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Criminal Justice System: Adults with Autism

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2018

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am pleased to have secured this debate on a crucial topic that affects the lives of many adults with autism and the families who support them. The debate is about adults with autism and what happens when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

It is understandable that a lot of focus in this place and elsewhere is given to children with autism—that is right given the need for educational and other support for them, their parents and their families—but autism does not cease to be an issue when someone turns 18 and becomes an adult. Many of the services that might be available for children with autism fall away when they become adults. Parents get older and it is often more difficult for them to cope. Adults with autism face a complex world outside of full-time education where the behaviours and traits associated with autism are often poorly understood, misinterpreted or even sometimes mistaken for criminality. I will say some more about that in due course.

First, I acknowledge the work of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, which has been supported by the National Autistic Society and many other campaigners. That work has resulted in recent positive developments in the criminal justice system for adults with autism. I congratulate the APPG on successfully securing the support of the former prisons Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). He wrote to all prisons in England and Wales encouraging them to undertake autism accreditation. Pleasingly, one prison has already been accredited. According to the APPG website, seven more are undergoing that process, but, with well over 100 prisons in England and Wales, there is a long way to go in making further progress.

Recent cases featured in the press, such as that of a young man called Marcus Potter, show that the use of the prison system can exacerbate the condition of those with autism, rather than act in the public interest. The system can cause deep distress and problems. In this case, a young man with an autism diagnosis from the age of three got into trouble for his compulsive filming of the local police. The judge decided to release him from prison, opting for a care plan and probation instead. The judge concluded:

“The worst place for you is where you are”.

There is a lot of work to be done in relation to adults with autism and prisons. There may be Members who want to say something about that in this debate.

Just on that point, I have the privilege of chairing the Westminster Commission on Autism. I do not know whether my hon. Friend saw its recent report on the barriers to healthcare. All these institutions, whether they are in criminal justice, health or whatever, have to give special consideration to people on the autism spectrum. Those environments can be very hostile because of the nature of that challenge.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing on that commission and the work he has done around health. One of the complexities with such a debate on autism relates to the Department that should be answering. I do not think I am giving away any state secrets by saying that I received a phone call from the Government asking, “Which Department do you think should reply to your debate?” I do not blame the Government for that—having been a Minister, I understand how Government works—but one of the key problems is the difficulty in ensuring that services are joined up across the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. All those things play into each other. Even though today’s debate is specifically about the criminal justice system, it is inevitable that other issues play into it.

Does the hon. Gentleman think it might be worth the Government considering, with Cabinet Office oversight, the creation of something like the covenant and veterans board? That would ensure that every Department had someone absolutely focused on the issue. Autism affects every Department and how we make reforms. Such a board could drive the agenda much more comprehensively through the system.

I think that is an excellent suggestion. In my experience in government, to get Departments working together and to make progress we have to bring Ministers together, not just officials. Those Ministers have to understand and be passionately committed to making the change. It is possible to make significant change simply by ensuring that Ministers are brought together. When I was a Minister, I attempted a joint project with another Minister, and the only way we could get it done was by ensuring that we met regularly. We told our officials, “You will do this, even though it is not currently in the Department’s culture. We are both telling you to do it, and you will work together to do it.” The hon. Lady’s suggestion is excellent, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Even if he cannot commit to doing it this afternoon, I hope he will commit to taking it away and discussing it with his colleagues.

Is it not the case that all the institutions have to provide training on people on the autism spectrum? I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard reference in the debate last week to Alex Henry. He is an autistic young man. A boy who was with him stabbed someone, and Alex Henry is now in prison for 19 years. He was an easily led young man on the autism spectrum. People on the autism spectrum tend to be quite easily led and are very impressionable. The criminal justice system should be sensitive to the needs of autistic people.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to talk a little about ensuring that joined-up understanding. The criminal justice system needs to be able to identify and understand the vulnerabilities of people with autism when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

I was talking about a young man who had been sent to prison. I pointed out that there is a lot of work to be done on adults with autism and prisons. I will not talk further about that today—other Members may want to speak about it—because I want to focus on the earlier stages of the criminal justice system and in particular issues relating to safeguarding and arrest. People with autism can often exhibit specific behaviours that others categorise as unusual, such as stimming, which is a repetitive physical movement that helps reinstate a sense of calm. It is a particular trait of people with autism, and it is rarely understood by others. Indeed, most people I speak to have never even heard of stimming and do not know what it is.

Behaviours that are seen to be unusual can sometimes be misinterpreted as antisocial or, even worse, criminal. Indeed, it has been suggested that those who are the highest functioning on the autism spectrum can often bear the brunt of such misinterpretations as their condition is not otherwise obviously visible. They are not always extended the benefit of the doubt. I hope the Minister will outline his views and what is being done to try to prevent people with autism from being mistakenly criminalised by that misinterpretation of that particular trait. What steps are being taken to ensure that the behaviour of those on the autistic spectrum is not misinterpreted by police and the judiciary?

When adults on the autistic spectrum come under suspicion of criminal behaviour, safeguarding becomes crucial. I want to refer to the case of a constituent of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. The safeguards in the criminal justice system did not protect him as they should have under current policy and practice. Owing to his understandable desire not to be named publicly, I will not go too far into the detailed circumstances that led to the arrest of my constituent on two different occasions. I know that Ministers are aware of the details of the case through previous meetings and correspondence. Suffice it to say that his stimming was misinterpreted while travelling in crowded conditions on public transport, and that is what led to his arrest.

