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I also congratulate the chairman of the all-party group on autism, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), on the work that she and the group are doing. When the group was started, back in 2001, and I had the honour of being its first chairman, I found the degree of consensus among Members of both Houses and all parties and their willingness to co-operate very heart-warming. The all-party group has made tremendous
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progress as a result of that attitude. We would not have reached the present point without the efforts of that group and of all those involved in the campaign.

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman was a junior Minister of some distinction and I regret his disappearance from that post. Does he agree, however, that it is not within the gift of the two junior Ministers who signed the undertakings to deliver on those undertakings in practice?

Dr. Ladyman: I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. What is needed is a commitment of the whole Government to deliver the measures. I also agree with Opposition Members that we will need some provision in legislation to make that happen. That provision might take the form of statutory guidance, or it might be achieved through other mechanisms or other legislation. What we have to debate today and in Committee, if the Bill reaches that stage, is whether this Bill is the legislation that is needed to make that happen, or whether we can achieve it better by some other means.

I shall listen carefully to the Minister of State when he replies to the debate, because if I do not hear unequivocal guarantees that the Government’s promises will have statutory force behind them, I too will want the Bill to complete its parliamentary stages, and I shall work with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham to get it through this House. If, however, there is a better way to achieve our ends, surely that is what is important.

My experience in the all-party group and subsequently is that, where the Government are concerned, we have been pushing at an open door. We have heard one or two comments this morning from Opposition Members about measures that have not been delivered, and there are questions to be answered about whether the prevalence study has progressed as fast as we would have liked. I hope that the Minister will give us some reasons why we have not yet seen the results of that study; I suspect that they will have to be very convincing, if he is to please the House today. Other than on those points, however, the Government have a proud record.

This Government have delivered best practice guidance for schools and education services and for health services on dealing with autistic people. They delivered the autism exemplar of the national service framework for children’s health, as well as a raft of other initiatives that have moved the agenda forward. We all agree, however, that no matter how well motivated the Government have been, delivery has fallen short at local level.

We can all cite from our constituencies examples of parents fighting to get their child the special school place that they know their child needs. Local authorities took cognisance of the fact that this Government had passed legislation to ensure that parents of a disabled child had the right to a mainstream school place for their child, and interpreted the legislation to mean that it removed parents’ right to ask for a special school place. The legislation did not do that—the Government have made that clear. Parents have the right to ask for a special school place if that best suits their child, but many local authorities deny them that right and are prepared to take such cases all the way to special educational needs tribunals, where they pay expensive barristers to argue the council’s case against a parent, who is doing no more than fighting for their child. We have all seen examples of that and we all want it to stop.

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We all want improvements to be made to the transition from children’s services to adult services. If and when the Bill goes into Committee, we must discuss the problems of transition. Now the transition is defined as that which occurs at the age of 18 but, as many of us know, in many local authorities a gap emerges between the ages of 16 and 18: an autistic child goes through the schools service and reaches the age of 16, and the local authority just assumes that there is nothing it need worry about until the autistic person reaches the age of 18 and suddenly becomes the responsibility of adult services.

Anne Main: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, adding to the comprehensive list that has already been set out by Members on both sides of the House. Surely that is precisely the reason why the Bill should go into Committee. Line-by-line, word-by-word scrutiny will happen only in Committee; our concerns will not be dealt with by any assurances the Minister gives today.

Dr. Ladyman: I thought I had made it clear that, if the Bill goes into Committee, there are matters that need to be discussed. The only possible reason not to send the Bill to Committee would be if the Minister unequivocally addressed today all the points that are being made, but I can see already that, whatever he says, Opposition Members will want the Bill to go to Committee. I have no problem with that, although I would say that serving that Committee would divert the Minister’s attention at a time when he could be moving the agenda forward. I am merely suggesting the areas of additional scrutiny that I want the Committee to cover.

Angela Browning: The hon. Gentleman’s track record on this subject is second to none. He referred to cases that ultimately go to court, usually to challenge the local authority. Increasingly, the pattern is that local authorities settle out of court but, owing to the stress involved, it would be helpful if we did not have to get to that point. When there is legal challenge, the courts often want to know what Parliament’s intention was. If measures have not gone before Committee and are not statutory, that undermines the case put forward by people who need the protection of the courts.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Lady says that my record is second to none, but my record is second to hers, and I acknowledge her contribution to the debate. She is absolutely right: if we are to ensure that cases do not go to court, or go to court and are resolved properly, there will have to be statutory force behind what we want to achieve. My only question is whether the Bill is the right sort of statutory force. I note that the clauses are all about the duty to “promote” and “recognise”. Those are mealy-mouthed expressions, in legislative terms. They give local authorities a wealth of opportunities to say, “We are promoting this. You’ll have to prove that we’re not promoting it before you can achieve your objective.” If the Bill goes into Committee, I will want the Committee to explore whether those are the right levels of assurance for local authorities and public bodies.

