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House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Public Bill Committee Debates
Autism Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Roger Gale
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Browning, Angela (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Dean, Mrs. Janet (Burton) (Lab)
Gidley, Sandra (Romsey) (LD)
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
Hope, Phil (Minister of State, Department of Health)
Humble, Mrs. Joan (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (South Thanet) (Lab)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
Milton, Anne (Guildford) (Con)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 29 April 2009

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Autism Bill

2.30 pm
The Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. For the convenience and comfort of hon. Members, if they wish to remove their jackets, they may do so.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I beg to move,
That, if proceedings on the Autism Bill are not completed at this day’s sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesdays at 2.30 pm when the House is sitting.
I offer you a warm welcome to the Chair, Mr. Gale. I am delighted that the Autism Bill has been allocated to such a senior member of the Chairmen’s Panel and I look forward to serving under your chairmanship. I hope that we will not keep you long, but these deliberations are most important. I hope that the sittings motion will be agreed by the Committee.
I am very grateful that so many hon. Members have come forward to serve on this private Member’s Bill Committee. The proposal is that the Committee sit at 2.30 on a Wednesday afternoon. No time is given for concluding the deliberations, but I anticipate that two hours on a Wednesday afternoon will probably be appropriate. Looking at the Bill and knowing the seriousness of the subject matter, I hope that it will involve no more than three or four sittings before we can bring it back for Report and Third Reading. However, the best laid plans of mice and men, and private Members’ Bills, often go awry.
This is my first private Member’s Bill, Mr. Gale. I have no experience in this regard, but I hope that you will guide me and the other members of the Committee. I am therefore pleased to propose the sittings motion.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): I understand that I shall have the opportunity to speak later, so on this occasion I rise just to welcome and support the sittings motion. I hope that we can proceed with the Bill in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
The Chairman: Before we begin, I have to make two preliminary announcements. First, I remind hon. Members that adequate notice, which is three sitting days, should be given of amendments. As a general rule, the Chair will not call starred amendments. I remind hon. Members that amendments need to be tabled by the end of tomorrow to be selectable for next Wednesday.
Secondly, hon. Members may be aware that a money resolution is required to be agreed by the House before the provisions of the Bill that impose a charge on public funds can be considered by the Committee. Such a motion stands on the Order Paper under “Future Business C”, but it has not yet been agreed by the House. Clauses 2, 4 and 5 impose significant charges on public funds. I am, therefore, bound by the rules of the House governing our financial procedure to decline to propose the question on those clauses and the amendments to them.
2.33 pm
Mrs. Gillan: I beg to move,
That further consideration be now adjourned.
I want to take the opportunity to say a few words on the reasons why I propose an adjournment. We have in the Room a group of MPs who are extremely experienced on the subject of autism, and I hope that will lead to a fully constructive and fruitful debate on the Bill. Things always happen in threes, and today three things have come together for us. First, we had the headline in the Daily Mail: “Have we found key to autism?” Secondly, we have had the advantage of a written statement on the consultation document published by the Minister. Thirdly, we have started the Bill on its passage through Committee.
However, as you rightly said, Mr. Gale, we have yet to get the money resolution, which inhibits somewhat discussions on the Bill. I am also proposing that consideration be adjourned because the consultation document for the strategy has been published only very recently—within hours—and it would be good for the Members who are bringing their expertise to the Bill to have a chance to study that document as well.
I have been delighted by the cross-party support that the Bill has been given. It is a testament to the co-operation that I hope we shall see—particularly if we get a chance to put the money resolution through next week by virtue of the Government’s will—that we have no Whips on the Committee at all. The promoter of a private Member’s Bill is allowed to choose or to invite people to join the Bill Committee and I contemplated inviting Whips from all our parties, but I decided that was not at all in the spirit of the Bill; quite the reverse. I hope that we will not need to be whipped in any way whatever.
We need to adjourn because the matter is of such great importance. There are some 500,000 people with autism in the UK. Since I agreed to take on the Bill, I have been particularly touched by all the communications that I have had with families across the board. Continuously—almost daily—I receive information and items from families and individuals with autism, wanting to make a contribution to the discussion of the Bill. Adjourning for a further week will give us time to gather in some more of those comments.
For all of us, the matter is important in all our constituencies. I think it is fair to say that every one of us, whether Ministers or not, has the opportunity, as the Bill is starting on its way, to go back to the people in our constituencies who have been exhorting us about it. I hope that the adjournment until next week, to discuss clause 1 onwards, will be advantageous to us.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady. I wonder whether she has had discussions on the monetary implications of clauses 3, 4 and 5 in relation to the monetary implications of the Government’s proposals. Are they similar or vastly different?
Mrs. Gillan: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. At this stage, as we are talking about the adjournment, I do not want to get into the details of the Bill. I can see by the nodding of your head, Mr. Gale, that I would incur your wrath. You will allow me latitude, but I am sure you will not let me go into that detail. However, it is something that we will get on to eventually, when we get into the body of the Bill.
What is important about looking at the matter and putting off the discussion until next week is that there has been a genuine warm intention from the Government, not only in publishing the consultation, but in coming forward with suggestions that are a direct response to the Bill. I am particularly impressed by the fact that it was not difficult to get two Ministers on the Committee, which shows the Government’s intention to try to find a way through so that we have protection in legislation for this group of people. I hope that if we can agree on a modus operandi at some future date, it will not be necessary to tie up both Ministers, because I am well aware from previous responsibilities that to tie up two Ministers is a great privilege. None the less, I think that is the sort of attention that autism should be receiving and is now demanding, not particularly through any of my actions, but certainly through those of the National Autistic Society, and through the way in which it put the Bill together with officials from both Departments.