My constituent declared his autism before he was arrested, which should have triggered a different pathway from a normal arrest, but he was not diverted or safeguarded at the point of contact as he should have been. On the first occasion, no appropriate adult was called, his parents were not contacted as they should have been, and he was not assessed as fit for interview. A caution was issued against him, which was later quashed due to those lapses in procedure. Unfortunately, he was arrested again three years later, and his vulnerability and protected characteristics were not properly recognised by the police or the health professional who assessed him. In other words, the reasonable adjustments that are required by law were not made during detention or subsequently, and that case was dropped without charge.

In January 2009, Lord Bradley, who is of course a former Member of this House and pays very close attention to these kinds of proceedings, published his review of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system. His report set out a policy of liaison and diversion for people with these kinds of issues away from police custody, for assessment by clinicians prior to arrest and custody. I want to be perfectly clear that diversion does not mean not having to answer the allegations; it means that behaviours associated with autism are properly contextualised, that both the accused and the evidence are properly protected, and that an appropriate adult is present. Lord Bradley specified in his report:

“Studies into the use of Appropriate Adults have concluded that provision of the Appropriate Adult is very inconsistent. Firstly, the needs of a defendant have to be identified, which are often missed. Even when a need for an Appropriate Adult is identified there is currently a shortage of individuals who can perform the role effectively.”

My contention is that if Lord Bradley’s recommendations had been properly followed when my constituent was arrested in 2011 and 2014, the trauma that he and his family suffered could have been avoided. My constituents are not the only ones who have had such misunderstandings with the police. The National Autistic Society has said:

“our charity still hears regularly from autistic people and families who say that responding police did not understand autism and did not respond appropriately. This causes unnecessary distress to the individual and to police attending.”

I will in one second. In driving home my point—before my hon. Friend helps me to do so—I want to ask the Minister to go back and look at Lord Bradley’s proposals and ensure that they are being fully implemented across the system. I will now, with great pleasure, give way to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is making such a good speech, which has stimulated me to remind him that the court system very often derides professional opinion about the facts of autism. Professor Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge is probably the best-known expert on autism in the country. In the recent case of Lauri Love, who is in danger of being sent to the United States where he will almost certainly be in danger of committing suicide, the professor’s evidence was dismissed out of hand. In fact, he was attacked as an expert when he was in court. Does my hon. Friend agree that professionals who know about autism have been disregarded in a number of cases?

My hon. Friend describes a very distressing phenomenon. Professor Baron-Cohen is one of the world’s experts in this area, and the idea that his evidence would not be taken seriously in an instance such as the one that he describes is obviously highly concerning. I hope that the Minister will consider that, and whether legislation might be required to ensure that the Lord Bradley’s recommendations are followed across the system.

The issues that I am raising today were borne out in a study by the University of Bath, published in 2016. A survey of almost 400 police officers found that only 42% of officers—so a minority of officers—were satisfied with how they had worked with individuals on the autism spectrum. Some 37% of officers had received specific training on how to work with individuals on the autism spectrum, but many found that even that training was not tailored to their specific roles within the police force. In addition, organisation and time constraints were cited as specific barriers, so what assessment has the Minister made of the effects of the continuing cuts to police budgets on the training that is offered to police officers and staff working with adults on the autistic spectrum, and what will he do following the debate to ensure that safeguarding policies are properly put into action across the board?

The National Autistic Society has a free resource aimed at police officers and staff, which offers a guide to working with people on the autistic spectrum. I hope that the Minister will be able to join me in publicly encouraging police services in Wales to use that resource, which is appropriate for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well, and to seriously consider its guidance.

As I said, the allegations against my constituent resulted in a caution that was quashed and in the second instance they were dropped. However, to his great distress, those erroneous allegations remain on police databases. At the time of his arrest, my constituent was living and working across the border in England, not in Cardiff, but the discovery that the allegations against him were kept on police databases, despite the police having acknowledged that they were inaccurate, caused him very severe psychiatric harm, as was confirmed by two separate psychiatric reports. As a result, my constituent ended up giving up his job, flat and independence to return home and live with his parents in Cardiff. We cannot want to see such an outcome for an adult with autism who has established independence and a productive role in society in the workplace. It shows the life-changing effects that a lack of safeguarding can end up having.

The allegations remain on police records. The chief executive of the relevant NHS trust invited both the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission to send representatives to two meetings to discuss how they could help to protect my constituent from further psychiatric harm. I am sad to say that they did not attend either meeting. Even though extensive and complex complaints have been made to the relevant agencies, those made to the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission remain unresolved. My constituent and his family have grave concerns about the governance and compliance with required standards demonstrated in the handling of their complaints.

There is no evidence that the police service involved recognised my constituent’s continuing vulnerability, or put in place plans to respond appropriately and safely in the event of further contact with him. In my view, therefore, they neglected to protect him from future risk of harm. Before the first incident, and subsequently, he was studying for a degree and travelling daily on public transport. Before the second incident, he was working full time, but his experiences and, in particular, the failure to remove or amend the allegations resulted, as was predicted by the senior medical consultants who assessed him, in serious impairment of his health and development, with a significant increase in his anxiety and impact on his functioning. As a result, he lost his employment, moved back home and is no longer able to travel independently on public transport.

