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Autism Bill

Volume 488: debated on Friday 27 February 2009

Second Reading

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

“delighted to write to you about a vital new Government commitment to improve the lives of people with autism. Thanks to your fantastic support…we have together succeeded in persuading the Government to address all the issues raised by the…Bill.”

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.]

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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?

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.

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:

“She has quite calmly said that when we die, she plans to kill herself because she knows she will be completely alone and unable to care for herself. She weeps on a daily basis because she is so scared of the future. There is nobody to help her manage her daily life, and more importantly, who will love her when we’re gone?”

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.

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.

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

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?

The hon. Gentleman seeks to make a point that I thought we had dispensed with earlier. I am delighted and thrilled with the proposals that the Government have made. Those proposals are going to go ahead. The Bill is a vehicle for us to examine those proposals and consider the detail. It is no more than people deserve. The Minister has nothing to fear from a Committee stage for the Bill. In fact, he has everything to gain from it, because he will be able to showcase what the Government are doing. That would be a golden opportunity for the Minister and his colleagues. He is not going to tell me that he cannot be bothered to spend the time in Committee, because I know that that is not the case. He is devoted to advancing the programme, so he has nothing to fear from the Bill.

As a vice-chairman of the all-party group on autism, I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. The first case that I took up as an MP back in 1997 involved a 14-year-old who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. I went to someone in education and was told, “Oh, it’s not us, it’s social care.” I went to someone in social care and was told, “It’s not us, it’s the NHS.” A vicious triangle ensued. In the end, it was only by banging those three people’s heads together and having pooled funding that we got an action plan. Is it not essential that we use the Bill to drill down into the detail and see exactly who is responsible, to ensure proper joint working on the ground among those different agencies? That is why it is so essential that we go into that detail in the House.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In my personal experience, people who have concerns about an individual in crisis can go to social services, who say that it is not their problem, and then to the mental health authority, which says the same thing, and then to the police, who refer them back to social services. It would be an advantage to look into such detail in considering the Bill.

May I bring the hon. Lady back to the important point that she was making about local authorities assessing need? In Cambridge, a group of parents of adults with autism are worried about what will happen to their offspring after they become too old to care for them. They are trying to set up specialist housing for their offspring to live in for the rest of their lives, but the first thing that the local and regional authorities told them was that they could not be helped because the authorities did not know the level of need involved. That is why there has to be legal force behind the obligation to assess such need.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Later, I shall refer to a non-existent prevalence study, which will illustrate exactly the point that he has made.

There is often a phenomenon of buck-passing between different agencies. Also, the needs of a child or young person often straddle the divide between different departments, which is precisely why we need joint strategic needs assessments—and joint commissioning to boot. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems that still exists in the education service as a result of a lack of training is quite widespread ignorance among the children’s work force of parts of the spectrum? I am thinking of a teacher who said to the parent of an Asperger’s child, “I don’t believe in Asperger’s syndrome.” It is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of fact.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done, particularly in the area of speech therapy for children. He is absolutely right. I knew a little about autism, and I am learning all the time. Last night, on a car journey in the middle of the night, I read part of a book by Temple Grandin and a series of articles by her. I found them absolutely fascinating. To ask whether one believes in Asperger’s is almost demeaning. The more I look at the subject, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more I realise that we in the House have a duty to try to deliver measures to provide a framework in which we can give the right assistance at the right time to the right people when they need it.

The hon. Lady is clearly going to do a great service to the nation by bringing the Bill before the House today. She might be able to do an even greater service. In the Bill, she refers to the definition of autism as

“all autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome”.

I have had some difficulty, as have others, in defining the autism spectrum. I appreciate that the answer to my question might be that this subject should be ventilated in Committee, but does she intend at any stage to attempt to provide a definition of the autism spectrum?

The hon. Gentleman has just answered his own question, and I will continue with my speech.

Of the local authorities surveyed by the National Autistic Society, only two have developed robust ways of collecting and collating information on the population of people with autism. Under 40 per cent.—actually, 39 per cent.—of local authorities have appointed a named team leader with responsibility for autism spectrum disorders, which are known as ASDs. Only 53 per cent. of young people had been issued with transition plans on the move from children’s to adult services—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) earlier—falling to just over one third in mainstream schools. That is illustrated by one local authority, which said:

“ASD is not ‘core business’ for learning disability or mental health, so will not be prioritised”.

That is precisely the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).

My own county council, Buckinghamshire, has done a piece of work to enable it to record the number of people with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism in our area. In that respect, it is better than many other local authorities, but there is still a long way to go in my backyard before this information can be used effectively in service planning, let alone to address the urgent needs of this group of people.

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on introducing the Bill. I declare an interest as the chairman of the Cheshire Asperger’s action group. She has referred to transition, among other things, and it is vital to recognise how much of a lottery that involves around the country, because of the disparity between local authorities in regard to the recognition of the need for support, let alone action, for people with autism, and with Asperger’s in particular. The Bill would ensure that there was at least a minimum duty across the country, and it needs to be examined in Committee, so that we can remove these unfair disparities.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. I am also grateful for the support of my Front-Bench team, including the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). I have sought—and I still seek—not to be at all political in the Bill. That has been quite outwith my thoughts. I have been delighted, as the Minister will know, by the cross-party support that the Bill has received. I am very touched that I have commanded the presence of the Front-Bench team here this morning, although, of course, it is not me but the issue of autism that is so important. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien), the shadow Minister, for his intervention.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill today. Two concerns lead me to believe that these matters need legal backing. One is that those with autism do not always receive the care packages to which they are entitled, as that entitlement is not sufficiently backed in law. The other relates to transition. Recently, I discovered that a constituent of mine had not come to the attention of social services since leaving school 40 years ago, because of the care provided by his mother. We had difficulty in getting the local authorities to respond to this person, with whom they were not familiar, in order to put together a care package. My hon. Friend’s efforts to put these matters into law will provide the necessary framework to ensure that these things can happen.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I must now get on to the purpose of the Bill, which I understand is also being supported by the Council for Disabled Children, Action for Children and the Children’s Society. It seeks to build on the excellent work that has been done by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) in her private Member’s Bill on special educational needs, by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton in her ten-minute Bill, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott).

The Bill is not intended to do everything that is required to help people with autism, but it aims to address some of the structural disadvantages that they face and to vitalise local activity around autism. It clearly specifies the actions needed to stop adults with autism being excluded from receiving the services that they need and to which they are entitled. Existing Department of Health guidance states that local authorities should already be working to assess the needs of adults with autism in their area. However, the reality on the ground is that most local authorities are not even fulfilling their obligation to know how many people with autism there are in the local area. Guidance has not had the required impact, and legislation is essential to ensure that people with autism do not continue to be excluded.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. She has mentioned people’s exclusion from the services provided in their local area. There is a lottery regarding the provision that children with an autistic spectrum disorder or Asperger’s syndrome receive. We also know that three out of four children in pupil referral units are on the autistic spectrum. That is why the Bill is so important, because it would ensure that those children were identified, enabling adequate provision to be secured for them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The clauses of the Bill specifically address the unique nature of this disorder and the challenges faced by adults, children, parents and carers affected by autism, while providing constructive and tangible measures at least to ameliorate their position. I hope that they will lead, in the long term, to local authorities developing the abilities of every child in their area.

The clauses relating to children seek to improve the data collected by local authorities on children with autism for strategic planning purposes. The Government have recognised that data collection on disabled children has significant gaps and, according to the “Aiming High for Disabled Children” report, the data on all disabled children across the board are poor. The policy commitments of “Aiming High for Disabled Children” and national indicator 54—NI54—to improve education for children with learning disabilities are welcome measures, but data collection seems to need legal force to make it happen universally.

The Bill also seeks to ensure that local authorities have regard to the needs of children with autism in preparing their key strategic planning tool for children’s services. Children with autism are a sizeable minority population, with chronic needs that are too often overlooked. In addition, the Bill aims to strengthen co-operation between child and adult autism services and ensure that data collected by children’s services are used to inform the development of adult services.

The clauses dealing with adults focus on the immediate and necessary support that adults with autism need. More than three quarters of primary care trusts do not keep a record of how many adults with autism are in their area, and 86 per cent. of local authorities say that having more information about the number of adults with autism would help long-term planning.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Bill’s scope will extend to the whole national health service? In particular, I should like to know whether the Bill covers an issue that I discovered in taking up the case of a constituent with Asperger’s who was detained in a secure mental hospital. I found that the special NHS trusts dealing with such hospitals did not know how many of their patients had conditions relating to the autistic spectrum, and that those special patients were frequently denied the services they needed because they were simply not available and therefore ended up warehoused, sometimes for many years, before such treatment was made available to them.

That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend probably reflects the experiences of many hon. Members in dealing with constituency cases.

I am conscious that time is passing and that other Members want to contribute to the debate, although I have tried to be as generous as possible in allowing interventions. I would like to make a few more points about the scope of the Bill, which is also designed to tackle the chronic lack of services for adults with autism.

Autism does not fit in with how local authority services are structured. The problem is exacerbated, as we have seen in the examples discussed today, by a lack of understanding of autism among health and community care professionals, particularly those providing assessments. The resulting exclusion from services can result in an increase in support needs in the long term, with 33 per cent. of adults having developed mental health problems because of the lack of access to services.

The Bill extends to Wales.

I want to make some progress, but I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene when I have concluded my point.

As I was saying, the Bill extends to Wales, and I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Welsh Assembly Government for the steps they have taken in their strategic plan—the autism spectrum disorder strategic action plan—to address many of the issues faced by people with autism. The plan contains a series of action points for local agencies in Wales, including accurate recording of the numbers of people with autism in each local authority area. It is a step in the right direction. In Committee, I would seek to withdraw the provision if given the undertaking that the Welsh Assembly Government would take the matter further.

I think that the hon. Lady has anticipated my question, but I would like to say, as chair of the all-party carers group, how grateful we and all carers in this country are to her for her initiative and her sterling work in this field. Is she aware of the various local authority initiatives already taking place in Wales, which greatly anticipate what she wants? As the promoter of the Bill that became the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, may I say how important it was to have the Welsh Assembly Government to support my Bill? That said, I would like to thank the Minister for his responses, which I would say are largely a consequence of the work that the hon. Lady has done in recent months.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have the Welsh Assembly Government’s plan here with me and I believe that they have made great progress and that many lessons can be learned.

I am just about to move on to discuss the generous offer made by the Minister in response to the Bill and the work of the National Autistic Society, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman first.

The hon. Lady referred to withdrawal of clause 6. Will she elaborate on the discussions she has already had with the National Assembly for Wales? She is right to highlight the excellent work undertaken in Wales with Autism Cymru. How positive is she about the Assembly’s response?

I have a letter from the Assembly, but I do not have it to hand. I have been in correspondence both with the Minister here and the First Minister in Wales, informing them of my Bill and my intention to cover Wales, but also of my willingness to withdraw the particular clause, which was intended effectively as a vehicle to allow me to discuss relevant issues in Wales. This is a devolved matter, but I fully intend to follow up what happens in Wales with the junior Minister who responded to me. I am pleased with progress and it is right to say that the Assembly has been ahead of the curve on this.

The Minister is also trying to get ahead of the curve. Following protracted negotiations with the National Autistic Society and phone calls with the Minister and his colleague in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I am delighted about that. Ministers have set out a programme of action in response to the proposals in the Bill, reflecting the demands and needs of autistic people and their families. However, the litmus test will be how these measures and the Minister’s promises are implemented. Once again, however, I want to put it on the record that I am delighted to have these proposals. I know that the National Autistic Society and other organisations are thrilled that Ministers have moved so far and promised to deliver the actions necessary to fulfil the Bill’s aims.

However, the Minister has confirmed, I think, that he would prefer the Bill not to go into Committee. He also knows that I have to press my case, because it is not right for me to let people with autism down. In his own words, as reported in The Observer last week:

“Tens of thousands of people with autism have been repeatedly let down by the social care and health system while Labour has been in power… people with autism have ‘not been well served’…The past has not been good enough”.

He also generously conceded that the Bill “has had an impact”. I cannot be another person to add to the disappointment of people up and down this country, so I must press my Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her Bill, and indeed everyone else who has contributed to it. It does not extend to Northern Ireland, but I am here to represent the strong will of many people in Northern Ireland that this Bill should succeed. Like other Members, I am continually confronted in my constituency office with parents who should not have to negotiate between services and navigate through systems to find out whether their child has autism. They should be the first to know. That should be a matter of law, and the hon. Lady’s Bill is a step in the right direction. A number of years ago, a taskforce report about Northern Ireland’s departments dealing with education, health and—

The pledges in that report about Northern Ireland compare directly with the pledges given now, but the commitments have not been upheld because of service reorganisation and restructuring and changes of Ministers. That is why we need a platform for action and attention based in law.

That is my point exactly, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I sought to legislate for England and Wales, having been advised that Northern Ireland and Scotland would be outwith the Bill’s scope. His point highlights my problem. Around May last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton introduced a ten-minute Bill, but a magic two days before, a prevalence study was announced. However, it has not been delivered. That is yet another example of non-delivery. I cannot roll over on a set of promises. That is absolutely not possible at this stage.

I am so pleased that my hon. Friend will not give in and that she is determined to press this matter. May I tell her about one of my constituents, whose son’s story is a testament to why this measure is needed? I refer to Mrs. Christine Gilliam’s son, Luke, who was not diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until he was 10—a late diagnosis. Mrs. Gilliam had to fight for her son’s statement of special educational needs, as so many parents have to do. He had to be accommodated in a mainstream school and was constantly bullied. There was a lack of support for his transition to adulthood and he ended up in Feltham young offenders institute. Mrs Gilliam wrote to me saying:

“There is a huge need for support for these young adults. With the right help and environment they are lovely people. Without help or people on their side, their future is bleak.”

