Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the case of Faruk Ali, what steps they are taking to improve access to the criminal justice system and victim support for people with autism spectrum disorders.
My Lords, I begin by mentioning my interests as declared in the register. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate improving the criminal justice system for people with autism, and thank all noble Lords who have kindly made time to take part. I welcome this opportunity to bring to the attention of your Lordships the appalling experience that some people with autism have of our criminal justice system.
I want to highlight the case of Faruk Ali, a 33 year-old autistic young man living with his family in Luton. According to press reports, one morning last February, Mr Ali, who has the mental age of a young child, was putting his family’s and his neighbours’ bins out for collection, as was his Thursday morning routine. While he was doing so, two police officers drove past. The officers are reported to have returned and chased Mr Ali, in the prosecutor’s words “for fun”, laughing as they went about their pursuit, which culminated in later charges of assault. A neighbour reported seeing one officer come out of his car and punch and kick Mr Ali near the bins that he had been collecting as Mr Ali ran into his home calling for his mother. Mr Ali was wearing a large red badge to signify to those who came in contact with him that he has a disability. Unfortunately, the prominent sign designed to protect him failed to protect him from those officers.
Last December, both officers were cleared of racially aggravated assault and misconduct in public office. An internal police investigation into the matter continues. Although the jury did not have sufficient evidence to convict the two officers, video and audio footage remains of the incident which demonstrates the callous, racist attitude of the officers to a very vulnerable and disabled man. In the recording played in court, in their interaction with him, one officer was heard describing Mr Ali as a “Paki”. Laughter followed. After the incident’s unhappy denouement, as the officers drove off, one of them was heard to have mocked family members when they asked for their police numbers. One officer was heard to say—I paraphrase to remove the expletives—“If he does not interact with people, then don’t let him out”.
The internal police investigation into misconduct will determine whether the behaviour of those officers was acceptable and worthy of a public servant against a disabled person, but will the Minister assure the House and members of the minority and disabled community that the racist language that the court is reported to have heard during its proceedings and the derision for disabled people reportedly exhibited have no place in our institutions, and that complaints will be taken seriously? What is his view of the public interest in making available the contents of the tape?
I raise that today in some detail because I am appalled by such outrageous victimisation of one disabled person, which evidence shows is not an isolated incident. Mr Faruk Ali’s case exposes a wider problem. Although we debate it as a topical debate, I regret that its relevance is enduring.
I was moved to speak on this subject having heard the disappointment and feeling of injustice expressed by Mr Ali and his friends, and from previously attending the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism last November, with a large number of people attending echoing similarly unhappy experiences of our criminal justice system. The Grand Committee Room was packed to the rafters with people with autism and their families, alongside policemen, psychologists, Members of Parliament and other experts who understand the problem, some of whom recounted experiences reminiscent of Mr Ali’s.
People with autism face extraordinary difficulties in obtaining justice. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects more than one in 100 people in this country in many different ways. It generally affects how a person communicates with and relates to others. Some people with autism live wholly independent lives, while others rely on specialist support and may be unable to speak comprehensibly.
Autistic people are no more likely to commit crime than anyone else. Indeed, given the reliance of many with the condition on support and care, people with autism should not be disproportionately exposed to crime. However, somehow the system discriminates to pull them in. Research indicates that a third of people with autism have been a victim of crime. Those with autism are also overrepresented in our prisons, where incidence may be as high as 15%.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, just as stop and search has criminalised black Muslim youth, the system is criminalising our autistic population and others with learning disabilities. That we are locking people up at least in part as a result of their disability is surely of deep concern to us all. When an individual encounters the criminal justice system, they should expect fair, respectful treatment—treatment that is mindful of the needs of those who may not have the required skills to face up to or deal with all the complexities of our legal system.