In pursuing his case, my constituent and his parents have unearthed many worrying inconsistencies. For example, he was originally told by the police that the case against him was not pursued on public interest grounds, whereas the Solicitor General later confirmed that it had been dropped through a lack of evidence. Those are two very different reasons not to prosecute.

Hon. Members will recall the Commons debate on 30 November last year on mental health and suicide in the autism community, in which reference was made to recent research findings that autistic people are nine times more likely to kill themselves than the average population. For people on the autistic spectrum, contact with the criminal justice system can often come at moments of heightened anxiety. As such, it is crucial that all parties are fully informed and trained to find a solution that does not cause undue distress or, in the case of my constituent, severe psychiatric harm.

I urge the Minister to listen to today’s debate and the suggestions from hon. Members. I urge him to speak with his colleagues in the Government to find a way to work in a more joined-up fashion in a ministerial-led initiative, to make sure that what happened to my constituent does not happen to him again, or to others, and to ensure that this country has a reputation across the world for the highest standards in dealing with the issues faced by adults with autism.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on bringing this important issue to Parliament’s attention. I also take the opportunity to congratulate the UK Government and the National Autistic Society on their work in establishing the first autism-accredited prison in the world at Her Majesty’s young offenders institution Feltham, which I understand some hon. Members here today have had the opportunity to visit. I am very proud that the United Kingdom is leading the world on this issue. Facilities such as those at Feltham will be important in rehabilitating offenders, but, more importantly, I hope they will ensure that young people with autism do not have to endure overly distressing sentences that will cause damage to their mental and perhaps even physical health.

I would welcome any moves by the Ministry of Justice and the relevant devolved Governments to increase the number of autism-accredited prisons across the entirety of the United Kingdom. Given that prisoners are more likely than the general population to be autistic, it seems clear to me that we must do all we can to improve autism awareness and support in our prison estate.

Autistic people are more likely to be victims or witnesses of crimes than they are to be perpetrators. I welcome the National Autistic Society’s guidelines to help professionals in such situations, and I hope it will continue to support the hard-working men and women in our police force, prisons and courts systems.

Hon. Members may be aware that the Scottish Government have just finished a consultation on refreshing the Scottish strategy for autism, which will look to address issues across many areas of autism and focus, at least in part, on the criminal justice system. A freedom of information request highlighted by the great research team in the House of Commons showed that, in the National Autistic Society’s opinion, the way the Scottish criminal system looks after autistic people is far from satisfactory—it said that the Scottish criminal justice system is “failing autistic people”. I look forward to reading the findings of the consultation and I hope the Scottish Government will act to ensure that that failure does not continue.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Police Scotland and Jackton police training school in my constituency? I had the good fortune to visit that facility on Friday last week to hear that mental health training, including autism awareness, has been rolled out to all officers right across Police Scotland.

The hon. Lady highlights an important point. The discussions I have had with my local police force clearly demonstrate that the police and other emergency workers have a much greater understanding of how to deal with the people with autism whom they come across during their work.

It is estimated that there are 58,000 people living with an autism spectrum condition in Scotland. It is vital that they receive fair and inclusive treatment by the criminal justice system, not only when they are suspected of a crime, but when they have witnessed or been a victim of crime. People with autism have an equal part to play in a fair and just society, and it is our job to ensure that they are treated appropriately.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this important debate.

Adults with autism experience the criminal justice system in a unique way, which is reflective of the unique and complex way they experience the world and the social, physical and psychological symptoms of their condition, which exist on a broad spectrum. Recent studies have shown that we are all somewhere on that spectrum.

Adults with autism and their individual needs are often not immediately identified on their first contact with the criminal justice system. That has significant consequences for autistic people, both as offenders and victims. The Autism Act 2009 was the first condition-specific legislation of its type in England, and I am proud to say that it was brought in under a Labour Government. The coalition Government’s 2014 “Think Autism” strategy set out two key priorities relating to criminal justice as identified by those with autism and their carers. Those priorities are, in their own words:

“I want the everyday services that I come into contact with to know how to make reasonable adjustments to include me and accept me as I am. I want the staff who work in them to be aware and accepting of autism”


“If I break the law, I want the criminal justice system to think about autism and to know how to work well with other services.”

I cannot emphasise enough that adults with autism are much more likely to be victims of crime—seven times more likely—than to be offenders. The National Autistic Society tells of horrific crimes perpetrated against adults with autism, including one autistic man who, aged 21, was harassed, raped and murdered, in part because of his condition. His mother said that

“he was vulnerable and became a target because of his condition, but we weren’t given any help”.

Some 49% of adults with autism in a 2014 survey said they had been abused by someone they thought of as a friend. Autism brings with it an inherent vulnerability to bullying and social exclusion, and we must urgently work to entrench awareness of and respect for it within our society, starting in our schools.

Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics between 2013 and 2016 showed that autistic people were four times more likely to experience disability hate crime than were those with disabilities that affected their stamina, mobility or vision. In other words, there is no empathy for autism. Will the Minister commit to looking at the rise in disability hate crime—it rose 53% between 2015-16 and 2016-17—and exploring how we can tackle this national shame?