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Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is actually making the case for allowing the Bill to go into Committee; we could then raise all those issues. Far from distracting the Minister, Committee would be an opportunity for the Minister to hear all the expertise on autism that there is in this place, and to ensure that any legislation that follows really addresses the issue and results in outcomes for people who suffer.

Dr. Ladyman: I agree with the hon. Lady. She seems to be assuming that I am opposed to the Bill going into Committee. I am saying that there is a circumstance in which I would not wish the Bill to go into Committee, and that is the situation in which the Minister gave us cast-iron guarantees today on all the points raised by the Bill. Assuming that he does not give us those cast-iron guarantees today, the Bill will need to go into Committee, and I am setting out the points that I want to hear that the Committee has addressed. I am explaining the key issues that I have in mind that will have to be addressed if the Bill is to come out of Committee in a form that we want to see progressed.

Let me set out the absolute key issue that I want to have addressed; it will have to be the Minister who addresses it, because I do not think that Standing Orders will allow the Bill to do so. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and I are advisers to the Learning Disability Coalition, which is a coalition of campaigners for and champions of people with learning disabilities of various needs, including those with complex learning disabilities. It is campaigning to make sure that the needs of people with learning disabilities are properly recognised by Government, councils and public authorities. Indeed, next week I am leading a delegation of people with learning disabilities from that coalition to see the Minister and put their case to him.

One of the hot topics for those of us who campaign for people with learning disabilities is the fact that nobody knows how many people there are with learning disabilities. Nobody knows how many of those people have complex needs. Local authorities do no survey of people with learning disabilities, just as they do no survey of the number of people with autism in their area. It is not that one disability is in competition with another; we want everybody with a disability to get the support that they need from our public bodies. The Bill may make it councils’ responsibility to make a proper assessment of how many people in their area have autism, but it will not do anything for those people with learning disabilities or, for that matter, physical or other disabilities. We need to end up with a statutory requirement on local authorities to carry out a comprehensive assessment of disabilities in their area—all disabilities, affecting people of all ages. That includes children, adults and young adults.

Local authorities need to make such assessments for people from cradle to grave. They need to come up with a proper strategy to support people with all disabilities, based on that assessment. That assessment needs not just to include the services provided by a council, but to cross boundaries into the services provided by the health service, the courts and jobcentres. As it stands, the Bill will certainly improve circumstances for people with autism but, if we are to legislate, I would like us to legislate more comprehensively so that we can make sure that the assessment is carried out for all people with a disability.

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Mr. Heald: Is the hon. Gentleman not in danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good? Two years ago, Ministers promised us a prevalence study on autism; we have not had it, but the Minister is now saying that he will ensure it. He says that he will produce a consultation on a strategy for autism. Surely the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) is not seriously saying that we should not take that, but should instead wait for some grander plan dealing with all disabilities. Let us bank what we can get now for those who suffer from autism. My goodness, nobody knows better than he does that the parents, the carers and the people who suffer from such conditions need that now.

Dr. Ladyman: Of course they need something now, but so do people who are responsible for children with all other disabilities—learning disabilities, including complex learning disabilities, and physical disabilities. Those children, too, need people to assess their needs properly and build a proper local strategy for supporting their needs. All I am arguing is that we should not ghettoise those areas of disability. I agree that if, at the end of the day, we get something for autistic people out of the process, that will be a step forward, but it is not where we ought to be as a country. We ought to require a proper, comprehensive assessment of disability. We require a proper strategy to be put together to support people with disabilities in our local communities. We also need a requirement to be added to the Bill requiring all authorities to co-operate on producing such a strategy. At the moment, I do not read such a duty in the Bill; authorities are simply to promote the cause in their own little ghetto. That is not good enough.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Surely that point is another very good reason why the Bill should go into Committee. If the hon. Gentleman feels that he can improve the Bill, why does he not let it go into Committee, sit on that Committee and try to improve it there, and so help my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)?

Dr. Ladyman: If I have said it once, I have said it 15 times in this debate: the only circumstance in which the Bill should not go into Committee is if the Minister today gives us absolutely unequivocal, cast-iron guarantees on all the issues raised by the Bill. What I am hearing is that Opposition Members will not be convinced, whatever he says, so it is inevitable that the Bill will go into Committee. I am raising the issues that I would like the Committee to address.

Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend has said a number of times that he wants to hear the Minister give cast-iron guarantees today. If those guarantees are to be cast only today, how do we know that they are cast iron? The only place where we can test their cast-iron quality is Committee.

Dr. Ladyman: That may well be the case. The promises that the Minister gives, either today or in Committee, must have statutory back-up; that is the touchstone. Whether that statutory back-up is the Bill, other regulations, or another Bill that he promises to bring forward, there must be that statutory back-up, and I would like such back-up not just for autistic people, but for people across the wide spectrum of disabilities.

I have no intention of continuing to take up the time of the House. I once promised myself that I would not play Friday games, after I was tasked with talking out a
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Bill on mini-motos. I had to talk, from the Front Bench, for two hours on the subject before I was brought up short by a closure motion, moved 20 minutes before the deadline by which I would have talked the Bill out. I do not intend to do that today; I intend to listen closely to the Minister’s comments. I repeat that the guarantees that he gives must be cast iron. They must have statutory back-up. If the Bill goes into Committee, as I suspect it will, I will want to see it come out of Committee much improved. I certainly want the promises that the Government make to autistic people backed up, but I also want them extended to people with other disabilities, and people with learning disabilities—a group that is particularly deserving of further attention from the Government.

11.29 am

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). I begin by saying a warm and personal thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). She has brought this Bill before the House today, but I know of her long-term interest. I am immensely grateful to her, not just as a colleague but as a friend, for picking up the remains of my ten-minute Bill of last year and choosing it as the first Bill from the private Members’ Bill ballot. I also thank many other Members for their support and interest over the years; this is getting to sound like a swansong, although I hope this is not the last time that I speak on autism in the House.

Autism has been important to me. I am sure that many Members will know that I have a 37-year-old son with Asperger’s syndrome. Furthermore, I have been pleased to be involved in the issue as vice-president of the National Autistic Society and patron of Research Autism. I should say to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) that my family and I are eternally grateful to the Wessex Autistic Society for its support over many years.

I have listened to the Minister and talked to him about the Bill. I have read what he has said. Like everybody else in the House, I welcome the measures that he announced in response to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. We all welcome them, but as Members from all parties have already said, the House is looking for a sea change in how we approach autism. It is true that a lot has been done over the years, and I pay particular tribute to children’s services and the field of education. We are not there yet; I am not complacent in any way. However, I am often invited to schools for children with autism and sometimes to residential care institutions for such children. When I compare those children with their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, I see a generation who have an autistic spectrum diagnosis but who are more confident because of the more appropriate care and support that they get. Many of them will come to their teens and adulthood with a greater and more positive expectation of what life will be like for them than did previous generations.

That is why in the past few years I have tended to concentrate my own interests on adult services. My fear is that the current generation, having had their expectations built up, will be let down when they reach that all-important transition period, which has been mentioned and is an
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important part of the Bill. I am thinking, not least, of adulthood. I hear the good intentions, but I say to the Minister that the issues have to be enshrined in regulations and statutes that will work. That is important.

Yes, promises have been made in the past, and one of them was made to me. It was to do with my ten-minute Bill. The National Autistic Society wrote to me—I have the letter here somewhere—saying I would have to alter my speech of the following week because the Government had already announced they were going to do a prevalence study. I was delighted, and altered my speech accordingly. However, as the Minister knows because we have discussed the issue, here we are at the end of February 2009 and that prevalence study has not yet started.

I do not doubt the Minister personally, but we need to give proper protection to those whom this legislation will help. I am, as I said, a vice-president of the National Autistic Society and am only too well aware of its welcome for the moves that have been made, and it has made that clear to Members of Parliament. However, I do not wear just that one hat. I am a parliamentarian and understand the importance of scrutiny. I shall give a short example.

In our cordial discussion the other day, the Minister referred to a document in which the term “autism” was used. I had to ask him what we meant by that. Were we talking about statemented autistic children or autistic children with a special educational need? The Minister rightly said that we would have to discuss and clarify the matter. What better place to do that than in Committee? That is what the Committee stage of a Bill is for. It is important to get things right in Committee and for people to know about the Government’s intent.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is speaking authoritatively, as always, on this subject. She referred to the disappointment at the fact that the prevalence study had not yet taken place. So that we understand and so that those listening outside the House to this debate know of the reason for the scale of the disappointment, will she be good enough to point out how long ago that ten-minute Bill was introduced, and therefore when the commitment to carry out the study was made?

Angela Browning: The commitment to carry out the study was made in May last year, but I understand that it has not even been commissioned yet.

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