Is that not why the Bill is so necessary?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is another example that must be familiar to many of us as constituency Members.

I hope that I have been generous in giving way to as many Members possible; that I have been able to give the House the flavour of the Bill, which is all that can be done on Second Reading; and that if the Minister chooses to speak, he will reiterate the promises that he has made outside the House so that we can, in this instance, have our cake and eat it. He has said that he will deliver without the Bill, but our ability to discuss it in detail today can only add to the body of knowledge in his Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I am delighted that so many Members have responded so positively. Again, that is nothing to do with me. It is a tribute to the organisations that have worked so tirelessly, and to the many colleagues who have worked tirelessly in the House. I also thank the staff in my office. A private Member’s Bill means an awful lot of strain and extra work for staff who are already overburdened with e-mails, letters and constituency work, and my staff are to be commended for the way in which they have stepped up to the plate.

I hope that the Minister will reaffirm his promises on the Floor of the House, and that he will give the Bill a fair wind into Committee. I also hope that the whole House will be able to put something on to the statute book that will improve the lives of many, many people throughout our country.

I am delighted to be able to speak on Second Reading of this Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on being drawn first in the ballot. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, I also thank the hon. Lady for choosing the subject, and for all her efforts over the past few weeks.

The results of the pressure created by the Bill are admirable, and are largely due to the culmination of support, awareness-raising and campaigning among the wider autism community over the past decade. Let me specifically acknowledge and thank the National Autistic Society for its commitment to championing the causes of children, adults, parents and carers who are affected by autism throughout the country. They continuously face an uphill battle when seeking support and guidance for those in need. The National Autistic Society has truly set a precedent in providing what is needed and expected: information, advice, advocacy, training and support for individuals and their families who are dealing with autism. The presence of the society, which has over 18,000 members and 80 branches across the United Kingdom, is widely felt in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Further thanks are due to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who is responsible for care services, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who is responsible for schools and learners, for the letter that they sent last week outlining the Government’s commitment to improving access to services, opportunities and, I hope, the lives of people with autism. I am delighted to note the Government’s commitment to a new strategy, and warmly welcome the latest developments. Indeed, I want to record my thanks for the efforts that Ministers have made to work with the National Autistic Society to develop proposals whose implementation will surely require an extensive collaboration between groups and individuals in Whitehall and beyond to ensure that the needs of individuals affected by autism are truly represented.

A key part of that collaboration must be within local authorities, not just between different agencies. Those in children’s services departments need to talk to those in adult social care departments, so that the important transition phase works for the young people involved.

My hon. Friend is right. We all know of occasions in our constituencies when those services have not worked together, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the proposed measures will ensure that that happens.

I fear that, owing to the tight time scales, the scope of the strategy may be too limited, and I hope the Minister will agree to meet me to discuss its progress and scope. I also hope he will assure me that the Government are committed to producing a comprehensive document along the lines of the carers strategy, and that it will have

“the bite it needs to be delivered” ,

as the Ministers state in their letter. Such clarifications will fill the gaps to enable the strategy to be implemented successfully.

The hon. Lady mentioned the carers strategy. She may recall that in March 2006 I attempted to introduce a ten-minute Bill to enable the disability and carers allowance to be granted automatically to those diagnosed with terminal illnesses. I was given assurances similar to those that she seeks from the Minister that it would all go ahead, and such assurances had also been given in 2005. I caution the hon. Lady that, in the absence of a Bill, it has not happened, and that that is why the Bill should go into Committee. I fervently hope that she will support the proposal that it should do so.

I am mindful of the fact that the National Autistic Society has said that

“the debate on 27 February in the House of Commons, can now be used to secure these Government commitments, and to explore the details of how each measure will be implemented.”

I hope that the Minister’s response today will satisfy that requirement.

The hon. Lady will know that, having set targets on child poverty, the Government are now deciding to legislate to try to eradicate it. If legislation is good enough for child poverty, why does she oppose legislation for people with autism?

The Government’s proposals involve amendments to section 7 of the relevant legislation. That will enshrine the measures in statute, so that authorities will have to respond.

I think that the intervention from the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) was quite important. What she was effectively saying was that she did not trust the Government, and the implication of that is either that she has conceded that the Conservatives will not win the next general election, or that she would not trust her own side if they were in government.

My hon. Friend has a point.

The discrepancy between the policies that we debate in Parliament and the reality of life for parents, professionals and people with autism has been a deeply held concern of the all-party parliamentary group for autism since its inception in 2000.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred to the Government’s record. The Minister himself admits that their record is unsatisfactory, and that people with autism have been let down. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) was promised a prevalence study nearly two years ago, but it has not happened. Why is the chairman of the all-party group rolling over, when if we keep the Bill we can put pressure on the Government to deliver?

I have had many meetings to discuss the prevalence study, and I know that there are valid reasons—which the Minister will give later—for the fact that it has not begun. As chairman of the all-party group, I have been made aware of the facts over recent months.

I should like to continue with my speech now, because I think it important to mention some of the actions that are necessary and some of those that have already been taken. In a moment, I shall describe the actions taken by the all-party group in the last few years. It is not all negative; there have been some successes. The all-party group has specifically focused on the objective of raising awareness of issues affecting people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and their families and carers, both in Parliament and through Government policy changes.

In the past nine years, we have commissioned a number of research studies, including our manifesto for autism in 2003. It set out four general principles and 11 specific objectives to deliver better services and support for people with autism, to be achieved in the following 10 years. It was developed as a result of extensive consultation across the autism movement, with contributions from people with autism, parents, carers, local groups and national organisations.

The general principles of the manifesto called for the following: all people working with people with autism to be properly trained; research to be carried out, especially into causes, costs and effective interventions on autism; improved service provision for those with autism; and improved tracking and planning of services for people with autism at all local and national agencies. In order to raise awareness in Parliament of the manifesto, the officers of the all-party group on autism tabled an early-day motion to enable Members to put on record their support for those objectives, and the overwhelming support it received was most welcome.

In October 2008, the all-party group launched “Half way there?”, a mid-term review of our manifesto. It found that in the five years since the manifesto was published the profile of autism had risen among both the general public and parliamentarians and that there had been significant progress towards achieving many of the principles and objectives outlined. The Government’s announcement of a national strategy for adults with autism has been warmly welcomed by the all-party group, as it removes some of the fundamental obstacles to progress.

Other key initiatives also delivered progress during the time frame. In the 2005-06 parliamentary Session, the Department of Health published a note to clarify the obligations of local authorities regarding adults with autism. That was the first Government document specifically on adults with autism. It stated:

“The current position whereby some people with an autistic spectrum disorder ‘fall through’ local services—in particular between mental health and learning disability services—is unacceptable and contrary to the intention of Government policy.”

Additionally, the launch of a Government-funded Autism Education Trust in November 2007 strengthened the focus on training teaching professionals and aimed to improve education support for all children with autism. In 2008, the Department of Health committed to developing an adult autism strategy, with the creation of a senior autism adviser post within the Department to ensure a continuing focus on, and sufficient attention to, autism. That adviser now provides leadership to local agencies in removing barriers that prevent those with autism from accessing the support and services they need. These Government commitments on autism signalled a real commitment to bringing about change. Progress has been hampered, however, by systemic shortcomings in the way information is collected and services are delivered.

The all-party group’s current research takes the form of an inquiry into the transition from school to adulthood for young people with autism. We have received an outstanding response from parents, carers, professionals in the autism sector and from people with autism. People have been extremely keen to tell us about their experiences of transition and the changes they would like to see to improve the services so that young people with autism can fulfil their potential, lead happier lives and make a positive contribution to society. For this reason, I was extremely pleased to read in the Minister’s letter of last week that the Government had confirmed their commitment to funding further research on transitions for young people with autism. When only 34 per cent. of students in mainstream schools are being issued with transition plans from children to adult services, that is an essential step forward. Can the Minister reassure me that this money will be ring-fenced to look specifically at improving transition for young people with autism? Additionally, as chair of the all-party group on autism, I ask the Minister if he is willing to share with me that strategy, ahead of publication.

One of the many themes that appears to be emerging from the all-party group transition inquiry is that, once past school age, many adults with autism—especially those with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s—are not deemed eligible for support by social services. I suspect most Members will have come across cases in their constituencies where that has happened. Many of those individuals are told that they do not fit the criteria for support from their local authority’s learning disability team, nor do they fit the criteria for the mental health team, and they therefore fall through the gap between the two services. Overall, 63 per cent. of adults with autism say that they do not have enough support to meet their needs. I therefore seek the Minister’s clarification about how the new strategy will tackle that issue and so ensure that local authorities and NHS bodies will be obliged to remedy the current failing.

First, like many Members, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing the Bill.

Does the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) not agree that the issue is far broader than she has described and that it involves not only social services, but other Government organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, which often provides advice on job opportunities, and that this Bill is needed in order to start a much broader debate about support for people with autism, particularly young adults?

The hon. Lady is right: the appropriate strategy needs to apply across society, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government’s proposals address that need.

Many people with autism, particularly adults, also face barriers to accessing services because social care professionals and others have inadequate knowledge of the condition. It is vital that those providing services to people with autism understand the disability and are fully trained to communicate with people with autism effectively and to facilitate them in explaining their needs fully. Can the Minister assure me that the new strategy will address that issue?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and the all-party group for the considerable amount of work they have done on this issue. I am struck, however, that she has asked the Minister on a number of occasions for reassurances on progress. Does she not accept that one of the best ways of being reassured about such progress is through the passage of this Bill today? If she is still reluctant to back it, will she explain why?

I refer again to the letter that went out from the National Autistic Society, which referred to today’s debate providing the opportunity to secure Government commitments that have been previously given, and, as chair of the all-party group, that is exactly what I am trying to do. I think that the Minister will have the opportunity to respond later and will be able to address those matters.

I want to allow other Members to speak and I have given way quite a lot, so I shall continue.

I want to ask the Minister not only about the new strategy addressing the issues I have raised, but about what specific steps he will take to address the lack of autism training for teachers, social workers and NHS professionals—and also other professionals, such as those at Jobcentre Plus, as the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) mentioned—so that they are capable of working with young and old people with autism. Will the Minister meet representatives from the relevant professional bodies and discuss possible actions to address that lack?

The autism strategy is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to effect a step change in service provision for people with autism, and improve the outcomes for them. I look forward to working together to provide solutions for children, adults, parents and carers affected by autism throughout the country.

May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing this Bill, and for the vast amount of detailed work she has obviously undertaken? We must also all reflect on the point she made that autism touches many people’s lives.

The Bill has undoubtedly been a catalyst for the Government bringing forward a raft of proposals and, like others, I welcome them. They cover both children and adults, straddling the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health, which is very important. This Government have really taken the agenda for children with special educational needs forward. All that is acknowledged.

In the past year, we have had many debates on special educational needs and children with disabilities, and in most of them we have raised issues relating to autism and to children with autism in particular. Let us consider the statistics that I and others have quoted on previous occasions. Some 45 per cent. of parents of children with autism say that it takes more than a year to receive support, and 50 per cent. of parents feel that their child is not in the right setting. More than one in five children with autism are excluded from school, 67 per cent. more than once. More than 40 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are bullied. An estimated one in 100 school-age children is on the autism spectrum. It is a developmental disorder—a hidden disability that is particularly reflected in a lack of social skills in certain settings.

We have been assisted in all our debates by the unstinting work of the National Autistic Society, and by TreeHouse in particular. I congratulate them on their continuing work.

TreeHouse, which is located in my constituency, does excellent work and is pioneering progress with autism and on the various measures available to offer help. It has just hired a transition officer as its first cohort approaches the age of 18. That is not the case throughout the constituency—many parents have terrible trouble and anxiety about transition; the facilities are simply not there. But even in the light of TreeHouse and the transition officer, nothing follows to assure parents that there is something for their children thereafter. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Obviously, I am very appreciative of the work of TreeHouse and would be very proud to have such provision in my constituency. Yes, there are huge gaps in available services. We can find examples of good practice; nevertheless, it just is not available to enough people.

I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and the all-party parliamentary group on autism for their work. “Half way there?”, which was published just a few months ago, outlines clearly the significant progress that has been made in many respects in the past five years, but that same document acknowledges that huge holes remain in service provision.

Throughout all our earlier discussions, early identification and intervention have been common themes.

My hon. Friend talks about the patchiness of service provision. Does she acknowledge that in that context, specialist knowledge within schools is a huge issue? That is not to be critical of the teaching profession; rather, I am talking about some of the training opportunities available for teachers in developing that specialist knowledge in our higher education institutions.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, although it is true that the Government have moved forward with initial teacher training on special educational needs, the first cohorts with such training will not come through until 2011; and yet, the Government have been pursuing an inclusion agenda for the past 10 years. These things must marry together.

Early identification and intervention is very important, but we have to recognise that some conditions need ongoing support throughout life, and that is of course true for many people on the autistic spectrum. Ongoing support and appropriate interventions are a requirement—a necessity. Such support has to be tailored to individual needs, and those needs will be very different, given the diversity within this condition. Support must be available at the right time, at the right quality and to all those with needs, so it is not just a matter of identification, important though that is.

I am told by health professions locally that diagnosis for children in Dorset is adequate, but I do not doubt that improvements across the country and in Dorset are necessary. We do have a Dorset children’s autism strategy, which is described as a good platform, but it has not led to a strategic plan for delivery and implementation.

I want to consider the different types of support required, and to start with parents. As we often say, parents, as first teachers, are with their children more than anybody else. They need to understand the condition of autism. It is not a question of just one or two sessions explaining the characteristics of autism in a particular child’s circumstances, but of continuing support. The more that parents and carers can understand, the more that they can help their children to develop. People with a child with autism cannot just turn to a textbook and look at straightforward processes of a child’s development.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the help available to parents, but does she accept that even in the medical profession itself, many professionals are poorly trained in these aspects of health delivery? The subject is little understood and there are significant needs in that regard, as well as in social services.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is absolutely right that there is a need for more training and knowledge across the board for any professionals who come into contact with people on the autistic spectrum.

