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Volume 483: debated on Monday 17 November 2008

5. What guidance his Department plans to issue to children’s trusts on the provision of an all-round regime of support for young people with autism up to the age of 16 years. (235759)

The Department is planning to issue revised statutory guidance to children’s trusts in November. The guidance is intended to explain what a children’s trust is and what it needs to do to improve outcomes for all children. Children’s trusts also have available to them the autism exemplar that we published in 2004 under the national service framework, which shows how multi-agency support should be provided to meet these children’s needs.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Her Department has supported the Autism Education Trust, which has just published a major report on the joint experience of families and schools in this area. The Department has done a great deal to support education and training in respect of autism, but will she carefully examine that report to see what more can be done to strengthen support on the social service side of children’s trusts, as well as the educational side?

I commend my hon. Friend’s work in the field of autism. I have seen many examples of it, and I know that he works very hard in his constituency. I am also aware of Blackpool’s good reputation; it is represented on our autism working group and provides a good example of work as part of a multi-agency approach. We will certainly keep in touch to see whether lessons can be learned from that. I emphasise that the multi-agency approach, which includes all people who are involved with children with autism, is part of the principle of children’s trusts. As I said, they are not just for children with autism, but for all children.

It is too easy to forget the contribution that parents of children with autism make, and I cannot speak highly enough of the parents who set up the Spectrum club in Newbury. However, it runs only up to the age of 15 for children with autism, and it is trying to work with West Berkshire council to extend provision to cover the crucial years between 15 and 18. I would be grateful to know what the Minister can do to encourage provision in this key area, so that these children can continue to improve so dramatically that they can go on to achieve at university and beyond.

I entirely agree that we should be examining the transition to adulthood, particularly for young people with autism. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that in May the Department of Health announced the development of an autism strategy for adults and the transition to adulthood, and we shortly expect the outcome of the tendering for that. I agree that this is vital, because it is no good training children through school if we then do not manage the crucial transition stage of getting them on to further education and eventual employment.

I realise that my hon. Friend has not been in her position for very long, but will she send a message to the whole of the Front-Bench team to stop shilly-shallying on this matter? We want more action. The Select Committee produced a report on special educational needs well over two years ago, and we expect faster improvement and sharper movement than has taken place, especially on what happens to children with a special educational need, particularly autism, post-16—the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) mentioned that. That age, 16-plus, is still a very dangerous and difficult time for children with special educational needs and their parents, and it is about time the Government pulled their finger out and did something.

I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments, but it is important that we get it right—getting it right is more important than rushing in with something that might not do that. As I said to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), this age is crucial for adulthood. It is part of our children’s plan, and the Lamb review is examining innovative ways in which parents can be involved in the progress made by their children with autism, particularly during that crucial transition period.

Over the past 10 years, the number of special educational needs statements has fallen by more than a third while the number of appeals to SEN tribunals has, not surprisingly, doubled. More than a quarter of such appeals are for children who have autism. Would it not be a better start to providing support for children with autism if in place of highly adversarial, costly and stressful tribunal referrals, the Government instead promoted special needs mediation, involving parents, local authorities, independent educational psychologists and other professionals, in order to come up with agreed educational needs profile plans to help the children most and soonest by providing multi-agency support, not multi-agency buck-passing?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly recognise the difficulties that parents have finding a way through the statementing process and addressing the special educational needs of their children. That is why we have commissioned the Lamb review. There are 10 innovative projects finding different ways to involve parents so that they have confidence in the system. We will review the outcome of those pilots to find best practice and what gives parents confidence, because that is the key to the problem.

Will the Minister instruct the new children’s trusts to take good notice of those institutions that have been very successful in dealing with children with autism, such as Baskerville school in my constituency? The danger is that they will try to reinvent the wheel, instead of turning to those who have had experience of doing well.

It is important that we learn lessons of best practice, and that is what we are trying to do. We certainly have no intention of trying to reinvent the wheel, but it is important to listen to parents who tell us what the best practice is for their children. We are facilitating parents’ groups, for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, so that they can share information among themselves. It is really important to use examples of best practice and see how we can disseminate them around the country.