The old cliché of working together, multiagency, may indeed yield better services and justice. In many instances, it requires a multiple set of responses. The first is through the training of professionals including police officers and judges. What progress have the Government made with the commitment in their autism strategy to update the College of Policing’s mental health e-training for new officers? Will an autism marker be introduced on the police national computer and made available to prison and probation staff? Those steps would be welcome, but alone they are insufficient. Mr Ali was wearing a marker. The incident occurred in a division in which the police had long before committed to implementing disability training. Beyond lip-service to badges and training, what steps are the Government taking to roll out appropriate quality autism training to all police officers and prison staff, not just new recruits, so that they make appropriate adjustments to and recognise the significance of disability markers?
Secondly, to cater for the significant minority of the prison population with a suspected learning disability or autism spectrum disorder, the prison and probation services must have procedures in place to assess a person’s needs as they enter and pass through the system. Will the Minister commit to the use of screening tools for autism across our prisons?
Finally, early diagnosis of autism makes a huge difference to the development and future well-being of people with autism. Speaking to several organisations last year, I was told in no uncertain terms that many parents feel that there is a racial dimension to their experience. The Government have already acknowledged the significant under-diagnosis of autism among people from black, Asian and minority backgrounds. Delayed diagnosis results in delayed support. The provision of basic social care and support for people with autism at every stage of life can mitigate the likelihood of a costly health crisis or encounter with the criminal justice system. Low-level services such as social skills training or anti-victimisation classes can be effective and should be mandated by local authorities.
Whether a person has autism or not, they should be treated with respect by all our statutory institutions. However, as a mother of an autistic boy about Mr Ali’s age, I can vouch for the wariness that many of us as parents have about exposing a disabled child to institutions. For all the brilliant dedicated professionals in our hospitals, education and social services, police and prison services, persistent incidents of racism, prejudice and abuse not only erode the public’s faith in those institutions but profoundly injure people’s lives.
The process of appeals and complaints can do long-term damage to the mental well-being of those who must endure it. For that reason among many, I salute the determination and tenacity of Mr Ali’s family, his solicitor and all his supporters in their struggle to secure justice for Faruk Ali—and all others who persist.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this important debate. I will not be talking about the case of Faruk Ali, although I have read the material available on the internet. I propose to talk in more general terms about dealing with autistic people in the criminal justice system. It is indeed a large and difficult subject, and I shall talk about the courts system in particular, of which I have some experience.
In preparing for this debate, I have seen that a lot of guiding material is available published by the House of Lords Library regarding dealing with people with autism. There was a recent article in the Magistrates’ Association magazine about dealing with autistic people in a court setting. If one googles the issue, as I did, there are a lot of comment pieces about the appropriateness of different procedures within the criminal justice system as a whole.
A very important context for today’s debate is the rollout of Liaison and Diversion by the Government to those with mental capacity issues. My understanding is that the objective is that this will be fully rolled out within England and Wales by next year. Liaison and Diversion is where a mental health practitioner is available to the court, so that a hearing may be adjourned for an initial assessment to be done on the spot as to the mental capacity of either victims or the defendant. This has been at the instigation of leadership from my noble friend Lord Bradley and I understand that it has led to a measurable drop in such cases being brought to court in the pilot schemes operating to date.
I want to talk about my own experience as a London magistrate, where I have dealt with defendants who are autistic. I will not go into the details of the case I have in mind; suffice to say that I believe that the court system coped well with the challenges of the trial, in the sense that all the individual elements of dealing with this difficult situation were met. Nevertheless, by the end of the process the autistic defendant was bemused —he did not understand what had happened—and his family felt that they had not been treated fairly.
So what were the elements in place? First, the young man was charged with a sexual assault, so special measures were in place to protect the victim from the attention of the young man or his family. Secondly, an appropriate adult sat with the young man at all times when the case was being conducted. An intermediary was not believed to be required because the young man claimed he had no memory of the incident of which he was accused. We had an expert witness who gave lengthy evidence, having interviewed the young man, and was cross-examined. That was really the burden of the defence case. As the presiding magistrate, I could see that witness support was giving very active support to the family of the young man who was accused. We took regular breaks, as asked for by the defence lawyer; that would be good practice in such cases in any event. Legal aid was available but would not be for this level of charge for most defendants. Incidentally, that was one of the sources of delay.
