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Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they support the Autism Awareness Campaign’s call for a 10-year strategy, including a plan of action on autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

My Lords, we welcome the work of the Autism Awareness Campaign. Decisions to open new special schools are taken by local authorities, but we are providing significant additional resources for the training of teachers for specific learning difficulties, including autism. We also support the National Autistic Society, the TreeHouse Trust and the Council for Disabled Children in establishing the Autism Education Trust, focusing on service improvements, and we are supporting the TreeHouse Trust in building the National Centre for Autism Education.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I serve on the board of Autism Speaks, which is jointly working on research into autism in the UK, USA and Saudi Arabia.

I thank my noble friend for that considered reply. Does he accept that, while significant numbers of parents are satisfied with the progress that has been made in this area, huge numbers of parents and carers across the country are still frustrated at not achieving satisfactory and cohesive educational services? Will he and his colleagues in the department consider looking at a taskforce on how these particular services can go forward and increase joint working across government as well as across the NGO sector?

My Lords, I will consider any suggestion put to me by my noble friend. We work closely with organisations seeking to promote the interests of children who are on the autistic spectrum. That is why, for example, we are promoting the inclusion development programme, which is a targeted training programme for teachers and includes awareness of conditions on the autistic spectrum. We are also investing significant additional sums in education for children with special educational needs, including children who are on the autistic spectrum.

My Lords, it is not good enough that the parents of children with autism and Asperger’s have to battle to get an initial diagnosis, an assessment of need and the services that they are entitled to, and they are often passed from pillar to post. Should there not be a simplification of the assessment process so that these vulnerable children do not fall in the gap between health, education and social services?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will need to tell me what she means by a simplification. The statementing process in place at the moment is there precisely to safeguard the interests of parents and children, to ensure that they have the opportunity to properly access services and in particular to contest decisions taken or judgments made by local authorities where they do not agree with them. Simplification might not necessarily serve the interests of those children or their parents at all. If the noble Baroness has specific proposals she would like to put to me, I will of course study them seriously.

My Lords, with virtually all the hidden disabilities, most of the problems occur in two places: first, where the parents are not savvy or informed enough to try to drive the educational system forward themselves and, secondly, where the person involved is spotted too late to benefit from the system. When will the Government be satisfied that every school in the country stands a reasonable chance of picking out a working-class child who has marginal Asperger’s?

My Lords, I am not in a position to answer the noble Lord’s question about every school in the country, but if one asks whether we are significantly investing in the training of teachers for this purpose, the answer is yes. For example, we are introducing mandatory national accredited training for all special educational needs co-ordinators in schools. That will apply to all new SENCOs from next year, and that measure, among others, will significantly improve the capacity of schools to engage in early diagnosis.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Celtic Nations Autism Partnership, comprising Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, has already embarked on initiatives to try to co-ordinate the provision of autism services across departmental boundaries; that an independent review of autism services in Northern Ireland is due to report at the end of this month; and that the Welsh Assembly, together with Autism Cymru, is progressing its own 10-year plan? Are Her Majesty’s Government willing therefore to support and build on the Celtic nations’ initiatives, so that government departments, the voluntary sector and others throughout the United Kingdom work together without creating more unnecessary delay?

My Lords, we are aware of the developments in Northern Ireland and Wales and will pay close attention to the plans to which the noble Lord referred when they are published. If there are lessons that we can learn for practice in England, we will do so.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of TreeHouse. Does the Minister agree with many who advocate a 10-year strategy and many organisations in the field that, with growing numbers of children diagnosed with autism, it is of increasing importance to look at the transition between school and adulthood, and that co-ordination between the different government departments and local authority departments is crucial? Is government strategy addressing that?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important subject, to which TreeHouse has paid considerable attention. The training that TreeHouse provides is in no small part geared towards ensuring much better provision in respect of transition, and much better provision linking special schools and specialist support services with mainstream schools and educators. That is a big theme of TreeHouse, and I am sure that the wider education service has a great deal more to learn from it.