Intrinsic to the condition is, generally speaking, a desire to keep to the letter of the law—very much so—but, as in the community as a whole, some adults with autism do commit crime. It is widely accepted that, in the case of autistic people, a significant proportion of crime committed is caused by circumstances that provoke discomfort, fear, or misunderstanding.

The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—the Minister with responsibility for care and support at the time of the “Think Autism” strategy’s publication—said in December last year that we should invest more in keeping people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and autism out of our prisons altogether. I absolutely agree.

The National Autistic Society also agrees with that assessment, and it stated that

“for many autistic people, prison has meant that the system has already failed”.

This is not always possible, but will the Minister commit to exploring the equivalent of autism accreditation for the criminal justice system in its entirety, from the point of exposure to exit? That means looking at what reasonable adjustments can be made throughout the system from the moment the police are called—including the quick-fire questions at interview—and people’s appearance in court, detention in prison and rehabilitation.

The most prevalent problem appears to be in policing, which is most people’s first point of contact with the criminal justice system. A 2016 study showed that seven out of 10 adults with autism were dissatisfied by their experience with the police and reported discrimination, a lack of clarity and a feeling that their needs were not met. The “Think Autism” strategy tasks the College of Policing with developing autism awareness training for new recruits. I welcome that move, but responding police across the board must be trained so they understand that when they identify someone who may have autism, they must respect that person’s needs.

Wailing sirens, loud noises, being touched and being shouted at are experiences that, combined, lead to sensory overload for most adults with autism. In those circumstances, the behaviour of people with autism, such as stimming, can easily be misinterpreted as aggression. Ensuring that the police are uniformly educated about autism is without doubt the key to preventing excessive distress and unnecessary violence. I urge the Minister to take steps to ensure that all police, no matter their length of service, have the autism understanding that they need.

People with autism may also be seen as unreliable witnesses, because stress may alter their behaviour in the courtroom, and the often literal nature of their responses may not be conducive to effective self-advocacy or to providing an account of events that happened to others. Since 1999, it has been legally possible, at the court’s discretion, to identify people as vulnerable and to adapt proceedings accordingly, but I understand that that is done infrequently and does not reflect the number of vulnerable people who pass through our courts.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising that matter. This is not just about prison officers, the court service and the prison service; it is about recognising issues early in the process. If we do that, we can address the issues further down the line, and if people with autism are distressed by what they are going through, we can put their minds at rest.

I accept that point. It should start with policing and go right through the system with the individual.

I welcome the recent progress that has enabled witnesses on the autistic spectrum to request a registered intermediary to help judges and lawyers to phrase their questions more appropriately. Will the Minister consider enforcing the universal implementation of those measures to make our courts more accessible for vulnerable people? Much more can be done to educate legal experts about the complexities of autism to reduce the possibility of miscarriages of justice and to avoid putting autistic witnesses under undue stress.

Social attitudes research shows that some jurors still hold stigmatising beliefs about autistic individuals, which could negatively impact their decisions regarding such people at trial. Given that only 16% of autistic people and their families believe that the wider community understand their disability, it is likely that that is a systemic issue in criminal justice.

I want to focus on the “Think Autism” objective of effective joint working. In the Government’s 2016 progress report on “Think Autism”, only 11% of local authorities gave themselves a green rating for their work on autism with the criminal justice system. That rating was based on the inclusion of people with autism in developing local criminal justice diversion schemes, involvement in the autism partnership board and evidence of joint working. I am deeply concerned about those figures. I understand that the Government are reviewing the strategy next year, and I will be pleased to hear about any progress.

The all-party group on autism hosted a meeting on criminal justice in 2014 with the then prisons Minister, from which the pioneering autism accreditation scheme arose. The first prison to be autism accredited was Her Majesty’s prison and young offenders institution Feltham in 2016. The standards for accreditation apply to prisons’ education, health and mental health services, and they cover autism understanding, training for staff, adjustments to the prison building—such as reducing the stimulation of posters and notices—changes to prison routines and individual risk assessments. They were developed by the National Autistic Society, which is now working with other prisons in the country to help them to achieve accreditation.

I was pleased to hear that, as of April 2017, accreditation programme pilots have been trialled in the probation service. That is undoubtedly progress. It will lead not only to the implementation of the practical steps needed to become accredited, but to an accompanying cultural change that will generate a greater awareness of autistic people’s needs and improve the perception of autistic people. That will lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of who they are.

In the meantime, adequate autism-specific training must be made available for all prison staff and police. Much more research needs to be carried out in this field. Awareness needs to be raised across the board about the fact that adults with autism experience things differently and, crucially, that those differences are not experienced uniformly.

It is clear that inroads are being made, but the progress is not quick enough for the adults with autism who have been let down by our criminal justice system. I urge the Minister to bring about change. Prison is an inhuman setting, but for adults with autism it is far more severe, and their route to prison often leads to severe distress. We need to bring about a societal change in attitudes, through awareness-raising and a concerted effort by the justice system. I believe that that is the key to generating a lasting improvement in autistic adults’ experience of criminal justice.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Edward.

I came to the subject of autism rather late in life; I will share with hon. Members the tale of my visit to a remote primary school in Caithness a number of years ago. There was a boy, probably aged about 12, who was deeply engrossed in making an Airfix Halifax bomber. Anxious to impress him, I said, “That bomber’s a Halifax. It has Merlin engines”—the subtext was, “Aren’t I clever to know that?” The boy looked at me and said, “Yes, it’s a Merlin XX with Stanley Hooker superchargers and a brake horsepower of 1,240.” As my jaw sagged, the teacher murmured in my ear—you know what I am going to say, Sir Edward—“Asperger’s.”