We convicted the defendant of the sexual assault. As I said, he looked bemused as if he did not understand what had happened. The family made it very plain that they were unhappy with the result. We had no doubt that we had properly convicted the young man. After the trial, I discussed with my colleagues and the court staff what could have been done better. All the individual requirements had been complied with, after all, so what was the problem? It was the delay in the whole process. It had taken a year from the initial incident to when the trial took place. All the people completing their individual elements as part of the process no doubt believed that they had done their job but it added up to a long delay.
It was made plain to the court by the expert witness that delay disproportionately affects people with autism, because they are very likely to have worse memories than other people. This problem was not overcome and was, I believe, the source of the discontent of the young man’s family. We were never going to make them happy with the result but we could at least have made them feel that their son had had a fair trial. I am afraid that I do not think they believed that. My point to the Minister is very simple: all these elements are good and complex but they have to be done quickly, otherwise their benefit gets dissipated and people do not feel that they have had a fair trial.
I will close on one separate, short point regarding Liaison and Diversion. It is on the need to scrutinise whether these diverted cases are properly being diverted. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, will know, there are various pilot schemes in the country and various methods among police forces of recording the way that police forces divert cases. From a courts perspective, it is very important to have a realistic record of those diversions when they come to sentence people who have committed subsequent offences. We have this issue in the youth court, where we do not know which diversions have been done properly. It is potentially the case that we will also have this issue in the adult court if there is not proper recordkeeping of diversions for people with mental capacity issues.
My Lords, we have addressed things related to this subject fairly frequently. The fact of the matter is that those with autism get a rough deal out of society, for the simple reason that they have problems communicating and that we are an animal who communicates all the time. If you have a problem with communication, you are always going to find yourselves in positions that are potentially stressful and breeders of conflict. If we take that into account when looking at just how many rules and regulations we have, the fact that the criminal justice system will have problems with those who have autism at least occasionally is obvious to us. We should look at how we deal with that now.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, gave information about a case on which the police were found not guilty at the trial but into which there is an ongoing internal inquiry. The fact that it was severe enough to get to court suggests that something had gone wrong at this point. Look at the selfish genes of society. Having to take an issue like this to court in the first place means that there has been a fundamental mistake. If we lose track of that, no matter what the outcome of this, we are losing track of the fundamental problem. Having looked through the information and attended some of the meetings that have already been referred to, I say that the police are always going to struggle with somebody who has these communication problems. However, they know this and there are schemes in various parts of the country that are better at making the police informed. What are the Government going to do, and encourage local police forces to do, to make sure that people understand or at least have an awareness of autism?
This is not easy, quite simply because most of the problem will be at the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum—those with Asperger’s or those who will not obviously have a problem, and where the first few lines of communication will probably not be enough to establish it. There is a desperate need for training but initial police training is a very slow way of getting this into the structure. I cannot help but feel that if a senior sergeant or inspector within the force had had a look at this case and said that an apology or some form of mediation were required, we might not have had to go through that wasteful process of taking an action in court. We might not have needed such a lengthy internal procedure. We are wasting time and money by not taking on some basic awareness training within this part of the service.
The same criticism could almost certainly be made of most bits of government. I will undoubtedly make similar points about other disabilities at other times, and already have. But unless you do this, you are building up the stress levels. If we are not to keep all our disabled people, and particularly autistics, locked away but to have them interacting with society, it is a basic requirement that we allow those in the public sector at least to be able to interact with them. I am calling not for everybody to be an expert but for them to have enough confidence and awareness so that, when they establish that something is not right, they call in the right support and help. That is not too much to ask: that you know that you do not have to soldier on here, and you call in the person who knows something. You are not wasting time or resources, or causing that individual such enormous stress.
