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National Autism Strategy

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2010

We have held a wide-ranging consultation to develop the national strategy for adults with autism, which has included contributions from an external reference group, adults with autism, service users, family members, staff and many third sector organisations. We have received more than 1,000 responses, and the work is progressing well. I am pleased to say that the strategy will be published in the first week of March 2010—that is, in just a few weeks’ time.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer, and the fact that the strategy will be published shortly. Will it specifically encourage the development of local specialist teams such as the Sheffield Asperger’s syndrome service, which is doing excellent work in diagnosis and the provision of support? He will be aware that the National Audit Office has identified such local specialist teams as providing particular value for money.

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the value of specialist teams such as the one that she described. The strategy for adults with autism will include services for those with Asperger’s. It will cover adults across the complete spectrum, as we discussed at the reception that you hosted recently, Mr. Speaker, at which many Members were present. I cannot pre-empt what the strategy will say when we publish it, but we have heard many strong arguments for specialist teams, particularly in relation to diagnosis. There is not just one model—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) cited one in Sheffield, but there are others around the country. I would certainly like to encourage those developments, while also enabling local flexibility so that variations can suit local circumstances.

Can the Minister confirm that the strategy will incorporate all the recommendations of the National Audit Office report on autism, as promised to the Public Accounts Committee by the Minister’s Department and the Department for Work and Pensions?

The hon. Lady, along with many other Members, played a crucial role in helping to develop the Autism Bill and the autism strategy, so I would like to place on record my thanks to her and other hon. Members. I know that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is not in her place, but she was also critical to that process.

We have had a number of discussions about the content of the strategy. The hon. Lady will have to wait until it comes out before I can say what it is, but we have certainly been mindful and supportive of many of the NAO recommendations. The NAO was helpful in highlighting areas to be included in the strategy. If the hon. Lady can wait just a few more days, she will see that we have developed a thoroughgoing response to its concerns.

A number of representations have been made to me by the support group in Halton and by parents of autistic children about whether the tribunals that hear the appeals on special needs and the education provision for their children are knowledgeable enough about the needs of children with autism. Within the strategy, will it look to ensure that the people who sit on those tribunals have the knowledge and background to be able to take fair and equitable decisions?

I just want to emphasise that the strategy is one for adults with autism, although I appreciate that my hon. Friend’s question was about the needs of children, statements made to the tribunals and so forth. However, the strategy will address issues connected with transition, when young people move from childhood into adulthood. My hon. Friend raises a key general issue—the training and awareness of professionals whether it is those sitting on tribunals, GPs or others in the system. We are very aware of that, so a key part of the strategy for adults with autism will be to raise general awareness, so that their needs are not overlooked in the years to come.

The consultation document set out five main themes, but I understand that the draft strategy deals only with two of them and repeatedly refers to existing workstreams that could be broadened—an approach that has failed before. The external reference group, which was disbanded in January, responded collectively, raising concerns about that approach, so why did the Government refuse to engage with that important group of stakeholders at such a key stage in the process?

Chair, we—[Hon. Members: “Chair?”] I apologise profusely, Mr. Speaker, forgive me.

The autism strategy, Mr. Speaker, has been developed in what I see as a co-production; we have worked jointly with a range of organisations, including the external reference group. I recently met the chair of that group to go through key features of the strategy. The external reference group saw the early draft of the strategy, but it has changed quite significantly since then, taking on board many of its concerns. Frustratingly, I repeat that I cannot say any more about it at this stage, as we will publish the strategy in a few days’ time. I am absolutely convinced, however, that the external reference group and Members across the Chamber will be pleased at the progress we are making in what amounts to a landmark strategy for this country.