and disabling condition that affects how a person communicates, and how they relate to and make sense of the world. It is a spectrum disorder that presents in different ways and to varying degrees in each individual. Some people with autism are able to live independent and fulfilling lives with very little support, while others need specialist support throughout their lives. Estimates suggest that one in 100 people has autism, which means that well over 500,000 in the UK have it. It also means that, together with their families, more than 2 million people are affected by autism every day. There are also suggestions that the prevalence of autism is on the increase.

Autism is a relatively recent diagnosis that was recognised only after world war two. Indeed, Asperger’s syndrome became part of international diagnostics manuals only in 1994. That may go some way towards explaining the low public understanding of autism, because although there is a high public recognition of autism and the fact that it is a disability, there is a host of myths and misconceptions about it. One of the most common is that autism affects only children, but one recent estimate put the number of adults with autism at well over 300,000. Often the interest in autism concerns its negative impact and burdens, but there are positive aspects, such as the outstanding talents, which have been considered far less often than the negative impacts. Professor Uta Frith tells me that about 10 per cent. of individuals exhibit special talents, mainly in art, music and memory. Many people also continue to believe, wrongly, that there is a cure for autism.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 487

What is life like for children with autism? A recent report by the National Autistic Society found that 40 per cent. of children with autism had been bullied, while 27 per cent. had been excluded from school, 42 per cent. reported that they had no friends and 70 per cent. had an accompanying psychiatric condition. The NAS estimates that 63 per cent. of adults with autism do not receive enough support, while 82 per cent. of parents or carers of an autistic child say that their child needs some daily support to live independently.

Nine out of 10 parents are worried about their child’s future, at a stage when they are no longer able to support them. That leads to grief and pain for all involved. One parent said about her daughter:

Only 15 per cent. of adults with autism are in full-time work and 75 per cent. either do not have any friends or find it very hard to make friends. More than half of adults with autism have also been bullied or harassed as adults. The more I have learned about autism, the more I have come to realise that not enough is known about it. I have also seen that not enough is being done about the needs of these individuals.

Most local authorities currently do not fulfil their obligations to people with autism. They fail them. According to current Department of Health guidance, local authorities should already be working to assess the needs of adults with autism. However, that is frequently not the reality on the ground.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Hillside school in Longridge in my constituency is a school for children with autism. It received an excellent Ofsted report in 2007. I praise the then headmaster, Geoff Fitzpatrick, and the new headmistress, Alison Foster, for the tremendous work that they have done. The headmistress has said that part of the problem is that all the good work being done in the school is lost when the youngsters leave it and enter adulthood. The focus of the Bill is ensuring that all the tremendous work that people are doing to help young people with autism is not lost when they leave school. That is why the Bill deserves to be taken into Committee.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The transition often presents many problems. I will refer to that later in my contribution.

Mr. Betts: I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing the Bill. However the outcomes are eventually achieved, she deserves a great deal of credit for that, but can she say which of the specific things that she wants to achieve through the Bill are not covered in the agreement that the National Autistic Society believes it has reached with Ministers?

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