Even though I was then in my 40s, that was the first time I had come across the condition. Part of the reason why I am here for this debate is that this is a learning process. I am sure hon. Members will recall the book—published in 2004, I think—called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”. Medical professionals and experts in autism might say that it is not an accurate depiction of autism, but as a view from the inside of the person, it was very instructive to all of us, and I was glad that it became a big seller.

The debate is about awareness of the issue. I did not know what “stimming” meant until I got into the subject, but I now know. I can remember being irritated by somebody on a bus doing exactly that. When I look back I feel ashamed because I should have understood. The Marcus Potter story was scary, although it turned out right in the end. It shows how close we are sometimes to things going wrong, but the judge did a very good thing.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who is no longer in her place, made a good point when she suggested the idea of a link person in Government Departments. It would not cost particularly anything, but it would go a long way to—this is a hackneyed expression—a joined-up approach to sorting things out.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) correctly intervened to point out that Police Scotland are up to speed on this matter. I am not always known for heaping praise on the Scottish Government, but I cannot fault them on this at all. The issue is difficult for some people, but they have not ducked it. I am not saying that the UK Government are ducking it. That is not my intention. I would not try to paint them into such a corner.

The hon. Gentleman is making some pertinent points. Following the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been taking great strides in implementing an autism strategy, including the production of a guide for criminal justice professionals and the piloting of a registered intermediary scheme. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the good practice—the Minister is listening—that we have in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales could be used for the benefit of all in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? The Minister should look to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its autism strategy as one example of how we could all do things better.

I have no problem with that intervention whatever.

On the school that I visited in Caithness, the care lavished on the pupil was inspirational. The teachers looked after him properly in a splendid example of best practice.

I am slipping out of the habit, or no longer getting away with saying, “As a new Member”, because I have been here for seven months and it is wearing a bit thin. I realise that. The fact that a Member can go to, listen to and learn things from debates is a great strength of this place. I will leave this debate a wiser person. That is good for me and, in terms of representation of the people, good for constituents. I absolutely applaud the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for bringing us this debate today. Well done! Well said!

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for securing this debate and I thank the Members who have brought to the attention of the House the issues that their constituents with autism face within the criminal justice system.

Autism covers a wide and variable spectrum, so it is important not to over-generalise. The experience of each individual is different within the criminal justice system, and those with autism are no exception. However, it is true that autistic people are more likely to be victims and witnesses of crime than offenders. They experience difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination, and may have sensory difficulties and some co-ordination problems. Their behaviour may present differently and sometimes draw unnecessary attention, but in general autism is a hidden disability and it may not be immediately obvious to other people that the person has a disability. Dealing with the criminal justice system in any capacity is therefore much harder for a person with autism.

I will sum up some of the contributions made today. The hon. Member for Cardiff West has outdone himself, and I commend him for giving a voice to his constituent’s experience and advocating much-needed changes to the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) identified the rise in hate crime, particularly of those who have a disability, and the need to train and support people differently. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) identified failures in process across the criminal justice system, both in Scotland and in the UK. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as always, raised a valuable point about the need to share best practice and to look to the autism strategies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The early recognition, identification and training of professionals who work in such sectors can only enhance the experience of those who suffer from autism and have to undergo the treatment of the criminal justice system.

As mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government published the Scottish strategy for autism in 2011. It contained 26 recommendations, including four under the overarching theme of developing multi-agency working. A consultation ran from 18 October 2017 to 29 November 2017 to refresh the 2011 strategy, which was much needed. It proposed the inclusion of a provision to consult with bodies, including in the criminal justice system, to improve how people with autism are met within the services. That is something that can be learned across all parts of the UK. I hope the Minister will take that on board.

The pace of change within the criminal justice system, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is not fast enough given the medical understanding and the variability of the understanding of autism. The National Autistic Society goes as far as to say that the criminal justice system is failing those with autism, and it calls for that to be urgently addressed. Many aspects of the criminal justice system are worthy of review. I hope that the treatment of adults with autism will be given the same consideration in this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this important debate.

Let us be clear. Autistic people are discriminated against in society as a whole, but especially in the criminal justice system. They can face discrimination when their autism is not readily apparent, or no help is offered. Where it is apparent, they are often treated differently or suspiciously. Autistic people without a learning disability are nine times more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population. That figure is considerably high and shows the lack of understanding and awareness of the needs of people with autism.

On occasions when an autistic person comes to the attention of the police and other services, it is normally because their social and communication difficulties are misunderstood or they have not been given appropriate support. Autistic people can become extremely distressed in situations that they do not understand or when they are surrounded by noise and confusion. In such circumstances, their actions and behaviour can easily be misinterpreted and subsequent actions may escalate a situation.

The criminal justice system needs to reform and adapt in order to meet its fundamental human rights obligations to treat people fairly and equitably. The National Autistic Society developed its autism accreditation scheme for prison settings. Accreditation covers autism understanding training for prison staff such as guards, but is also more widely helping to make the prison environment more autism friendly. Accreditation should be extended to all prisons, all detention centres, all courts and all police stations, as well as to the probation service. The duty must be on the prisons and courts and their individual officers to ensure the fair treatment of those in contact with the criminal justice system. Individual officers could also be accredited. There should be a requirement for at least one key individual in central functions to be accredited: for example, duty sergeants or clerks of the court.