I am happy to take longer on the Bill, not least because I know that we are expecting a National Audit Office report relating to autism. If we have a breathing space, we may have some more information that can inform our debate, which is so important. The NAO report has been promised for some time, but I gather that it has been delayed, so an adjournment will give us an opportunity perhaps to find out about the delay, or to inform our discussions better.
The Minister will have a moment to indicate his intentions, but in proposing the adjournment to the Committee, I hope I am not causing inconvenience, but arranging our affairs so that we have a better debate in the future. The Government’s intention is obviously strong because they have tabled the money resolution. We hope that the usual channels—I have had some indication it could be possible—will allow the resolution to go through in time for us to meet next Wednesday and start on the substance of the Bill.
If the Committee passes the motion to adjourn, I anticipate that we shall try to reach some agreement about which clauses we will discuss on each day, because that may also be helpful to Members. We have to keep quorate with six, but such an agreement might enable Members to move freely in and out of the Committee, although not too far away in case we need to vote. That is important. Given my explanation, I hope that members of the Committee will agree to adjourn further consideration of the Bill until next Wednesday.
The Chairman: The motion is debatable. If hon. Members wish to make a contribution, they may do so. However, as the hon. Lady said, we are debating the adjournment motion, not the Bill itself. If members of the Committee wish to make opening remarks, that is fine by me, but they must confine what they say to the need for an adjournment, not the Bill, which we hope very much will be debated next Wednesday afternoon.
2.40 pm
Members of the Committee are knowledgeable and experienced. The fact that my ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, and I are here to debate the Bill demonstrates the Government’s commitment to the issue. Former vice-chairs and the existing chair of the all-party group on autism and members of the group have been magnificent in keeping the concerns and needs of such people in the forefront of parliamentary minds.
Mrs. Gillan: One member of the Committee has successfully taken a private Member’s Bill through in the past.
Phil Hope: Indeed. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton—
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): No.
Phil Hope: I realise that it was not the hon. Lady. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill was successful, but I also wanted to acknowledge the hon. Lady’s ten-minute Bill, which was a precursor to much of what we shall be debating. There is talent in depth in the Committee to discuss the issues.
Reference was made on Second Reading to the fact that our proceedings will be an opportunity for members of the Committee to interrogate the Government about our plans, announced before that debate, for taking forward measures for children, young people in transition and adults with autism. We had the chance through the Bill to talk about the Government’s proposals and measures and the broad welcome that they received at the time throughout the House, as well as from organisations such as the National Autistic Society, which has been mentioned this afternoon. The NAS said that much of what we have already announced achieves some of the intended outcomes of the Bill. I am delighted that we are meeting today.
Mrs. Gillan: An adjournment may give us the opportunity to look particularly at the timetabling of the whole exercise. That is one of the areas that we need to explore, and putting off our proceedings until next week might also give the Minister and his hard-working officials an opportunity to consider such matters, because timetabling is of great concern to audiences outwith the Committee.
Phil Hope: I am trying not to stray into talking about the clauses of the Bill, but the point has been made.
Like the hon. Lady, I am especially delighted that the first sitting of the Committee is today because, this morning, I had the pleasure of launching the Government’s consultation on our adult autism strategy, which is now available for people to use. Indeed, I met members of the external reference group who are working with us to develop that strategy. They made proposals about how to proceed, and I now look forward to a major debate during the next 20 weeks out there with the public. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will take the opportunity to meet groups locally to discuss the strategy, which I shall say more about in a moment.
The strategy will be a cornerstone of the developments and improvements that we all want to see. I cannot think of a better day for the Committee to begin its work. I am looking forward to spending the next few Wednesday afternoons elaborating on our commitment to delivering real change for people with autism. There will be much to cover.
As I said on Second Reading, autism cannot be considered in isolation, but must be within the context of what else is happening throughout the wide range of social care services, and health and education as a whole. That includes improvements to mental health services and better support for people with learning disabilities, for both of which I have ministerial responsibility, and the reform of local social services.
During the adjournment of our proceedings and while we contemplate future sittings, we will be able to examine the delivery of public sector services that are increasingly personalised—I believe, rightly—to address the varied needs of people with autism. I pick up the point that the hon. Lady made about the research that has come out today about a possible understanding of one of the causes of autism. That research is welcome and gives us a deeper understanding of the condition. It is important that we continue to develop our understanding of autism. We are investing in research to improve the evidence base. I realise that is not the subject of the Bill, but it is important to acknowledge the work that is being done outside the Bill.
There have been considerable efforts already to reform the system for adults with autism to make sure that local services respond better to the individual needs of the most vulnerable in our society. I want to use the Committee sittings to set out in detail how the reforms will meet the needs of people with autism. For example, our “Putting People First” strategy sets the whole tone for adult social care for the next decade. Our independent living strategy focuses on how we can help people with disabilities to live independent lives. Our recent strategy on learning disabilities, “Valuing people now”, will help people with autism who also have a learning disability to ensure that they get a fairer deal across health, housing, employment and community care services. We will come back to all those matters when we discuss the measures in the Bill and how we will deliver real transformation for people with autism.
Although my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is present, I want to say, “As with adult services, so with children’s services”. We know that the picture for children’s services is also one of tremendous reform, activity, and real commitment to change things for the better for vulnerable children, including those with autism. We were discussing the child health strategy just before the Committee sat. My hon. Friend and I co-chair the Aiming High for Disabled Children board, which looks at such matters. Our child health strategy sets out comprehensive plans to improve local services to deliver more targeted specialist support for children with complex needs, and it makes specific reference to children with autism. I am sure that my hon. Friend is looking forward to setting out for the Committee, when we get to the relevant clauses, all that is being done for children and young people with autism.
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