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House of Lords Hansard
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Autism: Disability Living Allowance
10 March 2011
Volume 725

Question

Asked By

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what impact changes to the disability living allowance will have on people with autism.

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My Lords, we are still designing the personal independence payment assessment so it is not yet possible to comment on its impact on people with autism spectrum disorders. However, we are committed to ensuring that it reflects the needs of all individuals effectively. We recognise that the current assessment criteria for disability living allowance can favour physical impairments and do not always fully reflect the needs of disabled people with mental, intellectual, cognitive and development impairments, including autism.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as the main carer for an autistic adult in receipt of DLA. I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Do the Government accept that autism is a communication disorder, and that a face-to-face interview with a stranger should be carried out only in the presence of a professional or carer who knows the autistic person? Otherwise, autistic people will not turn up at all and so lose their benefit, or the assessment will result in them losing the benefit on which they rely.

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing up this really important matter. As I say, we are designing the personal independence payment now. One of the things that we want to get absolutely right is how we look after the most vulnerable. The default position is that we would like to see people face to face, but where that is not realistic, helpful or appropriate we will not be doing so. We will also encourage people, autistic people as well as others, to bring a carer, a family member or a professional with them so that we get the best evidence-based result that we possibly can.

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My Lords, the Government’s decision to scrap the mobility award for people in residential care will certainly adversely affect those with autism. There is now to be a review, although I share the view of the National Autistic Society that the original decision was wrong and no review is necessary. However, we are where we are, so can the Minister tell the House what the terms of reference for the review will be?

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My Lords, there is no review. We are reviewing the position of the mobility allowance in the context of an overall look at the personal independence payment. As I have told the House in the past, we are committed to making sure that people in residential care homes maintain mobility.

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My Lords, I first declare an interest as patron of Autism Cymru. With regard to the flexibility that will be needed in the new system, in view of the very wide range of conditions that fall within the spectrum of autism, how will he ensure that there will be sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the individual in the context of these interviews to which reference has already been made?

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My Lords, that is a key point. One of the main changes we are making to the work capability assessment is exactly about this sensitivity. Professor Paul Harrington, who is conducting the reviews, made a series of recommendations as to how we should adjust this assessment that we inherited to make it more sensitive. We will have learnt those lessons, and will ensure that we pull that over into the personal independence payment.

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My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister right to say that the previous scheme used for the migration to the employment and support allowance would not be appropriate for this form of assessment in the future successor programme to the DLA? Given that so many people were assessed and then went on successfully to appeal against their assessment, we surely now need a different system. Can the Minister tell us whether we have cracked the nut about how we assess people with the sorts of disabilities that autism presents over such a wide spectrum?

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for what is actually a very complicated question to answer briefly. This is a different assessment. The personal independence payment is looking at what people need to function in their daily lives, whereas the work capability assessment is designed to look at whether people are capable of working. They are different. We need to make sure that we do not have too many tribunal cases. At the moment, under DLA, tribunal cases are at 11 per cent, which is too high. One of the attractions of going to a consistent, coherent new personal independence payment is that we can have criteria which make it much less obvious that people need to go to tribunal.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as the person who took the Autism Bill through your Lordships' House. The Minister will know that that Bill placed an obligation on local authorities to survey the number of adults with autism in their area to ensure that there are enough services for them and their carers. Given the restrictions on local authority budgets, has he any concerns that they will not be able to do this, thus further disadvantaging people with autism and their carers?

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My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Baroness for taking that Bill through the House. One of the effects of that Act is that even in times of restraint local authorities have an obligation to look after this group of people. The Act provides that protection for them.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the most dreadful times for any person with a disability is the transition from childhood to adulthood? The Government have just published an exciting report which recommends that children with difficulties, disabilities and behaviour disorders have one assessment. Will he assure us that that one assessment will take that young person right through—obviously, that assessment will be reviewed—and that therefore these new reviews in adulthood will be unnecessary?

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My Lords, clearly that would be a desirable outcome. However, in practice, particular requirements apply that make it hard to travel from where we are today to the ideal.

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My Lords, I ought to declare an interest as the Secretary of State under whom DLA was introduced. That is not to say that I want to defend every dot and comma but I would like to associate myself particularly with the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. I hope that the Minister’s department will continue the sensitive way in which he has sought to answer these questions.

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My Lords, one of the issues around DLA is that it is concentrated far more on physical, rather than mental, impairment. As we start assessing how to make personal independence payments, we are learning about the importance of properly factoring in mental impairment. That will be one of the main differences between the personal independence payment and DLA.