Hansard: Commons Debate on Autism 5.18 pm Tuesday 20th November 2012
I came to this issue in the same way as most other Members of the House. After being elected in 1997, I dealt with case after case of families trying to fight their way through the statementing system. Families would come to me with packed files of different reports and threats of legal action. In addition, I was dealing with an adult aged 29 who had just then been diagnosed as being on the spectrum with Asperger’s. I accept that Asperger’s is a relatively recent diagnosis, but he had gone through school and into adulthood without any real support.
When I came to the House I sought the support of any other Member who had any experience, and the best advice I received was Angela Browning, now Baroness Browning. She befriended me and took me step by step through the processes to secure for my constituents at least some access to services and their rights. That is how I became engaged in the subject.
When the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) fought her sterling fight to enact the Autism Bill, I was put on the Committee. It was rare in those days for me to be on any Committee,
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so it was clearly a subject on which I could not have done much damage. The right hon. Lady led a superb campaign that was subtle as well as incisive. It mobilised organisations and individuals across the country, the letters campaign worked, there were constructive discussions with Ministers and we managed to get a consensus across the House.
I want to touch on two points, one in relation to adults and the other in relation to children. The work that was done then has had a widespread effect on a large range of organisations, some of which would not be expected to engage on the subject. For the first time, the trade union movement has taken up the issue. The RMT is running a series of seminars on autism to support its members at work who are on the spectrum or who have family members who are on the spectrum—a major breakthrough. I pay tribute to Janine Booth, who is on the executive of the RMT. To give Bob Crow his due, the union has supported the seminars 100%. I attended the first one and the second is to be held tomorrow.
What has come out is a thorough discussion of the scale of discrimination encountered just to get into work and once people are in work. There are some appalling examples of people being ostracised. That is why the union now says that it has a role in ensuring that recruitment practices are fair and non-discriminatory, and in representing its members when they are in work to make sure they are not discriminated against. Those discussions have highlighted some real problems and the need to look into employment discrimination and perhaps to tighten the legislation to prevent discrimination.
I have to refer to the Atos system and applications for disability benefits that was set in motion by the previous Government. The Harrington reviews have been conducted, but the system is not working. Those turning up for Atos assessments are being assessed by people with no specialist knowledge of the subject area. That is causing immense distress and, yes, loss of benefit and loss of all income. We need to look again at that process. I have tabled various early-day motions. I am so frustrated by it that I think the system needs to be scrapped and that we should start again.
I pay tribute to organisations that are campaigning on the matter—Disabled People Against Cuts in this country, and Black Triangle in Scotland. It is worth reading the Spartacus report that was published two weeks ago, which gives individual examples. Large numbers of examples have been collected, showing how people have been treated and what they feel. In the cases I have been dealing with, many people who are on the spectrum are lost within the system and as a result lose benefit and are living in poverty. Often they are desperate to work.
The other issue is local authority cuts. In my area, speech and language therapy is being cut again and the local authority is no longer commissioning the service from the local health trust. That is having an impact. I have sat in on speech and language sessions over recent months. They are fundamentally important for early diagnosis and early intervention—pre-school intervention wherever possible. Children’s centres identify children who may not have been picked up in the past. I am worried that the pressure on local authority resources is having an impact on such specialist services.
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I echo what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). I work closely with a group in my constituency, Hillingdon Autistic Care and Support. Some wonderful people set it up and worked with our local authority on a cross-party basis. They have taken over one of our children’s centres and they bring parents together and provide direct services. They display a superb understanding and appreciation of families’ individual needs. A couple of weeks ago, the group held a meeting where all the parents turned up to talk about the new legislative proposals and voice their concerns.
The existing system may have been difficult to battle through, and we were looking for reform to make it easier, but not to undermine some of the basic securities. At least when parents got a statement, they knew what rights they had, what was to be delivered and the time scales involved, and they could use that to enforce the supply of services. Exactly as my hon. Friend said, however, there is now confusion about whether there is still a real right to request an assessment, and anxiety about whether the “best endeavours” wording is specific enough to define the nature of the services that are to be provided, as of right, or the time scales on which they will be provided. There are real worries among families.