Accreditation recognises good practice, which helps ensure that people on the autistic spectrum get the extra support needed to adjust to life in prison, and extra support while they serve a sentence, or as they prepare for leaving prison. Without that support, autistic people may develop additional needs such as mental health problems or risky behaviour, and rehabilitation will be harder. Greater awareness and support will benefit autistic people as well as prison staff, police officers and managers in that area of work. Expert opinion is clear that autism sufferers need special and sensitive treatment, especially in a stressful criminal justice environment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way she is responding to the debate. What she just said has triggered a thought, and I want to quote a comment made by someone in the professional standards department of the police service about the complaint by my constituent. It begins:

“I’ve read this several times and they just don’t get it do they”

and notes that my constituents “continue to maintain” that their son

“should have been ‘diverted’ prior to arrest. What utter rubbish!”

If that is the continuing attitude in the police, does my hon. Friend agree that we have a long way to go to get things right?

We certainly do have a long way to go, and what my hon. Friends have said emphasises what we all know: we need to look at autism as a special consideration.

For many autistic people, prison means the system has failed. Work must be done with probation services and police forces to create a specification for autism accreditation in those settings. That will help to prevent autistic adults from entering the criminal justice system in the first place and it will certainly help with rehabilitation. More training and support must be given to initial responders to crime, including those working with witnesses and victims. Initial contact with the police will often come at a time of heightened anxiety, so it is important that the police know how to approach such a situation and how not to allow it to escalate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that training for police officers in that situation would help them to prevent reoffending or revictimisation? I think that our colleagues in the police share the aim of reducing those things.

It is certainly my experience, from talking to police officers, that they would appreciate training so that they could better understand the condition, and how to deal with autistic offenders. That understanding is vital for the criminal justice system. If we are to regard people with autism in a fair and equal way we must look at how we provide for their needs. I am sure that the Minister has listened to the wise words spoken by many colleagues today, and that he will offer us some hope that the Government will consider the issue and treat it with some urgency.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. I offer my sincere congratulations to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—not just on securing the debate but on how he presented the subject. I had the great pleasure of shadowing him when he adorned the last Labour Government as Minister for the Third Sector, and the sincerity and thoughtfulness of his approach to this sensitive subject today is entirely characteristic of him. I also congratulate other hon. Members who contributed to the debate.

I am entirely with the relatively new hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone): I have sat through enough rubbish debates in this place to know a good one. The good debates are the ones we leave having learned something. I shall be frank: the subject on which I am asked to speak today is not one of which I have a deeply rooted, strong understanding. I shall leave the Chamber better informed. A good debate should also be a catalyst for action by Ministers, and further probing. Ministers are trained to try to exude an aura of all-knowingness, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West knows to be a total fallacy.

I shall try to reassure the hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members who spoke, that there is recognition of one big central point. Since I became an MP in 2005, this country, society and Parliament have made undeniable progress in our understanding and awareness—the central word—of autism, autistic people’s needs, and the consequences of what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) described as an often hostile environment. Despite that progress, however, the clear message from the debate, through individual anecdotes and voices from all parts of the United Kingdom, is that there is still insufficient awareness and understanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) made clear his view that there is still much to be done in Scotland, as there is elsewhere, but we have heard from all parts of the UK in the debate, which creates a powerful message. The fact that there is insufficient awareness and understanding can sometimes lead to unreasonable judgments and decisions, which in turn can lead to trauma. That can mean extremely traumatic experiences for not just the individual involved but their family. The hon. Member for Cardiff West respected the desire for anonymity in the case he raised, but the debate springs from his experience of trying to serve a constituent, so I begin with the acknowledgement, with which I think everyone agrees, that there is clearly some way to go.

The hon. Gentleman, drawing on his experience as a Minister, clearly understood that there are a number of Ministers who could have represented the Government in the debate. It was his fate to get the Home Office, so inevitably what I shall say will focus primarily on the first point of contact in the criminal justice system. However, I give him and other hon. Members an undertaking that, based on what I have heard, I will speak directly to the new Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), to test his understanding and his appetite to follow up on specific requests—not least the desire to encourage other prisons to follow the example of the one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and to continue down the path of accreditation.

We need to recognise that autism is believed to affect about 1% of the population, which makes it highly likely that police officers will encounter people with autism in the course of their duties. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics of the case that the hon. Member for Cardiff West raised, but it is quite clear from his account, and the fact that charges were dropped, that mistakes were made in that process, and that the experience has had a profound effect on the individual and the family. I am sure that the House would want to associate itself with the regret expressed for that outcome.

However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge as a general point that police officers are often called on to make decisions in difficult circumstances. They have a difficult job and often have to act swiftly to protect individuals or the public more generally. He knows that: we all do. They also have a duty to investigate alleged offences, especially where there are alleged victims. Given the nature of autism, brilliantly articulated in the debate, it is also possible that at times the actions of some individuals with the condition may be mistaken for unco-operative or even aggressive behaviour. Again, I do not infer that that was necessarily the case in the specific instance that the hon. Gentleman referred to, but it is clearly a risk, and it happens.