We have a local parent group, which is very important, but a parent support group should be an add-on, not the main form of support. This group has had support from TreeHouse on how to negotiate with the local authority, which is interesting to note. Parents also need respite. I am extremely pleased with the Government’s programme Aiming High for Disabled Children. However, we in Dorset are a pilot for that, and professionals tell me that we have yet to see clear benefits in terms of children with autism being given respite care. That is an important issue.

Before the hon. Lady moves on from support services to parents, may I advise her on one point? In Blackpool, there is a specialist team that offers advice to both teachers and parents, advising them on the issues that they will face, including those as the child grows older. She mentioned earlier that there are examples of good practice. Surely one thing that must come out of the Bill is that, where good practice exists, it must be spread around the whole country, so that the gaps she referred to can be filled.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I could not agree more. We all know of examples of good practice and how frustrating it is when they are not spread right across the country. The spreading of such good practice must indeed be an outcome, as I hope it will be, of the Bill.

Parents face various issues in finding the right school, such as whether it should be a special school or a mainstream school, and the fight to get a statement. The situation is incredibly fraught for parents, and even within a given mainstream setting there will be teachers who, as yet, have not had that training. There are children with autism who, by the age of eight or nine, are perhaps struggling with the academic side but particularly with social skills. It has to be recognised that such children will often need a modified application of the national curriculum. They might not be able to cope with whole-class lessons; they need a quieter environment. There is so much to be appreciated.

Moving on to transition—

I am extremely grateful; the hon. Lady is generous in giving way. Does she agree that, more widely across the field of policy and in other legislation, the Government have a continuing duty to give particular consideration to people on the spectrum? For example, on the Government’s proposals for apprenticeships, in which I see much merit, does she agree that there should not be arbitrary academic requirements for accessing those apprenticeships? Such requirements might very well cut off opportunities for people on the autistic spectrum who would be well suited to an apprenticeship, but who might lack the formal academic qualifications that the Government have in mind.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I am looking forward to some productive discussions about young people with special educational needs in the context of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. There is a great deal to be said for offering alternative routes forward for children and young people with special educational needs, and I hope that successful amendments to the Bill achieve that.

I was very pleased to serve on the cross-party panel of MPs that was established to conduct hearings on services for disabled children. Of course, I should note that the vice-chairman was the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Among the horror stories we heard, it came through very clearly that parents felt that they had somehow got through school only to find that, lo and behold, they were faced with the transition stage. Time and time again, we hear that successful outcomes through transition can be achieved only by parents screaming for the services that they need.

We hear so frequently of the inadequacy of transition planning and communication between children’s and adults’ services, the lack of co-ordination between different services and agencies, and the lack of assurance of support when a statement comes to an end. We must have multi-agency assessment at the right time, and we need transition plans to be developed with families and appropriate goals to be set. I was recently given a local example when a young person on the autistic spectrum had a college placement and was in a class with a group of young people with mild learning difficulties. One might have thought that that would have been all right, but in fact it was not. That young person, because of their difficulties with social skills, could not handle the lack of structure outside class times. It just shows how much thought must go into everything and the special planning for individual needs that is required.

My hon. Friend has just given a sequence of facts that exactly mirror and reflect what a constituent of mine has told me. Sarah Oldfield has autistic children, but she also runs a web-based parental support group that extends beyond Chesterfield and Derbyshire to across the country. The parents with whom she is involved have made those exact points about the difficulty of getting information when a parent realises that their child is on the autistic disorder spectrum, the difficulty of getting a statement—the arrangements governing statementing can be appalling in some parts of the country and very good in others—the difficulty of getting proper support in mainstream education and the transition issues. Does my hon. Friend agree that the very fact that there is such diversity of provision across the country—from good practice to appalling practice—is why we need a legislative framework such as that proposed in the Bill to try to ensure that there is a more uniform approach? That is why I hope that the Government will adopt the proposals in the Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Our party agrees that we need that legislative framework.

Let me move on to adults, because I want to reflect on a few comments made by the Dorset adult Asperger’s support group. It has only recently been set up, but it reflects the problems of such adults very well. Each individual family has different needs. Asperger’s is an unseen condition in which there is no noticeable physical disability and it is mostly not recognised or acknowledged, not even by professionals such as social workers and GPs. The individual has a personality that does not fit in with the norm, with odd behaviour and obsessions, and often has an acceptable IQ that does not come under the definition of special needs, which means that they can fall through the gap between social services and mental health services. These adults can have depression and more extreme psychiatric conditions, and so they need to be seen by the mental health teams. Many live a normal life and can hold a job, but others are employable in a limited way and others are completely unemployable and struggle to fill their days. That can be a great strain on all concerned.

I have another local example that I want to mention. A young man got a job collecting trolleys at a supermarket, but he did not react very well to females. On one occasion, a lady customer asked him to move the trolley and he responded with very strong language, as one might imagine. There was a real lack of understanding from everybody. That example shows the support we need to offer: additional job coaching, teaching people how to deal with social gaffes and work with employers. We need to try to fill the social skills deficit.

The big problem is that many of those people fall between NHS and social service departments, particularly in the case of those with Asperger’s. The support group also said that those adults and their parents struggle with behavioural problems. Those adults need independence but are unable to be independent. There is a lack of suitable housing, and those with Asperger’s are often unable to claim benefits as many have difficulty in getting a proper diagnosis. What is offered to them is, as I have said, a Cinderella service. Indeed, the new criteria will make claiming the disability living allowance difficult for some of those people. They can also be socially isolated through the lack of facilities that can offer a professional approach and understanding. Once a youngster leaves full-time education, they are on their own. Parents have already gone through years finding the right place in education, often not succeeding, and, sadly, the fight goes on for parents until they die. That sums up some of the problems of parents who support adults with autism.

I want to congratulate the Wessex Autistic Society, which is an important organisation that provides valuable services in Dorset. I also want to highlight the importance of the voluntary sector. I have a special mission in that I feel that adults with autism need a key worker. I hope that the details of the Bill will reveal that such provision will be made, because I find that in constituency cases my office can become the key worker if I am not careful. It is absolutely essential to have a key worker when an adult is not claiming benefits, is building up debts and needs health and social services support. Somebody has to take ownership of that.

I am about to finish, if the hon. Members do not mind.

The Bill, which I wholeheartedly support, identifies the basic need for good information on which commissioning can be based. We must know what the needs are. Scarce resources must be used effectively. We need to know the requirements for services and support. Planning and commissioning must be preferable to reactive—or even a lack of—purchasing of services. Those services should offer value and quality. We obviously need to improve inter-agency working to secure effective transition for young people from child to adult services. If I was writing a report, I would classify the transition stage as poor and I would classify the current support for adults as dire.

We need work force training and sharing of good practice, and people must not fall through the gap. There are a lot of issues to consider, and I ask the Government whether the measures that they are proposing will provide the bite that is needed across all the issues.

My hon. Friend has made a number of eloquent and supportive comments about what the Bill seeks to achieve and, of course, she speaks for us all in that. Like many hon. Members who have spoken, I have received dozens of cards from constituents who are concerned about this matter. Does my hon. Friend agree that they will struggle to understand why, given the assurances that the Minister has been prepared to give, the Government will none the less not allow the Bill to progress? If they support so many of the initiatives—indeed, all the key initiatives that the Bill seeks to establish—why will they still not allow it to make progress? Is that not the only belt-and-braces way of ensuring that progress will be made?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I shall return to that point in my conclusion.

It is important that the Bill should move to Committee. There are a lot of questions—I have a long list here, which I will not go through because of the time available—and we need assurances about what the regulations will do. We need to know who will be included and whether children and young people with Asperger’s syndrome will definitively be included on registers. There are many questions to ask and they need to be tackled in detail in Committee. The Bill is about ensuring that we improve the outcomes for millions of individuals and families, because without the right support we know that they suffer profound and devastating effects.

We must approach the issue across society. I agree wholeheartedly about the need to involve Jobcentre Plus and the need to give all the advisers special training. The Liberal Democrats support the Second Reading of this Bill and we want to have further discussions in Committee.

Many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) were about adults and I entirely agree with the sentiments she expressed, but if the Bill goes into Committee, one of the questions that the Committee ought to ask is why the Bill contains no duties relating to the police and the courts, which often do not recognise the needs of autistic people, and no duties relating to the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus. If the Bill makes progress, perhaps the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) will discuss those matters.

I have never said that the drafting of the Bill is accurate or perfect—quite the reverse. I am flexible and, during the Committee stage, I would welcome amendments that improve the Bill and extend the benefits for people with autism.

I know that the hon. Lady has never claimed that the Bill is in its final form. My understanding is that she regards the Committee stage as an opportunity to debate the Bill, and I think there is even an implication that she does not expect it to come out of Committee—

If the hon. Lady lets me complete my comment, I shall then give her an opportunity to respond. If the Bill is not to complete all its parliamentary stages, we need to explore what the Government have to do to ensure that what desperately needs to be done for autistic people is indeed done, as a result of this debate.

I want to disabuse the hon. Gentleman. If, in Committee, details and cast-iron assurances are given, or if the Government have, in fact, completed and delivered the measures set out in the clauses, we could withdraw the Bill. The Committee stage will give us the opportunity to have detailed discussions; we could then bring the Bill back for Third Reading, when people will be able to see what shape the legislation has taken. It is subject to the will of the House, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

I entirely understand that that is what the hon. Lady envisages. At this point, let me congratulate her on introducing the Bill. She has done excellent work, and the very introduction of the Bill has focused the Government’s mind on ensuring that concrete progress is made. I congratulate her, her team and everyone else who has been involved in that process.

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 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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)?

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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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?

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

As the Minister knows, my comments are not personal to him, but I want to make sure that everybody understands what our experience has been. I have already made this point to the Minister during a meeting of the all-party group on autism. Some years ago—in 2001, I think—the Government produced a document called “Valuing People”. In it, they specifically excluded those with Asperger’s syndrome from having access to learning disability teams in social services departments. As a result of the furore that followed, the Government issued a Department of Health circular—I have it here—that is written under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. The circular has a lot more clout. It is a regulation written by the Department and circulated to local authorities. In this case, the authorities were told that they were required to make availability assessments for people with Asperger’s syndrome. The problem is that a learning disability is defined as having an IQ of less than 70. However, we know that members of the Asperger’s syndrome population can be of average if not high intelligence. Indeed, I venture to say that many of our academic university departments—particularly those specialising in maths and physics—are highly populated by people with the syndrome. They are very bright, intelligent people.

However, the horror of the condition is that those people may have that academic ability but they still have what is referred to as the “triad of impairment”. There are three characteristics that are common to all people with autism, wherever they are on the spectrum, including their ability to communicate and the impairment of social imagination and interaction. That means that there is the anomaly of people who at first sight appear to have nothing wrong with them. There is no white stick, but, like an iceberg, two thirds of their lifelong disability is below the surface. We know from well- defined research—including papers produced over the years by the National Autistic Society—by many people around the country, that such people, who are bright or of average intelligence, can see how the rest of the world turns and society behaves and try to be part of it. But, however hard they try, there is always a glass wall in front of them that they cannot break through. They are only too acutely aware that friendships, social relationships and all the things that make up how everybody else lives their lives are not available to them. If such people try and try and cannot break through that, there are consequences. The consequence, often among adults in their early 20s, who have made the effort to be part of the world and society, is that they develop serious mental health problems—not because they have autism, but because of their effort to try to be part of society. According to one National Autistic Society report, the suicide rate is 8 per cent. among the Asperger’s syndrome population. That is incredibly high.

We are talking about a condition that involves a spectrum and that on first sight might appear to many people not to warrant the support and attention from the statutory services that would help them through. We are also talking about a lifelong condition that is a life-and-death situation. Some of us have constituents who have experienced the death of an autistic child—not because the child had autism, but because life became too unbearable for them and they gave up. We would all give up if we had to experience such a condition without the right support.

The hon. Lady has made an extremely powerful point, particularly in relation to people of substantially above average intelligence. In the work that I do with those in the IT industry, I come across many highly intelligent, even brilliant people who find it very difficult to relate to what the rest of us would call normal behaviour. Right at the heart of this at the moment is the case of Gary McKinnon. I personally think it would be a tragedy if he were extradited to the US, because the courts have failed abysmally to take his Asperger’s syndrome into account.

These are very complex cases. In order to support people who fall foul of the criminal justice system—I have been involved in several of these cases—we need expert witnesses whom we can call to present the case for that person. I have raised on the Floor of the House on more than one occasion my concern about people with Asperger’s syndrome who fall foul of the mental health services when they are inappropriately treated, and that can also involve the criminal justice system. We are talking about support for people who need very specialised expertise, which is available to them in this country.

Many people with Asperger’s are highly intelligent but have difficulty coping with everyday life. The social services and the Department of Health have “tick lists” as to who will and who will not get some support with their everyday needs. Sometimes something as simple as providing a befriending service so that the person has somebody—age-appropriate, it is to be hoped—to have an evening out with socially can make all the difference to their sense of well-being.

Is not part of the issue that the hon. Lady is describing to do with the culture and leadership of the organisations and services that we are talking about? That is a real challenge for all of us in this House to try to move and shift.

I agree with the hon. Lady, whose knowledge of this subject is of extremely long standing.

That brings me back full circle to where I started, with the Department of Health circular. I am concerned that in order to deliver his promises on regulation, the Minister is going to lean on section 7 of the 1970 Act, as the Department did back in 2001. The circular that it produced told health and social services that they must now take account of Asperger’s syndrome and make assessments for it available. Whenever I am invited to talk to an audience of people interested in autism, I have made a habit of taking about 20 photocopies of this circular with me because increasingly it is totally ignored, yet it has statutory weight behind it. If this is the legislation that the Minister is going to rely on for his regulation, he will have to convince me that he will ensure that this can be implemented. To my certain knowledge—I am not exaggerating—I have given away hundreds of copies of this circular, not just to parents but to professionals, because they were not aware that it existed, and people have been denied access to services as a result. I know that this circular has been used in several court cases that have been brought to try to get packages for people with autism.

