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Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what will be the scope of the review of the national adult autism strategy, due to take place in 2013.

My Lords, we are currently considering how to deliver the 2013 review of the adult autism strategy and, in particular, a range of options about how best to secure the views of service users and carers. The review, which will take place from April to October next year, is an opportunity for the Government to take stock and consider where future action is required to realise the vision of fulfilled and rewarding lives for people with autism.

My Lords, the National Audit Office report on the adult autism strategy said that the health service needed to improve the training of key professionals who make decisions about a person’s eligibility for benefits and services. Can the Minister confirm that the review will ensure that all government departments will implement the strategy in full, so that autistic adults around the country can access the support services that they need?

My Lords, this matter runs across government departments. While central government can set the framework, and while it can work to remove barriers and increase awareness, which is very important, the real work—the delivery of lasting change—is for professionals, providers, voluntary organisations and, indeed, service users working together in collaboration. That effort needs to take place at a local level, which is why there is statutory guidance to prompt that action.

My Lords, I declare an interest as patron of Autism Wales. Will the Minister confirm that he is aware of the national strategy on autism that was introduced in Wales in 2008, which is being looked at in Scotland as a model to be followed? Of course, Northern Ireland has its Autism Act 2011. Will the Minister undertake to look at the experiences of the Celtic countries in developing the policy for England?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and I am quite sure that we in England can learn from what is going on in both Wales and Scotland in this area. However, we can take some encouragement from the National Audit Office memorandum earlier this year, which stated that considerable progress had been made in the two years since the strategy in England was published. Twenty-four of the 56 commitments had been implemented, and action was under way in response to the remainder.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if we are really going to achieve equality for the autistic community, we need to start looking now at the sort of services that they require when they become much older and frailer? It would be a tragedy if we improved services for children and adults but, when they become old and frail and are no longer able to maintain independent living, even with support, they are then segregated from the rest of society.

My noble friend is right, which is why the existing statutory guidance extends not only to local authorities but to the NHS; it is unique in that regard. The strategy is about integrating care across the NHS, social care and all other local authority services, and its focus must be on putting people with autism at the centre of any plans to improve their own lives.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I chaired the independent review of autism services in Northern Ireland. Would it be inappropriate if I asked the Minister if he was aware that it does not matter how good one’s intentions are or whether you have an Act of Parliament; if you do not have the geographical structure that enables you to implement the measures that are required for early assessment and diagnosis, there is nothing that will naturally follow? Will he consider consulting the Northern Ireland authorities and those in Wales and Scotland, where possibly we have made more progress?

My Lords, I shall gladly take that idea away with me. The noble Lord is right about the structures for delivery. Local authorities in England are responsible for the delivery of services and support for people with autism, and the NHS is the body that we are relying upon to identify those with autism and diagnose their needs. The two must work together.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us a little more about the problems of being the lead department and trying to relate to other sections of government? How good, for instance, are the links with various stages of education in order to allow not only for people with the most acute forms of autism but for those at the higher-functioning end of the spectrum, such as those with Asperger’s? How is that developing and have we done any work in that field?

Yes, my Lords, the autism strategy is a cross-government strategy and is already having an impact in areas such as employment and education. It includes activity to help adults with autism into work. The mandate to the NHS Commissioning Board particularly mentions those with learning disabilities and autism and their need to receive safe, appropriate and high-quality care. From 2014, when necessary, young people up to the age of 25 with special educational needs, which would include autism, will have an education, health and care plan. I assure my noble friend that work is going on across government in this area.

My Lords, last week on Carers Rights Day I spoke to a great many parents who raised the same matter as the noble Baroness, Lady Browning—the transition period for young people with autism. Does the Minister consider that it is a problem that parent carers are not yet referred to in the draft Care and Support Bill, which we are about to start scrutinising? What role does he think local Healthwatch and local well-being boards can have in this regard?

My Lords, local health and well-being boards and local Healthwatch will be instrumental in ensuring the improvement of the quality of services for people with autism. As regards the transition from childhood to adulthood, the Department for Education is working with my own department to make the transition recommendations in the strategy the success that we all want them to be. A project funded by both departments and led by the University of York will report before the end of the year and will inform good practice in service at the point of transition.