We are all on a learning curve today. Back in the mists of time, I was Roy Hattersley’s deputy as a shadow Police and Prisons Minister, so we all have our learning curve. Does the Minister agree that the real change that has happened recently, for all sorts of reasons, has been a great improvement in the joining up of children’s services, running across all services? As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West said, we have got much better when it comes to children. It is with adults that we seem to have difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. We have made considerable progress and the hon. Member for Cardiff West was at pains to point out at the beginning of his remarks that he wanted to focus on adults, because clearly that is where some stubborn and significant problems continue to reside in terms of awareness, understanding, decisions, judgments and treatment. We cannot be complacent. I hope that I can reassure the House that we will take all possible steps to improve the general understanding and responses appropriate within the criminal justice agencies.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West pressed me on training, and I will speak a little to that. He is no doubt aware that the Government have published a national strategy on autism—I think he referred to the “Think Autism” strategy; that was refreshed in January 2016. It sets out a programme of work across Government sectors to improve preventive action and support to those living with autism, to assist them to lead fulfilling and independent lives wherever possible. It included recommendations for further improvements in the services and support available across the health, education employment and criminal justice sectors.

The hon. Gentleman cited cuts to the police, but the budget of the College of Policing has not been cut, because of our strong commitment to the training and development of police officers. As part of the strategy, the college has committed to developing a new module of the authorised professional practice for the police service. That was included in the revised guidance on mental health and vulnerability, published in October 2016.

The guidance is the primary reference source for police on legal obligations and the appropriate response to incidents involving people with mental ill health, autism, learning disabilities and other vulnerabilities. It provides indicators for police staff about when there may be health or mental health issues underlying apparent behaviour. That can and should lead to better and more appropriate decision making. Guidance is backed by training modules for all staff who may come into contact with vulnerable people. In addition, the National Autistic Society—I join others in congratulating it, the APPG and the Westminster Commission on Autism on their work—has published a national guide for police officers and staff, which has been distributed to all forces. In many areas there is close liaison between police forces and local autism support groups.

I give this undertaking to the hon. Member for Cardiff West. The College of Policing, which is the agency we rely on for the development of police standards and training, is under the new leadership of Mike Cunningham. I undertake to write to Mike following this debate to set out some of the concerns expressed here and to seek reassurance from the college that those are understood and absorbed and that it attributes sufficient weight and importance to this issue.

I am pleased to hear the commitment to encourage the national College of Policing about its training. Will the Minister make the clear point to the college and to police officers that we respect what they do and we know how hard their job is? This is not about special pleading for a particular group but about ensuring genuine access to justice, which means that some people will need different treatment to achieve an equal outcome. If people with autism are to be treated equally and fairly in the criminal justice system, that might sometimes—not always—mean different treatment, which has to come from better awareness. Better awareness can only improve police responses and, as I said, I genuinely believe that the police want to reduce unnecessary reoffending and re-victimisation. Will he make that commitment?

I agree with the hon. Lady. My experience of talking to police officers—this is the universal theme—is that they want to do the job properly. They do a very difficult job and need the tools to help them in that job.

Our fundamental challenge is the one expressed in this debate: that levels of awareness and understanding are too low. Our responsibility is to help police officers do what is natural to them—to do their job properly and safeguard the vulnerable where they can, but to play their part in executing swift justice as well. Clearly, the process of education, understanding and awareness building has to continue and does not end. I undertake to seek reassurances from the new leadership of the college that they understand that.

The police and other agencies continue to explore innovative solutions to help support those in the community with autism with daily interactions or official contact. In some areas, autism alert cards are available to be carried by those who are autistic. Locally developed systems may include additional information about the person and contact details of family members or other carers. In other areas, similar results are achieved through autism apps held on mobile telephones. Apps can include information such as carer details and the user’s coping mechanisms, as well as useful links to external support sites. So technology can be our friend, but there is no substitute for the training and guidance we talked about.

I will say a word about police detention, because that has been a difficult and emotive subject. If the police encounter a person who appears to be mentally disordered and in immediate need of care and control, it is open to them to exercise powers under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to take such a person to a place of safety for a mental health assessment. Use of such powers might be appropriate in the case of a person with autism, depending on individual circumstances, and might be preferred over an arrest, again depending on precise circumstances. New legislative provisions, however, provide that police officers should consult a mental health professional before exercising such powers, where that is practicable. That is intended to ensure that the most appropriate decisions are made in each case, in particular where the person may already be in contact with local health or social support services.

If an offence is alleged to have been committed, however, or the person needs to be dealt with through the criminal justice system, notwithstanding any underlying health factors, an arrest may be necessary and appropriate. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, codes set out the safeguards that need to be in place for any individual in custody, with particular provisions in respect of the most vulnerable.

Forces are expected to have available easy-read documents using simple language and pictures to show what will happen while those people are in custody. The hon. Member for Cardiff West talked about the need for appropriate adults in situations where such provision might not have been in place. We are clear that an appropriate adult is required to be present in cases involving children or vulnerable adults, including those with autism, during procedures such as being given information on rights, detention reviews, interviews and taking of any evidence. He rightly pressed me about the Government’s response to Lord Bradley’s report—I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken the report very seriously, and there is a programme of action on the various recommendations.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that liaison and diversion schemes now operate in police stations and courts across some 80% of England. Work continues on how best to ensure that appropriate adults are available when required. A working group of the PACE strategy board has been developing an approach to improving provision throughout the country. That involved partnership work between police and crime commissioners and local authorities. The work is expected to be completed and published soon.