I know that many people in the House want to speak on this subject, although I hope they do not speak for too long. I want to give them a chance to do so but will just finish with this point. The Minister will know that the National Audit Office is concluding an extensive report on the subject of autism. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I was fortunate enough to visit Sir John Bourn and his team in January last year and ask them if they would report on autism, because the PAC has seen some excellent reports from them in recent years on subjects such as strokes and dementia. The PAC is of course interested in value for money in public expenditure, but those reports on dementia and stroke flagged up not only the economics of dealing with this population of people but the gaps in the system that have been mentioned many times today, and the human dimension of not doing something properly.

I am aware, as I am sure the Minister is, that the report on autism will be published in April. We look forward to its findings. However, if he does not let a Committee sit to scrutinise the Bill, I can assure him that his permanent secretary will appear before the PAC before too long, and we are not an easy bunch when it comes to letting people off the hook. The choice is his—he can either come and face the music in Committee himself or put it off until later in the year and let his permanent secretary do the job for him. I have always believed that ministerial office means that the buck stops on the Minister’s desk. It would be very good if he would think again about allowing the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham to be scrutinised so that the meaning of the words can be examined and the legislation got right.

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I have just come from one of my local primary schools, where the head teacher commented that the numbers of children being identified with conditions on the autistic disorder spectrum is growing, particularly among boys. There is therefore an absolute need for the provisions in the Bill, and we must get it into Committee.

I agree about the scale of the problem. I am not 100 per cent. certain in my own mind—I say this as a lay person—whether there is a greater prevalence now than there was before. I think that we are identifying more people on the spectrum than we did before. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), who was in the Chamber earlier, asked my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham to define autism. It is not new. It is relatively new for it to be talked about, and wonderful that so many MPs are talking about it. However, it is relatively new in this country in this context. It was first identified in the 1940s by a German called Kanner, and at about the same time an Austrian called Hans Asperger identified Asperger’s syndrome. Speaking as a parent who has a child who was born in 1971, I find that people understood autism in its most profound sense of Kanner autism, particularly at the most extreme end of the spectrum where children would have to be looked after for 365 days a year, might self-mutilate and would never have language. However, the other end of the spectrum—Asperger’s syndrome—was known in other parts of the world but was not recognised here until much later, long after we started the statementing of children in schools and suchlike. It is not new in that sense, but it is relatively new in this country for us to have a greater understanding of the spectrum and the condition. That is why we are now recognising that there are more such people, although I remain to be convinced that there are more now than there were.

It is not the last word, and I hope that my hon. Friend is not speaking for the last time on autism in this House.

At a time when we are talking about billions of pounds going into banks for bail-outs, does my hon. Friend agree it is important for people outside this House to understand the financial and economic scale of this problem? In November 2007, the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities produced a report estimating that the aggregate cost of supporting people with autistic spectrum disorder was already at that time £27.5 billion per year in the UK. That is the scale and the order of the issue that we are discussing.

Yes, and the Martin Knapp report that was published a little while ago considered the economics and the cost of this situation. I hope that the NAO report will address it as well, and that we will be better informed by that report. The interesting thing about the amount of money that is spent by social services is that when they provide nothing, or something that is inappropriate, at a lower level, they end up dealing with people in crisis later on, which costs them huge amounts of money. I worry about the associations local authorities make with autism—some of them, not all, as some of them are very good. Because they only ever hear about the crisis of autism, which means big bucks, they are terrified of the subject. As for low-levels of input, I mentioned something like a befriending service. Such a service would come low in the list of priorities in the assessments of most social services, but it could be a lifesaver for someone with Asperger’s syndrome.

I would like to start on the theme that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) just touched on—the causes and prevalence of this condition—because it is an interesting area. Her instinct is probably correct. There has been no increase in the prevalence of the condition, but there has been undoubtedly an increase in its recognition and diagnosis. That is true of a lot of illnesses. There is a view that certain things happen more frequently today, but it is actually a question of science moving on, and we now have the capacity to diagnose certain illnesses.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing the Bill, and I would like to touch on a couple of things that she and I have done in the past—before she slips out for a well-deserved cup of tea. She and I served on the Select Committee on Science and Technology during our first parliamentary Session, and one of the things we looked at was the development of human genetics. In our third report of the 1994-95 Session, we looked at a huge number of conditions that had by then been identified as having a possible genetic component. The order of incidence of most of these was one in 500, or one in 8,000—for example, one in 500 was diabetes type 1.

It is now recognised that autism may have a genetic component to it, but it is a condition with an incidence rate of approximately one in 100. Just a few years ago, a Select Committee, with all the expertise that it has at its disposal, did not bother to look at the matter because it had not come to our attention. It has crept up on this House rapidly in recent years, and it is only people such as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, with her personal experience, who have really understood what a terrible condition it is, and how prevalent it is. Whatever our disagreements about tactics today, we need to ensure that we use this debate to help to publicise and improve public understanding of this terrible condition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham on helping to make that happen.

The hon. Gentleman takes me back to those happy days when we were looking at the human genome project. We were concerned that identifying a genetic trait or a certain sequence identified with a disability might lead to people being discriminated against. We were concerned about protecting people and enabling them to have the best services that they could. Is this debate not just a continuance of those days back in 1992 and 1993? In this Bill, we are looking for the vehicle that will provide protection to people we can now clearly identify as having Asperger’s, and also, importantly, to those yet to come.

I totally agree. I hope that this debate will help us to get the legislation right, in whatever form it emerges, and to improve public understanding to the degree that we start to influence the way in which other Departments that may not be directly affected by her proposals react when dealing with cases—for instance, those of the bright people to whom the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred—where people get into trouble with the system. One example of this is when they go to job interviews, a point which the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) raised in relation to apprentices. Those are hugely important matters.

As I said in an intervention, I strongly believe that we need to ensure that magistrates and judges fully understand their responsibilities when dealing with cases that come before them. That is terribly difficult, because when somebody has done something illegal, the natural position to take is that they must be punished. Surely, however, in a civilised society we ought to take into account people’s mental state and their conditions. After all, nobody knows why the brain develops in the way that it does in the case of people with autism. Not having that knowledge does not give us a justification to lock people up and throw away the key, as society did at one stage. It gives us a responsibility, as a civilised society, to work on finding out the cause of autism. That is an extraordinarily challenging area of medical science, and we should seek to promote it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that our science budget for that is properly protected and that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions take autism issues into account.

The hon. Gentleman has now been speaking for three or four minutes, and so far he has not mentioned the Bill or the process involved. Will he assure us that he will not occupy much more of the House’s attention unless he intends to refer to the Bill, so that we do not find that he is trying to talk the Bill out?

I have to say that I think the right hon. Gentleman is being rather stupid. I am making a very serious point, and I hope that today’s discussion can be conducted with the correct degree of seriousness. This is a very important matter affecting all our constituencies, and to trivialise it and seek to use Friday games is not the way to handle it.

No, I will not give way, because the right hon. Gentleman has annoyed me intensely. I am making a serious point based on my knowledge, and I have no intention of trivialising the debate.

I indicated in my exchange with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton my experiencing of dealing with people working in high-end occupations who are very difficult to manage. I recall meeting a bright young man who was a leading researcher in a big IT company in California. I shall not mention the name of the company, because his name could be identified if I did. His leadership did not want the delegation that was visiting the company to meet him. When I asked why not, the response was deeply worrying. The company employed him and had respect for his abilities, but his leadership said to me, “You can’t meet him because he’s an animal.” His behaviour was particularly odd, but his technical output was extraordinary. Even in that case, the company had not quite got it right. I see the grimace on the hon. Lady’s face, and indeed that is not the way to treat such people. Yes, they should get such high-end jobs, but they need to be treated with dignity. All people with such conditions deserve that.

Autism is no longer attributed to how parents behave and so on, as it used to be: it is properly recognised. There is some interesting work on this on the websites of the NHS and the World Health Organisation. However, it has come to the fore only recently, because of the advance of medical science. The United Nations General Assembly recognised the condition only on 18 December 2007, as a result of a motion proposed by the state of Qatar, and it is among only three illnesses to have been given world awareness days. Those are hugely important changes. Similarly, developments are occurring locally.

Let me now refer precisely to the Bill. The problem is real because local authorities and Government agencies let down people on the autistic spectrum. I have already mentioned the courts, the Department for Work and Pensions and others that can do better. The Minister must ensure, by engaging with his colleagues, that other Departments buy into the policy. I agree that the statutory guidance issued under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 works only if it is properly policed and followed through rigorously.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister several specific questions. Will there be extra money next year to ensure that proper research can be undertaken into the prevalence of adult autism in particular? Will guidance issued to local authorities under the Bill or section 7 of the 1970 Act have statutory teeth? As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton pointed out, it should not be a case of simply putting something on to the statute book—just having it there does not deliver. Policing legislation properly means resourcing it, and I expect the Minister to confirm that that will happen. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), I am not worried about how things are tactically managed as long as the outcomes are correct. It is important to ascertain how statutory guidance to children’s trusts develops. The hon. Member for Buckingham is nodding. As my hon. Friend said, the guidance that we expect to cover children’s trusts will—by definition, I hope—cover a range of disorders, but we need to be assured today that that includes autism and the autistic spectrum.

What themes will the adult statutory guidance cover? Will it cover only the Department of Health, or will it be broader? The Welsh Assembly issue has already been raised in an intervention, so I shall skip that.

Perhaps the most important matter is transition. Many of us have experienced cases of local authorities, of all political persuasions, failing on transition. Some authorities, which deliver well on children’s services, have no provision for proper transition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) pointed out, they can fail even at the basic level of sharing information within departments. What will the guidance do about transition? Will it bring about the sort of change in regime that ensures that there is no longer a chasm between child and adult services?

My hon. Friend and I agree that there needs to be communication between children’s services departments and adult social care departments, but we need more than that. Children’s services departments have developed appropriate services for many children with autism, but one of the problems facing adult social services departments is that the services are not there for them to purchase and offer to adults with autism, so another outcome that we want from the legislation is the building up of such provision.

I fully understand that and respect my hon. Friend’s expertise. Transition is fraught with difficulties, which arise largely because local government, like central Government, has a silo structure. We have to avoid that. Support for an identified client of social services or educational services should travel with them, irrespective of their age or which part of the service deals with them. By focusing services on the individual client, we can ensure that bureaucratic obstacles do not get in the way.

May I recommend to the hon. Gentleman the excellent ROSE project—realistic opportunities for supported employment—which is run by Havering college of further and higher education? The project does exactly what he is describing, by enabling students with autism and other conditions to enter supported employment. They move from education into the adult world and, over a period in which support is gradually withdrawn, become independent in the workplace.

I am not familiar with that project, but it sounds like the kind of thing that needs to be developed throughout the country. It also fits with the observation that the hon. Member for Buckingham made about the Government’s apprenticeship programme. There could be a role for organisations in the third sector that can help that kind of transition to take place. That is quite an important area to consider.

Mention has been made of the cost. When my hon. Friend the Minister is arguing his corner and seeking resources for his Department in order to deliver the commitments that the House collectively expects him to deliver, irrespective of the vehicle, he needs to make it clear to the Treasury that, as has been said, doing nothing would impose some extraordinarily high costs on us all. Mention has been made of the book that Professor Knapp wrote, “The Economic Consequences of Autism”. We need to make it statutory reading among Treasury boffins, so that they fully understand why resources need to be directed towards my hon. Friend’s Department to ensure that delivery occurs properly.

My hon. Friend is suggesting that when the Minister makes the case to the Treasury for those resources—resources that he says the whole House would want—he should make certain arguments. Is not the best way for the House to amplify the Minister’s arguments to give the Bill its Second Reading and then test the issues further in Committee? That would allow the Minister to make a compelling case to the Treasury and others about the priority that the House attaches to the issue and its proper resourcing.

I totally agree with that. Clause 8, which refers to expenses, says:

“There shall be paid out of money provided by Parliament…any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of this Act,”

and so on. If the Bill were enforced properly, there could be a net saving to society, by removing the burdens that are placed not only on the criminal justice system but on a range of Departments.

My hon. Friend the Minister will have found, when he has tried to negotiate for clauses to go into a Bill, that there is always pressure from those in the Treasury who say, “We can’t have that because of the cost.” Here, there is prima facie evidence from the work of Professor Knapp to demonstrate that the enormous cost to society could be reduced if we managed our services better. So I am making a plea to the Minister not to be suckered into a discussion with the those in the Treasury about how much these measures will cost, and instead to convince them that the work of Professor Knapp and others adequately demonstrates why this would be a wise thing to do, financially.

The hon. Gentleman and I have worked together on a number of issues over the years, and I am listening to his contribution with respect. What is more, he and I are partners in the House of Commons tennis team, so he knows that I intend him no slight or discourtesy, but may I, in all conscience, appeal to the hon. Gentleman, whose credentials I do not doubt, to conclude his remarks soon, to give others a chance to contribute and the Minister an opportunity to respond to the points made by other hon. Members in their short speeches?

Actually, I am about to conclude my remarks, so the hon. Gentleman does not need to appeal to me, either as a tennis partner or as anything else. He is a very good tennis partner, as the Minister knows. There is cross-party co-operation in all sorts of areas, which sometimes surprises the public. I have even played tennis with the Leader of the Opposition—

No, I am sorry. I will not give way. I can see that the right hon. Gentleman—the drummer in the band—is going to lead me astray, and I want to conclude now.

I have asked my hon. Friend the Minister a series of specific questions, which are key to determining whether either the Bill, in its current form or with amendments, or statutory guidance based on the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, can deliver what the House expects him to deliver. I hope that he will take on board all the points that have been made by colleagues on both sides of the House, and ensure that the House takes a leading position—it would be a leading position, because not many countries have really taken on board the needs of people on the autistic spectrum—so that we can say that we have done this by working together and with the National Autistic Society in the interests of people on the spectrum and their parents and families, as well as of the whole of society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who has worked tirelessly throughout her time in Parliament to introduce measures to support children and adults with autism. Parliament, and Members of Parliament, attract a lot of criticism these days, but the work that she has done is a shining example of what still can be done by this place to improve the lives of others.

I also congratulate the National Autistic Society on all its work, and the many other charities that are involved in this area. The “I Exist” campaign is one of many that has contributed significantly to raising awareness and achieving some of the changes that are needed. Of course, I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing the Bill. I know how hard she has worked, into the small hours, preparing for today and gathering the cross-party support that we have seen.

Autism is different, because there is no other condition of such complexity that affects so many, and about which so little is still known. We have heard many statistics today, but one of the most striking was the figure of 2 million. It referred to the 2 million people who are affected by autism, including the parents, the siblings, the carers and the families. No one who is unaffected can truly understand what these people’s lives are like: the wide yawning gap they fall through between learning disability and mental health when autism is neither of these. For some parents caring for children with autism, there are no holidays and no time off—just 24-hour care every day of every week. This private Member’s Bill provides an opportunity to make that better.

Shortly after I was elected, I met some parent carers locally who were looking after children with profound disabilities. They felt angry and let down and were utterly exhausted. With the help of Carers Support Guildford and Carers Support Waverley—I pay tribute to their work—we set up a group locally. Carers Support was fantastic; it had an open day last year and intends to repeat it. It provides an opportunity for parents to drop in and meet some of the local charities and statutory services, attend workshops and meet other parents. Not all these parents have children with autism, but many do. Despite the best efforts of charitable and statutory services, many are isolated, lonely and struggling on their own.

The Bill would change all that. It would combat the lack of information about children and young people with autism. It would give local agencies obligations to include their needs when they plan their services. It would ensure that services around transition—a crucial area as children move towards adult-focused provision—are maintained seamlessly. For young people—and not just those with autism—this period is a trap door through which many fall, as hon. Members have mentioned today. The Bill would ensure that the needs of adults with autism were truly recognised. In a word, it would give people—children and adults—a chance for a good quality of life: the physical and mental well-being that most of us take for granted.

I would like to highlight a few important issues for the Minister. The section 7 agreements, much debated today, have not worked for people with Asperger’s. The 2006 Department of Health guidance requires local authorities to nominate a strategic lead or team on autism, but only 39 per cent. have done so—in other words, more than half have failed to do so. The costs due to loss of income from employment and the direct costs to families are estimated at £27.5 billion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned.

Another statistic to pick up is that, because of the lack of support, a third of adults with autism suffer from severe mental health problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the 8 per cent. who commit suicide. If we drill down into the repercussions, they are truly dreadful. People with autism not only lack support, but suffer from mental health problems—severe mental health problems—on top. We then need to turn our attention to the fact that people with mental health problems have significantly worse physical health. What this third of adults lacking support face is a spiral of deteriorating mental and physical health, dreadful misery, hardship, loneliness, poverty and isolation, sometimes ending in suicide.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and the all-party parliamentary group. I hope that she will decide to support, not block, this Bill. She failed to explain in her interventions why she objects to the Bill going into Committee. The bottom line is that it will be on the record and easy to see who wanted the Government commitments examined with the Bill as a vehicle and who blocked the Bill and walked away from scrutiny of the Government.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) covered many points and the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) raised the interaction between people with autism and the police, pointing out that the Bill fell short in some ways. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham accepts that, but this is precisely the point. The Committee stage would offer all of us the opportunity to work through the detail and add and subtract in order to get the very best possible services. A Committee stage could only add to services. It would take nothing away. There really is no downside.

Will my hon. Friend briefly address, in the course of this powerful sequence, the Minister’s claim in his letter that

“Legislation could make delivery of change more difficult”?

Is she aware of any respect in which this legislation could make delivery of change more difficult?

That is an interesting point, which I had intended to discuss later. I can see no way in which proceeding with the Bill would make anything more difficult, and I hope the Minister will take account of that in his response.

The hon. Member for South Thanet said that he wanted cast-iron guarantees. The only way in which to secure such guarantees, and to secure the very best for people with autism, is to give the Bill a Committee stage. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) referred to the criminal justice system, and pointed out that section 7 orders were effective only if enforced. Along with the hon. Member for South Thanet, who asked for those cast-iron guarantees, I do not doubt the Minister’s commitment. It is not that I do not trust him or what he says; I just feel that unless the Bill goes into Committee we will not maintain the impetus or secure the legislation that is needed, because section 7 orders simply are not good enough.

The details of the Government’s proposals need to be examined properly. As we have heard today, debate on them is crucial, and can only enhance the services that are eventually provided. We need an opportunity to go over every detail of the proposals, and to flesh out precisely what they will mean for a child or other person with autism.

In his letter to all Members, the Minister said that he would launch a consultation on a strategy on services to support adults with autism, that it would have bite, and that he wanted outcomes to be delivered. He said that the strategy would include statutory guidance, which would, however, be subject to consultation and assessment of benefits. I note that slight qualification. Let me say this to the Minister: do not hold back. Join the cross-party consensus on the Bill, and let it go into Committee so that it can be examined in detail. I am not sure that any statutory guidance will work, and I hope that today’s debate has raised doubts in the Minister’s mind as well.

The Government have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide. They should welcome the opportunity that the Bill gives them. If they do not support the Bill, we have to ask why. What exactly is worrying them? Why do they not welcome the opportunity to put their proposals on record and showcase them in the open in Committee? My fear is that they are allowing politics to get in their way and are playing a rather shoddy political game because they cannot bear the fact that the Bill has been introduced from the Conservative Benches. That would be a terrible shame, because I see no reason at all for them to block it. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham—backed up by some generous observations from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that this is a cross-party issue. It is not about politics; it is about people with autism.

I ask the Minister to put aside his politics. I ask him not to block the Bill and sell people with autism short, but to put his shoulder to the wheel, welcome the Bill into Committee, and do what is right for the people with autism whom it aims to serve. I ask him not to make this into a fight, but to use his energies to join us all—including his Labour colleagues—so that we can make a real difference.

I have huge regard for the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), and I promise him that I will not speak for very long.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on choosing the Bill, running with it, and putting a real Government focus on all the issues that it raises. I also hugely congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). I suspect that, before I came to the House, she was a lone voice on autism. We have made significant progress over the past few years, however, and she has particularly flagged up the issue of people on the autistic spectrum who happen to be adults. That is what I also wish to focus on. There are two reasons why. First, I am a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so I cannot stray too far—I am merely moonlighting from the Minister today. Secondly, I recognise that there is a long way to go in respect of adults with autism, as I stated when I had the honour to second the Loyal Address.

It is worth putting on the record that there has been progress and that the agenda has moved forward, especially since the setting up of the all-party group in 2000 by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who has spoken in this debate and to whom I pay tribute. From the outset, the group has received invaluable support from the National Autistic Society. Rightly, every Member who has spoken has paid tribute to it, and I do, too; its skills, knowledge, encouragement and utter professionalism are second to none.

One of the first steps the group took was to survey Members. I recall the feedback from that, and it was quite shocking. A significant number of Members in the year 2000 had not even heard of the word “autism”, and quite a few of those who had heard of it had no idea what it was. I recall that a Member—who is still a Member, and actively campaigns on a range of disabilities—asked me at one of the first meetings: “Can it be cured?” We were on—and we remain on—a learning curve. Although autistic spectrum disorder has been known about for some time, it has only come under the spotlight, and therefore been a little more understood, relatively recently.

Another early move by the group was the launch of its 10-year manifesto in 2003. We were operating then from a pretty low base, but the 2008 “Half way there?” mid-term review makes it clear that there has been progress, although much more in terms of services for children with autism than in terms of adults. There have been one or two green shoots in that regard, however. For me, the most welcome announcement came last year when the Department of Health announced an adult autism strategy and the creation of a senior autism advisory post within the Department to keep the focus constant. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who was a Minister in the Department of Health at that time and who fought very hard to get that full-time expertise.

We have heard this morning some shocking statistics on adults with autism, such as that 63 per cent. say their needs are not met and only 15 per cent. are in full-time work, out of an estimated population of 300,000. We all know from having met people on the spectrum in our surgeries and communities—and, indeed, in our families—of the entire further dimension of the thousands of adults out there in the country who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and way beyond who have never been diagnosed.

I welcome the strategy—and particularly the announcements alongside it from my hon. Friend the Minister, and the proposed process to achieve those outcomes that will make a difference—and so does the NAS. The strategy sits alongside other announcements that feed into the process. I know this has been mentioned several times, and that the Minister will cover it when he winds up the debate, but I want to say that the prevalence study must go ahead as we have to get a grip of the quantity issue.

Publishing the good practice commissioning guidance in April is also a very good step. However, a note should go with it to every authority and NHS body saying that a strategy with teeth—however it arrives—is coming down the track, and that this guidance should not just be stuck on a shelf; people should actively get on with it. The National Audit Office study on the extent of existing services and how they meet the needs of adults regarding health, social care, employment and carers is timely in the context of this process.

The scope of the strategy itself has to be broad enough to deliver the service––which is currently not being delivered in a comprehensive way––that we want to see. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to assure me on this issue and to be guided by those whom he asked to define the boundaries. The question of scope is extremely important; it can be narrowed but it cannot be widened, so let us have everything of concern in that remit as we go forward.

Nobody has said very much today about the process that the Government intend. When I spoke to the Minister privately on seeing this debate coming up, I was particularly interested in the question of who was going to be guiding the process. The external reference group is incredibly impressive. It consists of the chief executive of the NAS, Mark Lever; parents; people with autism; local authorities; mental health services; the voluntary sector and academics. The group needs to be as wide as that because we have to have that expertise in this process. Autism is a hidden disability and the issue is as much about culture as it is about practice and making practice work.

Reference has been made to Jobcentre Plus. The steering group is intergovernmental and will include the Departments of Health, for Children, Schools and Families, and for Work and Pensions—the latter will cover Jobcentre Plus—and, again, Mark Lever. The range of consultees needs to be extremely wide, and there must be a place for Members of this House in the group. It is crucial that they are part of the consultation.

We have identified some of the issues on which improvement is really needed. Data collection is crucial. There is the question of people falling into the gap—of 52 per cent. of people with particularly high-functioning autism being told by mental health and learning disability teams that they do not fit the bill. That is shocking.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that local authorities be encouraged to collect information not only on the number of adults with autism, but on their actual needs?

Absolutely, and that brings me nicely on to training.

Training is also a central part of the approach. However much we manage to improve services for adults with autism, training is absolutely key and must be delivered—both initially and ongoing—in professional development. We are talking about GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, social care workers, mental health services, Jobcentre Plus—I could go on but I am not going to as I am mindful of the time. Part of the issue is the huge cohort of people who remain undiagnosed and who need to get support within the system.

The implementation of whatever measures are decided on is crucial. We can have a Bill, translated into an Act, and we can have regulations. We can have clause 7 and statutory guidance but both can be flouted simply because of ignorance, or because of lack of understanding and leadership in the organisations that we want to push this agenda forward in order to improve services for adults with autism. I wait with bated breath to hear what the Minister has to say, but I think that the outcome of the process could be more wide-ranging and robust than could be achieved by going into Committee at this point. However, I shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to say.

The strategy needs to be carefully thought through and it needs time to do its work. It also needs to be brought out within a reasonable amount of time and to be given teeth. It needs to be resourced, ambitious and long term.

I want to make an extremely brief speech. The debate today has not actually been about the Autism Bill, and I have not yet heard anybody who suggests that it is anything other than a very good idea. The subject of the debate has been about whether the Bill is necessary, about the Minister’s claim in his letter, to which I referred in an earlier intervention, that

“Legislation could make delivery of change more difficult”,

and about whether the Minister has a better method of doing it through statutory guidance. His claim is that there will be statutory guidance, that there will be money behind it, as detailed in his letter, and that it will be a more effective method.

First, there is no evidence that such a method will be more effective. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who has a long record of interest in these matters, is extremely clear, as I have been from my constituency activities, that the existing statutory guidance often produces no effect. Why not? Many of those on the ground do not know that it exists. My hon. Friend pointed out that if it is invoked in court, it is effective, but the problem is that the Department conspires through inaction to allow it not to be known by many of those on the ground. That would probably also be true of further statutory guidance.

Secondly, and more importantly, there will probably never be any statutory guidance or, if there is, it will probably take a very long time. Why do I say that? I accept that I am being slightly more rebarbative than some of my colleagues, who have been very generous to the Minister, but I have some personal experience of this in the recent past. I spent some hundreds of hours on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and we negotiated extensively with a parallel and equally admirable and well-intentioned junior Minister. The officials in the Department were extremely resistant to the Act and a series of documented assurances were reported in Hansard, each of which has been falsified. In particular, an assurance was given that a detailed spending assessment would be produced for all the money spent by central Government in every locality in Britain. That has not been produced. Not only has it not been produced, but a total travesty of that assurance has been produced. Are the Government embarrassed? Not in the least. Where is the junior Minister? Somewhere else. What is the Secretary of State saying? Nothing. She will not attend meetings or answer questions.

To quote an earlier intervention during a speech by a Labour Member, “cast-iron” guarantees were given but they have been falsified in practice. Does that and can that apply to the present case? Certainly it can. We have the evidence of the prevalence studies, which have not happened. No mention of them is made in the Minister’s letter. There is no explanation of why the prevalence studies have not happened.