We are coming to a very sensitive part of the Minister’s speech. I am sure he will turn to the international dimension. Has he any update for us on the Lauri Love case? Many of us in Parliament are fighting to save that young man from being taken to the United States, to a hostile environment, where he might well commit suicide.

The short answer is no, I am not in a position to give an update to the House on that, but of course I completely understand its sensitivity. An announcement will be made in due course.

I was trying to give reassurance to the hon. Member for Cardiff West, who prompted this debate, about measures taken to ensure greater provision of appropriate adults. I was saying that liaison and diversion schemes operate in police stations and courts in about 80% of England. Such schemes help to assess individual vulnerabilities and any underlying mental health, autism or learning disabilities issues. They can further assist with referring the person to an appropriate health or welfare assessment if necessary, as well as helping to inform the most appropriate charging decision or sentencing outcome.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the family in his constituency case were frustrated with the complaints procedure. Let me say something briefly about that. If individuals are unhappy about their treatment by the police, there are avenues of complaint. Individuals may complain directly to the relevant police force, or they can raise a matter with their local police and crime commissioner. Complaints that include serious and sensitive matters such as assault or serious corruption must be referred directly by the police to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Police and crime commissioners maintain an overview of complaints about the police and they are democratically elected to hold the chief constable to account for the performance of the force, on behalf of the public.

There is a further right to appeal against how a complaint has been handled by the police. Depending on the nature of the complaint, it will be made either to the chief constable or to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

I know that this is not directly the Minister’s responsibility at the Home Office, but it seems that there is a gap in the accountability chain in relation to the British Transport police, because it is paid for by the train operating companies and does not have an elected police and crime commissioner. Will the Minister talk with his ministerial colleagues about whether there are ways in which we can improve the accountability of the British Transport police?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. I will certainly assume that undertaking and I will communicate back to him the consequences.

The police complaints process is a very sensitive area for the public and for the police. The IOPC is under a new chief executive, Michael Lockwood, whom I will write to after the debate to register some of the concerns expressed so that they are on his radar screen as he assumes leadership of that organisation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which has allowed me to raise my own awareness of some of the underlying difficulties and experiences of our fellow citizens. The treatment that they receive in our public service, whether in the criminal justice system or the health system, is quite unacceptable. That remains a challenge for us as a society and for Governments of all colours. I have tried to reassure colleagues that we have done much in recent years to improve awareness of and understanding about people who have what initially may be invisible vulnerabilities, such as autism, but doubtless much more can be done. The Government have demonstrated their commitment to improving protections for the wellbeing of the potentially vulnerable, including in the criminal justice system.

I made various undertakings in the debate, which I will honour despite whatever advice I receive after the debate. I congratulate everyone who has contributed; debates such as this will ensure that the issue remains high on the agenda. I have seen it rise since I have been in Parliament, but it is only through the persistence of the APPG, Members and various criticisms from the National Autistic Society that this point continues to be pressed, meaning that more Members come out of these debates with increased awareness of the importance of the issue.

I am grateful to have a brief opportunity to respond. I thank everyone who has participated in the debate. More than one Member pointed out that it has been a learning curve for everyone present; I include myself among them. It is a subject on which we all can learn more and we would benefit from learning more about autism. In particular, I thank all colleagues who contributed with a speech or an intervention.

I hope that as many as possible attend tomorrow’s debate brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on another aspect of autism, which reinforces the point that I made at the outset: this is a subject that permeates across different parts of Government. That highlights the need for Ministers to do what the Minister has promised—to work with each other and perhaps to consider some of the suggestions made in the debate in a more formal way, in order to tackle the issue of autism across all Government Departments. If he chooses to do that along with his colleagues, he will certainly have my support and I am sure that of my hon. Friends as well.

I thank the Minister for his response. He referred to the brief period when I was radiant with lawful power all those years ago, and when he was my shadow—I am now a shadow of my former self. During his remarks at the end of the debate, I saw his officials’ ears prick up when he said that he was going to carry out what he had promised to do, whatever advice he received. I say to his officials that he is a free-range, organic Minister, rather than a battery-farmed one. He is never satisfied to just read out his brief from his civil servants, but will listen and try to act. Having had praise lavished on him, he now has to fulfil all the things he pledged to do in the debate: to follow up with other Ministers, to ensure that he gets the College of Policing on the case, and to take on board my point about the British Transport police and the IOPC. I am glad that he will engage with the new leadership at the IOPC.

I absolutely concur with the Minister about some of the great work that our police officers do in very difficult circumstances, but there are occasions when, either through lack of training or in some cases through poor practice, things go wrong. We are here to hold them to account while acknowledging the incredible work they do under the most difficult circumstances.

I thank the Minister for the sincerity with which he has responded to the debate and his promises that he will take things further and learn more about all this. Finally, I thank all the people with autism and their families across the country for their tremendous forbearance under very difficult circumstances, and for how they cope with what can be a very difficult situation in their lives. I hope that the debate will genuinely help to move things forward and to make a difference.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system.

Sitting suspended.