The fact is that the junior Minister does not have the capacity to deliver, the Department shows no sign of the will to deliver and—this is my main point—however well-intentioned the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families are, the Government have all sorts of other priorities. I do not blame them for that. We are in the midst of an enormous national crisis.

Only one person matters in this Government. It is usually the case that the one person who most matters in a Government is the Prime Minister, but in this Government only one person matters and that is the Prime Minister. We have had neither sight nor sound of the Prime Minister’s being involved in this matter, and I would not expect that, because he is concerned with a major national crisis. The idea that the junior Minister can stand at the Dispatch Box and guarantee to the House that provisions including the expenditure of significant sums of money, legislative time and his Department will be delivered is plainly ludicrous. We do not know whether they can be delivered and the Minister does not know whether they can be delivered.

I now come to my fourth and final point. The truth is that if the Government as a whole were genuinely signed up to delivering what the Minister says that he wants to deliver, they would allow the Bill not only to go into Committee, but to come out of Committee and to become an Act. All it does is seek to deliver the same things as the Minister says that he wants by other means to deliver. Nothing about the Bill would prevent the Minister from issuing statutory or other guidance if he wished to do so once the Bill was an Act. The only basis that the Minister has for trying to prevent the Bill from becoming an Act is the statement in his letter that

“Legislation could make delivery of change more difficult”.

I have yet to understand on what basis such an assertion could be made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) said during her excellent speech, there is no evidence that legislation will make the delivery of change more difficult. Indeed, there is every reason to suppose that legislation will make the delivery of change easier. Why? Because there will be better understanding on the ground of what is required; the Government will be subject to a stronger requirement to enforce what is required; and, in the final analysis, it will be easier for people to take cases to lawyers and the courts, because what is required will be clear in primary statute.

The facts are that the Minister has no argument, no effective jurisdiction and no guarantee, he cannot offer the House a guarantee and he has no logic to back him up, other than the logic of trying to make sure that the Government are not constrained to do the things they say they want to do. There is therefore no reason for the House to believe that they will do those things better without the legislation than they will with it. I hope that my Conservative colleagues and others in all parts of the House who share our ambitions will support the Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has rightly introduced.

Like many others, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on choosing this important subject for her private Member’s Bill. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), the chairman of the all-party group on autism, and its previous chairmen, my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Erewash (Liz Blackman), both of whom have contributed to the debate.

The all-party group, of which I, too, am a member, has done an amazing amount of work in recent years, especially in producing the autism manifesto and now in continuing to press the Government to make the improvements that the group has identified, with the support of the National Autistic Society. The NAS has played a key role in raising awareness of autism and of the need to proceed with that agenda.

I also congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the many initiatives introduced in recent years and especially his new announcements in response to the Bill. As Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, says in his letter, the measures set out by Ministers cover all aspects of the Autism Bill. So why are we still here debating the Bill? We are debating it—I say to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that I intend to discuss the Bill—because we are determined to get it right this time. That is why we making our comments in this debate and why we are seeking reassurances from the Minister.

We know from our constituency experience the difficulties encountered by many families who have children with autism, especially if those children are adults, in accessing appropriate services. I know it also as a result of the work that I did with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on the parliamentary hearings on the review of services for children with disabilities. Children with autism and their parents came to us and explained the problems they had encountered at a series of levels, from getting the initial diagnosis through getting the health care and support they needed and then getting appropriate education provision. Above all, they described the real problems with the transition from children’s services to adult services. We need to get this right, because, as other speakers have said, although there are examples of good practice, gaps in provision remain and we have to fill them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. Unfortunately, the Minister has just left the Chamber, but does she agree with me that it is about time that we heard from him, so that he can put the promises on the record and subsequent speakers can challenge what he says? The Minister has said that we can put the debate to bed and not send the Bill to Committee, so is it not about time that we heard him give those guarantees in this Chamber, so that the remaining speakers can start to undertake the scrutiny that I want to take place in Committee?

Much as I admire and respect the hon. Lady for introducing the Bill, I think that I might annoy some of her colleagues and mine if I suggested cutting short the debate. She has all-party support, and everybody in the Chamber feels as passionately as she does on the subject of the Bill. As one of its sponsors, I want to ask some questions, and I hope that somebody is making notes or will at the very least tell the Minister what my questions are when he comes back into the Chamber, because I want some answers, too.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we would not want to prevent any colleagues from making a contribution, but the fact is that the Minister could make his contribution now, and then the debate could continue, because we have until 2.30 pm. That would not insult colleagues on either side of the House; subsequent speakers would like to have the chance to question the Minister on the subject. The hon. Lady and I should press the Minister to speak in this debate as soon as he possibly can.

I am sure that many colleagues on both sides of the Chamber want to make points that the Minister could then address—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is an hour and three quarters left for debate today, so there is plenty of time for all Members who wish to speak to do so, and for the Minister to respond to all the questions asked. If the Minister were to speak now, it would mean that those who spoke afterwards would not get answers to their questions. If the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) plans to move a closure motion, as I suspect she does, I hope that she does not do so prematurely, and that those of us who wish to speak have the opportunity to do so.

Order. Perhaps I can be helpful. It might be sensible if, rather than getting into the mechanics of the debate, we carried on discussing the Bill.

As always, I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I intend to address the purpose of the Bill. There are three main areas: information gathering, the delivery of services to people with autism, and the transition to adult services. The Government have already addressed many of those issues, but clearly there is still some way to go. We do not have a national register of people with autism, and even if one were set up, it would be extremely difficult to maintain. As hon. Members have said, some people, especially some people with Asperger’s syndrome, are never diagnosed, and so are never included in any information. However, we ought to make the effort.

Some effort has been made; a variety of organisations have attempted to get statistics through epidemiological studies or surveys. More efforts are now made by local authorities to try to collate information via schools. However, we need to do more, so I welcome the Minister’s announcement—I am pleased to see that he is back in the Chamber—that he will address those issues, and I welcome the Department of Health’s £300,000 investment in the prevalence study, which will give us some sound information. The information is wanted not just to satisfy the needs of statisticians, but to enable us to develop appropriate services to meet the needs of people with autism.

The excellent House of Commons research paper on the subject gives an account of the range of existing statutory support for people with autism. There are few references in legislation to the needs of people with autism, but through guidance, the Government have made sure that legislation applies to people with autism, or people with autism spectrum disorders. I note that there is guidance on how direct payments and individualised budgets for people with an ASD can be used. That will be an interesting way forward, because if people on the autism spectrum—or their carers or family, in certain circumstances—are given control of budgets, they will have a say in the sort of services that they want. If a theme has run through the debate, it has been the paucity of services for adults. If, through individual budgets, new services can be developed, it will certainly help to plug the gaps that we have all identified.

As has been mentioned, standard 8 of the national service framework for children also has an autism spectrum disorders exemplar, which illustrates how children with an ASD are to be covered by the NSF. The Department of Health has made special reference to children with autism in its document “Healthy lives, brighter futures: The strategy for children’s and young people’s health”. The document was accompanied by a practice guidance note for local authorities. In spite of that, however, there are still gaps in service.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said that she wanted a named person to offer advice to families, and she knows that I have campaigned long and hard for a key worker system for children with disabilities. The guidance note that I mentioned referred to the need to

“Ensure each young person and their family/carers are supported by a single ‘trusted adult’ contact who will liaise with services, support, the young person and their family/carers.”

I am not sure about who the trusted adult is supposed to be, but the guidance note makes specific reference to the issue that the hon. Lady has raised and I have campaigned for.

Towards the end of my contribution, I shall speak about examples of good practice in my constituency, but I say now that not all areas have that key worker—that trusted person. Yet such provision is so important to families with autistic children.

I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s comments. I am sure that other hon. Members would find them equally interesting if only they were listening. This is a serious debate, but the House seems to be getting rather restless and Members may not be paying the attention that they should to this serious issue, especially given that somebody is speaking about it in such detail.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and I shall continue to draw attention to the importance of the Bill, even if some people are no longer interested in it.

I welcome the Department of Health announcement in May last year of the £200,000 for research into the process of transition for autistic young people. That research focused on young people’s experiences, including their mental health needs, social care and housing needs, further education needs, opportunities for leisure and access to transport, and the ease of their access to services.

I ask the Minister also to consider the impact of different funding arrangements on the choices that local authorities sometimes make about the provision of services for people with autism. I ask because I know of some problems for young people who are in specialist residential provision. They usually stay in such provision until they are 19. However, given the split between children’s and adults’ services, they are sometimes asked to leave the specialist provision, in which they have often done well, when they reach 18. Their situation is then taken over by adult services, which do not include similar specialist provision for them. We need to look at who pays for the continuation of service during that transition stage. We must make sure that if the young person still needs education once the budget of the children’s department has been used to deliver education until 18, the adult services budget is allowed to deliver that education so that there is continuity during the run-in to adult services.

There is also an issue of placement in adult services. If an adult with autism is placed in their own tenancy, supported by care workers, they will have access to housing benefit and a series of welfare benefits that reduce the cost to the local authority. If they are placed in a specialist residential provision, they do not have similar access to the range of benefits. I hope that the needs of the individual will come first, not money. Will the Minister consider that point? Transition arrangements can be very difficult. Sadly, all too often adults with autism are expected to fit into existing provision, but they cannot do that. They may have the external characteristics of many people with learning disabilities or mental health problems, but autism is different, and so the response has to be different. That is why we need to ensure that there is more specific provision for people with autism. I recognise that some individuals, whether children or adults, can fit into a more mainstream provision; indeed, many can go to work. However, those at the more severe end of the spectrum need their particular needs to be properly addressed. That is why local strategic planning is essential. There are incentives in the Government’s document, “Aiming High for Disabled Children”; we have to aim high for children with autism.

I would welcome comments from the Minister on the commissioning guidance that he is due to publish in April. We need to ensure that we achieve the outcomes of the Bill through new regulations, which will state that local authorities and their partners have to have regard to the population of disabled children, including children with autism, when drawing up their children and young people’s plan. What will that mean in practice? For adults as well as children, the commissioning guidance will be vital in ensuring that the outcomes that we all want are put into practice.

Let me say a few words about good practice. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to a school in his constituency, Hillside school, which serves children from Lancashire and elsewhere. I visited that school, many years ago now, and I know what good work it does. Lancashire county council has a whole series of initiatives, including an under-fives autism programme, the Stone Hey unit attached to Broadfield special school, support for parents through an early bird programme, and a Portage scheme, which can help families with children with autism. I also see good practice in Blackpool, which has a long-standing complex disabilities team who now liaise much more closely with the child and adolescent mental health services. The team has four members, who are trained in an autism diagnostic schedule. They train teachers and help parents. They work closely in the community in a multi-disciplinary way, including joint working with Connexions and the adult health services in Blackpool to provide a youth service for children with ASDs. They have a youth club for young people with Asperger’s syndrome.

Things are happening; the trouble is that they are not happening everywhere. I support the Bill, because we are all on the same side in wanting to improve services. I look forward to the Minister’s comments and the reassurances that he can give us on the way forward. We are all, I hope, practical politicians, and we want to put in practice the things that we have been debating. I look forward to the advice that he can give us on how best to proceed.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on introducing the Bill, and on the way in which she spoke this morning—eloquently, sincerely, knowledgeably, movingly and with the legendary courtesy for which I think I can safely say she is renowned in all parts of the House. I would like to echo, too, the tribute that she and others have rightly paid to the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse and the miscellany of other organisations—13, I think—that form part of the coalition to drive forward the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), in his incisive fashion, made a completely unanswerable case for the Bill to go into Committee. For the avoidance of doubt, I say to the Minister of State with responsibility for health and social care, whose integrity and commitment he knows I do not doubt for a moment, that the reason we need these measures in legislative form is simply stated. We are talking about a minority of people. They are an important minority and an increasingly articulately represented minority, but a minority nevertheless. Unless there is statutory provision for their entitlements, the danger is that, inadvertently if not calculatedly, because of all the other priorities of local, national, statutory and voluntary agencies, the interests and needs of the autistic child, young person or adult will tend overwhelmingly to be either relegated or ignored. That is why, in the absence of a critical mass of such people to trigger change on a regular basis, we need to take the opportunity to proceed with the Bill and to extract a series of legislative commitments. That is the statutory fail-safe that the autistic community seeks and is entitled to receive.

I want to be brief, and specifically to pose a series of questions to the Minister, with whom I have engaged over a long period on issues of this kind, and in whose answers I am profoundly interested. First, the Minister has said that the Government will commit £200,000 from the transition support programme to the funding of research into transition from childhood to adult services for people on the autistic spectrum. Will the Minister today guarantee in terms that that £200,000 will be explicitly ring-fenced for that purpose and that purpose alone? Would he be good enough to tell me and the House when the money will be made available, through whom it will be channelled, and what assessment of the nature, extent and results of the work will be made?

Secondly, the issue of training has rightly been addressed by the Minister and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. He will know that in practice it has often been difficult to get explicit commitments on particular training programmes. Will the Minister guarantee to meet the professional bodies to advise on how, in practice, the training commitment can be taken forward, and will he bear in mind that there is a difference between saying that there are opportunities for, and an availability of, training on the one hand, and saying that in practice the children’s work force, the health service work force and the other individuals who are relevant to delivering better services will attend training courses with the back-up funding of staff required to translate the aspiration for training into the reality we seek?

Thirdly, the draft strategy in April and the intended final autism strategy in December are an ambitious project. I do not sniff at it, but it is an ambitious project with a tight time scale. Can the Minister assure the House today that the time scale is not such as to inhibit the strategy, or to put it another way, can he confirm that the strategy will be absolutely comprehensive, so that we do not go full circle on the issue?

Fourthly, I ask the Minister in all courtesy to make one other commitment that would offer some reassurance. Will he undertake in his contribution to answer every point that has been made by a right hon. or hon. Member today, and in so far as time prevents him doing so, would he be good enough to undertake to write to Members whose questions or challenges he did not answer, and to place a copy of what I am sure will be an illuminating and comprehensive reply in the Library?

I conclude by saying that there are two reasons why we have to address these issues, rather in the superb manner that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham did, and do so in legislation. First, it says something important about the political DNA of our society if we are prepared to commit to a vulnerable section of the population whose needs and interests have for too long, under successive Governments, been inadequately recognised. Secondly, it is not just a matter of being nice, decent and compassionate. It is also a matter of the authentic self-interest of UK plc. If we can address the problems, deficits, weaknesses and denials of opportunity from which people on the autism spectrum suffer, we will be playing into many other agendas as well. Tackling those issues is relevant to the fight against antisocial behaviour and the challenge of improving mental health. It is important to the objective of securing better educational outcomes and bolstering the qualifications, training and expertise of the work force. It is profoundly relevant to the future prosperity of UK plc in an age in which a job for life is a relic of the past and the premium placed on knowledge, skills, practicality and the ability to communicate and engage is greater than ever before. I look forward with interest and respect to what I am sure will be a comprehensive response from the Minister.

I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), although his speech was rather shorter than I would have liked. I enjoy his speeches, but I totally understand why he kept his remarks short. I do not intend to speak at great length, but I am a sponsor of the Bill, and anybody who knows me will know that I take a great interest in special educational needs and disability. I have therefore prepared a thorough contribution, and I will resent any accusations that I am playing Friday games, which I am certainly not.

I am delighted to be able to speak in the debate, and I offer my warmest congratulations to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on her success in the ballot and, more importantly, on her excellent choice of topic for her private Member’s Bill. I was lucky enough to find myself drawn second in the ballot last year, and I know not only how instantaneously popular a Member who is successful in the ballot becomes but the deluge of work that accompanies the privilege.

The hon. Lady might agree that choosing a Bill is difficult. I see it as a choice between plaudits and pragmatism, although that is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive. She has shown great skill and endeavour in achieving what I believe to be an excellent package of measures to support those in our society with autism, and I congratulate her on doing so. Incidentally, I watched her on “Question Time” last night, and I thought that she looked remarkably perky this morning considering the busy schedule that she has had this week. I commend her for her warm and moving comments on that programme about Jade Goody, with which I concur entirely.

When given the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, it is easy to shoot for the stars, but success is often found when our feet remain a bit closer to the ground. We all come into politics to try to make a difference, and the consequences of the hon. Lady’s work will have a positive impact on thousands of lives and families up and down the country in the years to come.

The case for more action on autism is clear-cut and compelling. It is a condition that affects how people relate to the world around them, as numerous Members have said. People with autism can find it difficult to empathise and communicate with others. Communication, interaction and imagination can all be difficult. It can also have other behavioural consequences such as a love of routines as well as learning disabilities. It is understandable that society is lagging behind in fully supporting and including those with autism, given that they often find it difficult to express for themselves the steps that would improve their quality of life and access to wider opportunities.

Public understanding has been stinted because autism exists on a spectrum and is manifested in varying degrees. Today marks acknowledgement of the lack of information about autism and the lack of awareness by schools, the Government and members of the public. No studies have been carried out on adults to ascertain the prevalence of autism. The only existing estimates are worked out from the 2001 census. As part of the National Autistic Society’s “I Exist” campaign, I contacted my local authorities to find out how many adults with autism lived in each of them. One did not hold such information and the other could tell me only how many attended a specialist day centre—fewer than 20, if I remember correctly. That is obviously not representative of the 1 per cent. of society that we understand to be autistic.

We should not—thanks to today’s debate, we cannot—downplay the wider impact of autism. Approximately 500,000 people are estimated to have autism and around 2.3 million people are affected by it. They include family members and professionals, who are involved in the care of people with autism. Yet a deficiency remains in the information that the powers that be hold about the prevalence of autism among adults and children and its effects on them.

When I was researching my private Member’s Bill, the autism charity, TreeHouse, researched a series of parliamentary questions from the past 10 years. The results show that 551 questions were asked about autism, relating mostly to health and education. The questions reflect the consensus about the great need for diagnosis, research, treatment and data collection. The report recommends that the Government consider collecting information centrally to gain an understanding of local authorities’ needs. Although the report was originally published to support the aims of my private Member’s Bill—now the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008—it is clear from the National Autistic Society’s “I Exist” campaign that concerns remain about the quality and quantity of the data that are available and their use to benefit those on the autistic spectrum.

Lack of information has been highlighted through a difficulty in diagnosis in schools. Forty per cent. of all children with autism wait more than three years for a clear diagnosis. Boys are four times more likely to develop autism than girls. The condition can also lead to behavioural difficulties, and 25 per cent. of children with an autistic spectrum disorder have been excluded from school at least once.

More than 40 per cent. of children with autism have been bullied at school. According to an Office for National Statistics 2005 study, 42 per cent. of children with autism have no friends, compared with only 1 per cent. of other children. Recognition of those saddening and shocking statistics has already led to action by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

In May 2008, the Department published guidance on how to prevent and tackle the bullying of children with special educational needs and disabilities. The National Autistic Society was consulted about developing the guidance, and one of the case studies focuses on an autistic pupil being provoked by bullies and how a school successfully responded to that.

The Department funds the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the national strategies to work with local authorities and schools to ensure that the guidance is effectively implemented. It is also producing a DVD to be launched in 2009 for use in schools to show why pupils should not bully disabled peers. I know that the Department is already working with the National Autistic Society, Mencap and other disability groups to examine the characteristics of young people who are bullied, and it will publish a report in the autumn.

The existing statistics also reveal an urgent need to focus on training staff in our schools to identify children with autism accurately. I was pleased to secure a commitment from Ministers to undertake a review of the effectiveness of the inclusion development programme in upskilling teachers to support the needs of SEN pupils. The university of Warwick will independently evaluate the use of the IDP materials, reporting in 2011, with interim reports in the meantime, and I welcome that action from the Government, which shows a commitment to finding out what is working and what is not.

In addition, in June 2008, the Training and Development Agency launched a comprehensive training resource for providers of undergraduate primary initial teacher training. It included 18 taught sessions, including one specifically focused on recognising and supporting children with autism. This summer, the TDA will launch a resource for secondary initial teacher training, which will include a taught session on autism and self-study tasks for primary and secondary postgraduate certificate in education courses covering the same ground. A similar approach will be taken in materials for newly qualified teachers, which are due out next January. Work is under way, therefore, but we all agree that it is not enough.

A lack of public knowledge about autism has led to a general misunderstanding of the condition, which has often been left aside. Parents and people with autism are frequently confronted with a lack of understanding of autism. Improved data collection would lead to a better understanding among organisations, educational services and local authorities. Such information would enable a stronger evidence base for long-term planning and help to allay concerns that the existing approach is too short-sighted.

We are all aware of the patchwork quilt of provision that affects services. There is no guarantee that a child with autism in one area will get the same quality of service as a child with autism 10 miles down the road. Better information can help to ensure an even geographical spread of services. Parents giving feedback to TreeHouse shared fears that children with autism would fall through the net because of a lack of co-ordination among services, the inadequacy of transitional arrangements between children’s and adult autism services, and a lack of education and employment opportunities. That is why there is a clear case to be made for local authorities and patient care trusts to work together to secure the best interests of children.

The Autism Education Trust was launched in November 2007 with funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Its role is to raise awareness of the importance of appropriate educational provision for children with autism, to bring organisations in the autism education sector together and to include children and young people, together with their families, in the planning of improvements in autism education. That fantastic remit is capable of delivering fantastic results. The Autism Education Trust held its first national conference yesterday, which I understand was well received, and it will have my full support in the years ahead.

Although education dominates much of the discussion about how to support those with autism and improve their life chances, there are people of all ages on the autistic spectrum. Finding employment is often difficult. It is estimated that there are about 332,600 people of working age in the UK with an autism spectrum disorder. Of that number, just under half are of average or above average intelligence. Despite that, research by the National Autistic Society has shown that only 6 per cent. of all people with an ASD have full-time paid employment and that only 12 per cent. of those with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome have full-time jobs.

The problems with social interaction can prove a barrier to people searching for a job. The National Autistic Society suggests that the best way to recruit is not always by through an interview, but through a work trial. Not enough is known about the help that is available to employers who take on a person with a disability. The DWP access-to-work programme aims to meet the additional employment costs arising from disability, and there are other schemes out there to help. However, we need to let potential employers know about it. We also have to burst the myths about autism to secure fairer access to the workplace.

There are many myths about autism. One quarter of people think that it is mostly children who are affected, yet we know that in an average constituency, around 3,000 people will have autism. Many people think that autism sufferers have special abilities in English or maths, but this is normally untrue. Only two in five people know that there is no cure for autism.

As I mentioned earlier, last year the National Autistic Society launched the “I Exist” campaign, which highlighted the lack of information available for adults and the misconceptions about autism, which can lead to poor treatment in society. The aim of the campaign was to make people think differently about autism. It involved adverts, campaigning and sending information to local and national Government. But how long will it take for people to begin to think differently about people with autism.

Given the low numbers of adults with autism in employment, TreeHouse estimates that the annual cost of autism to the UK is £27.5 billion, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, who is not in her place now, said. It is unacceptable—not just for our society and our economy, but for the thousands of lives that are not being fulfilled—that those who can work are unable to do so because of societal ignorance. Given all the recognised problems that we face, the focus that the Bill places on the shortfall in service provision for people with autism is as timely as it is welcome.

The Bill introduces a requirement for the collection of data on people with autism by local authorities. Data on children will be registered annually by each local authority, and shared with the relevant partners, as set out in the Children Act 2004. This will allow for local flexibility. The Bill also places on the Secretary of State a duty to advance the provision of services by local authorities and the NHS, and requires local authorities to work for a smooth transition from child to adult autism services, allowing for data collection by children’s services to be used for adults.

The Bill also covers the provision of staff to deal with child autism, and provides for diagnostic services for adults, work force training requirements and sharing good practice at regional and national levels. Only two local authorities currently have a system in place to collect the relevant information, and the NHS and local authorities must, as far as possible, work to promote independent living for people with autism. All this is needed. As I have already said, I hope that the requirements to collect data will be fulfilled in a way that makes constructive use of the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008, which will mean that data collected in our schools do not simply fall into a void once children leave school.

The impetus that the Government are placing on co-operation between local authorities and primary care trusts will help to ensure appropriate data sharing. This stage of transition is crucial in ensuring that the benefits of identification and support are not lost, which is why an extra £200,000 is being found for more research into the subject, to ensure a good transition between these groups. With improvements in teaching and many of the obligations set out in the child health strategy, there will also be a growing focus on earlier identification and intervention.

Wider measures, including child and adult mental health services, services for children with speech, language and communication difficulties, and the £770 million invested in the Aiming Higher for Disabled Children programme, will all help to improve the status quo. At this point, I would like to commend the sterling work done by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on the Bercow review.

Further improvements must come through a greater understanding of what achieves the best results. This is a problem that needs to be tackled, and it involves engaging with local communities, voluntary sector experts and carers to work out strategies that can overcome the existing difficulties with local information collection. Joint strategic needs assessments will be critical in providing better services for people with autism, and I hope that the Government can offer an assurance that autism, as well as other high-incidence special educational needs, can and will be included in such assessments.

I understand that Ministers have undertaken to look at issuing guidance that will address concerns about the commissioning of appropriate services and consultation across the full autism spectrum. I know that one of the bones of contention over the Bill concerns the teeth of the national strategy for autism. That is why I am pleased that the National Autistic Society will now be so closely involved with the development of such a strategy.

Following the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, the Department for Children, Schools and Families will offer consultation on new regulations and statutory guidance for children and young people’s plans. This will ensure that the needs of all disabled children are properly addressed. The Bill deals not only with autism, but with other special educational needs. I know that the National Autistic Society has been keen to confirm that there will be specific mention of autism in such guidance, and my understanding—which perhaps the Minister could confirm, if he has heard me—is that there will be. I am more than happy to take him at his word on this one.

The Government have made a far-reaching and thorough series of commitments, which could not have happened without the groundswell of support led by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and driven by the National Autistic Society. I know that thousands of people have lobbied their MPs on this matter, and I congratulate everyone involved. This is a great achievement, and the measures that the Government have set out make it clear that they have listened to what is needed.

The Government aim to drive improvements on local services. There is not one aim of this Bill of which I do not approve, and I am delighted that the National Autistic Society and TreeHouse are so pleased with what this process has secured. Of course, one or two things need ironing out of the commitments that we have been given. The situation relating to section 7 guidance under the Local Authorities Social Services Act 1970 is unclear, and we will need to give greater clarity on how it should be interpreted. I share the hope—and, in fact, fully believe—that the national autism strategy will be comprehensive and that it will deliver the opportunities of the 21st century to those with autism. It should contain references to the fact that all children on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s, need to be on the register for children with disabilities.

In the light of the Government’s proposed measures, I wonder whether the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, along with the Minister, might like to consider one or two questions, whose answers could set a precedent and carry ramifications for any future Government. It is right for the Bill to prioritise needs, but is it right to prioritise them with a Bill that deals with a single impairment, when we could help many more people by tackling the barriers to learning and life that people with a wide range of disabilities and special educational needs need to overcome? Much has already been achieved by the Bill and Second Reading is not yet complete; and I do not think that so much success has been won at such an early stage before.

I am delighted that the need to address weaknesses in services for people with autism has been highlighted. It is gratifying to see that the need for better information has been emphasised yet again and I cannot stress enough the urgency with which those responsible for implementing change must ensure that information held locally is used locally in order to deliver improvements nationally.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham on her choice of Bill and on what she has achieved for those with autism. I also congratulate Ministers on their willingness to accept that more can be done, and on setting out to get it done as soon as possible. I know from my own experience last year how much work goes into such a process, and all involved deserve a big “well done”. We must remember, however, that the real winners from today and from the process of the last few weeks and the weeks to come will be the hundreds of thousands of people with autism, for whom the 21st century should now seem a whole lot brighter.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on securing this Second Reading for her Bill. As many Members have already remarked, her efforts have built on those of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who introduced a similar ten-minute Bill previously.

On behalf of every Member, I want to say that we have had a very meaningful debate this morning. Every Member with an interest in these matters wants to thank the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham for raising the profile of this important issue. I also want to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who could not attend today. I have worked closely with her to develop the Government’s proposals in this area. Between us and across our respective Departments, the Government certainly need no persuading of the need for action on autism.

Let me thank Members of all parties who have spoken—some have only been able to intervene—with passion and commitment. What they said has sometimes been based on their personal experiences, sometimes on the views of their constituents who have autism and their families and carers. Quite rightly, Members have called for more to be done in their constituencies. I particularly congratulate Members who have been, or are involved in or have chaired, the all-party group on autism: my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), a former Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman).

It is invidious to name specific MPs in a debate, and the quality and calibre of this morning’s debate has, I think, been quite outstanding. Just as MPs here today have shown themselves to be steadfast champions of a very just cause, I hope that every MP will follow their lead in pressing for change at every level. I certainly want to take the opportunity, like others this morning, to record my thanks to the third sector organisations that provide services, advise on policy and campaign for change. I particularly thank the National Autistic Society, with which both the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families have worked in close partnership to develop the new policies that we have the opportunity to debate today.

I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and many other Members who have spoken on a great many of the points raised in contributions. I want to respond to the specific points that the hon. Lady and others have mentioned, but more than that, I want to take the opportunity to give the cast-iron reassurances about the Government’s intentions that Members have requested from me. I shall do that by describing our autism strategy in detail. I want to put on record what that strategy will contain, what it will achieve and how we will ensure that it delivers on its promise. I am not sure which Member said “We are all practical politicians and we want to establish the best way to proceed in order to do what works”, but that is absolutely right. We need to ask what action we can take following today’s debate to assure individuals with autism, their families and their carers that we are taking action swiftly and effectively to address the concerns before us.

It may reassure the Minister to learn that boroughs such as Bromley, which are not necessarily known for supporting central Government diktat, support this Bill and want it to become law so that they will be made responsible for registering those who suffer from autism, thus ensuring that people on the autistic spectrum and their carers receive the help that they need.

I am glad that some authorities want statutory pressures to be put on them to meet their obligations, and, as I shall explain shortly, we will be doing precisely that by providing statutory guidance. I hope that all authorities are as welcoming as Bromley.

I shall be dealing with these points in detail, but I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

In the letter that he sent me on 19 February, for which I am grateful, the Minister wrote:

“Legislation could make delivery of change more difficult for children”,

and went on to suggest that steps could possibly be taken without recourse to such legislation. However, he has just told my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) that he felt that a statutory framework would be a good thing. Will he elaborate on that?

That is exactly what I intend to elaborate on, by explaining how the statutory guidance that we wish to provide, which will flow from the national strategy for adults with autism, will address key issues at local level without creating the risk of rigidity, inflexibility and inability to deliver change that might be unintended consequences of other measures.

Will the Minister explain how the statutory guidance will lead to the development of more services? Last Monday I visited an excellent day facility run by Autism Initiatives in Blackpool, but there are very few such services specifically for adults with autism. How will the overall strategy and the detailed commissioning strategy lead to more good services of that kind?

My hon. Friend was eloquent earlier in describing excellent practice not just around the country generally, but in her constituency in particular. We want that excellent practice to be replicated throughout the country, so that pockets of excellence become the mainstream norm in meeting the needs of adults with autism. The new strategy that we will launch in April will be subject to a major consultation in which many such questions and issues can be addressed. Once the strategy has been developed, we will be able to issue statutory guidance based on it, enabling every local authority to understand its obligations and the work that it must do to assess need, provide services, involve people in the development of their local strategies, and improve their work forces.

I intend to cover these points in detail when I am able to do so, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Does the Minister not accept that it is far easier to ensure that local authorities do not misunderstand or misinterpret guidance—as they often do—if it is put in a Bill that will subsequently become an Act?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall say a great deal more about the guidance that we will publish, but the key question is whether it is statutory. I shall be describing the range of measures that we will introduce to ensure that best practice is replicated so that individuals with autism, and their carers and families, receive the services that they need. Those measures will include not just statutory guidance but back-up in the form of leadership, delivery mechanisms and relentless pressure across all regions to ensure that what we talk about happens in practice.

I rise to seek clarification from the Minister. There has been a lot of confusion in contributions on this matter. Irrespective of whether we have this Bill, there will have to be guidance in order for the Minister to fulfil his promises. With the Bill, it would be guidance issued under clause 5, under which the Secretary of State must set out regulations. Without the Bill, regulations will still have to be made. Either way, it is vital that it is statutory guidance.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can argue about which primary legislation the regulations sit under, but the fact is that we wish to introduce that statutory guidance, and I will address the detail of which Act we wish to use for that statutory guidance when I reach that point in my remarks. I should, perhaps, add that this is only in regard to adults. In addition to that statutory guidance, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families intends that the Bill on apprenticeships, children, schools and learners will also be the Bill from which will flow statutory guidance on children with autism. In that case, there will be statutory guidance on children and young people’s plans—not the adult side, but the children side—that will flow from different legislation. That statutory guidance will spell out what is expected from local authorities in respect of children with autism when they draw up their children and young people’s plans.

Will the Minister therefore confirm that what he has started to set out at the Dispatch Box, and what he has already circulated widely to Members, will still be implemented no matter what happens to this Bill? In other words, will he confirm that he is giving his personal undertaking as a Minister of the Crown that he has already set out what he will deliver, notwithstanding anything we do with this Bill and whether or not it goes into Committee? Will he give me his personal ministerial guarantee that he will still go ahead with all those provisions, and that nothing from the procedures in respect of this Bill will prejudice anything contained in the memos and letters that he has already sent out?

If this Bill proceeds to Committee, I cannot say what effect that will have because we do not know what the outcome of the debate there will be, but what I can say is that all those measures that I have written to every Member about, and that I wish to repeat here at the Dispatch Box, are cross-Government policy—they are what we wish to implement as a Government. I also have to say how inordinately proud I am to be the Minister of State for care services announcing these measures—building on the success of the past, which I wish to refer to later—and putting forward what I think will make 2009 a year of profound, massive and substantial advances in meeting, and developing services to meet, the needs of adults and children with autism, their families and their carers.

As a starting point, I want to describe an experience that made a great impression on me, and I hope it will have a similar effect on other Members. Several Members have spoken very eloquently about why the matters under discussion are important. Earlier this week, I visited an arts exhibition that showcased the winners of the National Autistic Society “I Exist” creativity competition—various Members have referred to this excellent campaign. All the winners have work shown at the exhibition and they all deserve tremendous credit, but I was particularly struck by one image. It was a photograph by a gentleman called Danny, whom I was lucky enough to meet on the day. He is 48 and has Asperger’s syndrome, and he is clearly a hugely talented photographer. His winning picture is truly exceptional. In the foreground, there are four children, all silhouetted, and partially shrouded by a thick mist so that it is not quite clear what is going on in the picture: are these children sheltering from something, or queuing, or playing? If we look closely, however, we can just make out other people in the background—a group of adults, some of them so faint they look like ghosts in the swirls of the mist. The impression of this photograph is enigmatic, haunting, exotic and thoroughly mesmerising—it is a brilliant piece of photography, and a deserving winner.

However, what really hit home—what knocked me for six, in fact—was Danny’s reply when I asked him what inspired him to take that shot. He said that the image summed up his life with autism. The photograph, by the way, is called “Children in the mist”, and that, for me, sums up why we need more action on autism. That is the human cry that I believe we must answer. We must bring people such as Danny out of the mist. We must provide new clarity, confidence and certainty to their lives. We must help them to escape the feelings of isolation and fear and the dislocation that that picture embodies. I am sure that no one in this House would disagree with that aim. It is what the hon. Lady’s Bill seeks to achieve and that is entirely commendable, but the question is: what is the right way forward?

I want to describe a fuller picture of what we are doing, but today’s debate has focused on the measures we have recently announced—we have just been having an exchange about those—to drive forward our plans for improving the lives of children and adults with autism and their families. The hon. Lady said that she was delighted and thrilled by those measures, and I am glad that she said that. I will go into them in more detail later, but let me give a summary of the measures as they stand.

First, as I have said, new statutory guidance is promised for children and young people’s plans that will specifically refer to children on the autistic spectrum, and which will flow from the enactment of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. We want to create robust systems to ensure that data collected on children with autism are then shared with adult social services to bridge that transition gap. There will be extra resources—an issue on which the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) pressed me. There will be £200,000 to research the challenges faced by young people with autism in their transition to adulthood, and yes, we will of course make sure that those resources are spent on that task.

We will be spending that money this year. The hon. Gentleman can get further details on exactly when and how from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, who is responsible for that issue in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. That is an important area of expenditure for researching the challenges faced by young people with autism in their transition to adulthood.

There will be extra funding next year for the Autism Education Trust—a total of £500,000 in 2009-10—to promote better commissioning skills among local authorities and primary care trusts, particularly in the field of education. There is also funding—£300,000—to research the prevalence of autism among adults. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) and others, we will be researching that prevalence because unless we have that information, how can we plan the way forward? In April, we will publish new commissioning guidance for PCTs and local authorities on the strategic planning of health and social care services to meet the needs of adults with autism. I make that point because of the importance that others have placed on the need to join up health and social care, making sure that the organisations are working together.

In April, we will launch the consultation on a new national strategy for adults with autism. There will be four pillars of reform in that strategy. They have been developed not by the Government but by an expert external reference group to which other Members have referred, led by Mark Lever, the chief executive of the National Autistic Society. The four pillars of reform for adults with autism are, first, better specialist and mainstream health services, and secondly, tackling social exclusion, including employment. I will say more about how we go about that; some excellent examples were given earlier of activities to help adults with autism get into voluntary and paid work. The third pillar is improved choice and control for adults with autism, not least through the much better personalising of services—we discussed individual budgets and the value that they bring—and the fourth is improving the skills and knowledge of the staff who work with adults with autism.

Surprisingly, the four pillars do not include law and order and the criminal justice system. Will my hon. Friend get hold of a copy of the Maryland curriculum, which is the programme used in the state of Maryland to train its courts and police officers, and send it to the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor? Will he ask them to use their powers to issue the same sort of guidance as he is talking about for the health services and social care to the people responsible for dealing with autistic people when they enter the criminal justice system?

My hon. Friend has raised an excellent point. That goes to show that we need to have a big debate this summer as we roll out the national strategy. I dare say that members of the external reference group, who will be watching this debate and reading Hansard afterwards, will take into account both the plea that he has made about a possible further pillar of reform and his suggestion of what that pillar might be. The national debate will be a vital vehicle for taking forward exactly these kinds of contributions so that we have a strategy for autism that meets the needs of adults who have those experiences. The national external adviser we have appointed to help us, Elaine Hill, who is a very experienced person, is particularly concerned about what happens to those people with autism who end up in our criminal justice system as offenders. Their needs are not understood and they are in completely the wrong place to deal with the issues that they have to deal with in their lives. My hon. Friend is knocking on an open door, and I will ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of the appropriate people.

The strategy and the pillars of reform for adults with autism are underpinned, as I said earlier, by statutory guidance under section 7 of the 1970 Act subject to consultation and assessment of benefits as we take through the development of that national strategy. We might have disagreements in this Chamber about which statutory footing to use, but I am convinced that this is the right way forward and I want to say more about that in a second.

Strong leadership is needed to back all that up. It is vital that nationally, regionally and locally we drive forward the implementation of change. However, as has been asked, even with statutory guidance, is change actually delivered? It is vital that at every level we have people driving forward the action that we need to ensure that the good practice that we have heard about in the Chamber today is replicated around the country. I remind the House of our recent announcements about the delivery of plans and resources that will benefit children with autism through our new child health strategy, the review of our children and adolescent mental health services, our work on “Aiming High for Disabled Children” and better training and support for professionals in mainstream education.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said that she wanted to secure lasting change, and I want to echo those words. I listened with great interest to her speech and those of other Members, not least that of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), but I am still left with the impression that the proposals are not the best means of securing the outcome that I have been describing—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will allow me, I shall now say why I believe that.

We all know that legislation can be a very blunt and crude instrument for driving through change, especially when the end we seek is better awareness and better use of the expertise and resources that are already in the system. We need to preserve for councils the freedom and flexibility that they need to meet the complex web of local needs—not to avoid them, but to meet those needs in ways that are relevant to them in their area. We need an approach that ensures appropriate and relevant action on autism in every area and that complements the ambitious work that is already under way across mental health and social care. I want to say more about that in a moment. We need to give local authorities the scope and skills that they need to zero in on the specific needs of people with autism.

I shall make it clear later that we are not working from a standing start. Other Members have been kind enough to highlight examples of where the Government have made a difference.

I have had lengthy discussions with my local education authority, primary care trust and other agencies. Specifically on providing local information and more effective support, which is outlined in the Minister’s document, they have told me that having that provision on a statutory footing would set an obligation on them that they would have to fulfil. At present, it is a voluntary matter.

I agree—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. That is why we intend to issue statutory guidance for children and young people’s plans as part of the apprenticeships Bill—if I can use that shorthand. Statutory guidance will also flow from the national strategy for adults with autism, which we will launch in April.

It is refreshing and encouraging to hear that, but there is a huge amount of detail that needs to be discussed. Surely that would best be done during Committee stage.

That is certainly one approach that we could take, but people are asking for two things: a strategy that has bite and a debate to take place so that we can deal with all the details. I assure the House that the adult autism strategy would not look out of place in a “Jaws” movie. It will have real bite—

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question put accordingly, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.