We had a debate on mental health a week ago today, in which I spoke about the problems of those with disabilities and mental health. Autistics were a large part of that group. Some 70% of those with autism are reckoned to have some form of mental health problem, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, has already referred to the fact that those on the autistic spectrum are grossly overrepresented within our prison system. By the way, it is very widely accepted that virtually all hidden disabilities or special educational needs are grossly overrepresented within the prison system. Therefore that should not come as any surprise. To try and avoid that, we should invest a little in training and time throughout the system, so that there is a way in which you can interact, apologise, back down and correct what has gone wrong, as far as you can. All systems will go wrong, but unless we can instil enough knowledge within the system so that we can say, “Yes; something has gone wrong and we will intervene to do what we can to put it right”, you will have these problems. Would it not have been better if that had taken place?
It is equally damning in this case because this same individual had been involved in a case three years earlier, and Bedfordshire Police had agreed to undertake some of this. If it did, clearly it did not get through to the right person at the right time. We need to make sure that we get this done, and quickly. If not, we will waste the time and resources that could very usefully be spent somewhere else. The selfish gene of society means that we deal with this and move on, otherwise we waste time and resources and make people’s lives unpleasant. That is more or less an open-and-shut case.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for this debate. As has already been said, Faruk Ali comes from Luton, a town in my own diocese. Quite a number of people have raised that case with me and have been concerned about what happened, so I am glad to be able to involve myself in this debate. However, I will leave it to other noble Lords to comment on the specifics of the debate—I, too, have read the media on this—as clearly it raises a number of wider problems. At an early stage I pay tribute to all those people, both professional and volunteers, who work in the statutory services and in the charitable sector, who are doing a very good job at huge personal cost and with great expertise. We need to acknowledge what they are doing and affirm it before looking at some of the problems.
Between 500 and 800 people have been victims of disability hate crime in each of the last five years. Some of those will almost definitely have been people with ASD, although it is widely accepted, as has already been pointed out, that generally they are more likely to be victims than offenders. Indeed, one of the characteristics of ASD is that very often people give inordinate attention to obeying laws and rules, and find that the most comfortable context in which to operate.
Over the years I have known a number of people with ASD, and one family in particular whose son had Asperger’s syndrome. They are a deeply supportive family; I got to know the lad when he was in his 20s. On first meeting you would have no idea that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but when you got to know him you realised some of the problems it was creating. He found it difficult to relate to other people; being a young man in his 20s, he was very keen to make friends with the opposite sex, but he simply did not know how to relate to girls. He would often say things that could be taken as totally inappropriate and easily misunderstood. He was very distressed by that, but simply did not have the ability to know how to relate in any other way.
In a more extreme way, on occasion he would lose his temper, which meant that, being a full grown man, he could appear frightening. I was a neighbour of his family, and sometimes he would run out of his house in a fury and knock on my front door. I learnt over the years how to simply give him a place to sit down and calm him down. In fact he was fine, but just needed some help at that point. I am telling your Lordships this account simply to illustrate that this is an immensely complex issue, particularly for people who are meeting someone, perhaps in extreme circumstances, for the first time. It is not easy for police or other health professionals always to recognise immediately who they are dealing with.
The National Autistic Society recommends that,
“the child or adult with ASD carries an identity card”,
as Faruk Ali was,
“stating their personal details, emergency contacts and an explanation of their condition”.
However, for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, who longs to integrate into society—and his family were trying to help him to do that; he had moved into a flat to live by himself—that can be quite humiliating, because it marks you out as different. That was precisely what he did not want to do.
I will raise three areas of concern. The first is on police training, which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I know, because I have talked to people involved with training the police, that they are already expected to cover a huge amount of different areas of training—they do not sit around with nothing to do. Having said that, it is important that part of that training is on how to recognise when you may be dealing with someone with particular needs, especially ASD. The Prison Reform Trust recommends that:
“Legal professionals and practitioners who undertake criminal work, members of the judiciary and liaison and diversion staff should be required to participate in awareness training in mental health problems, learning disabilities and other learning, developmental and behavioural disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, communication difficulties and dyslexia”.
Does the Minister agree that that should equally apply to the police?
Secondly, we need to ensure that there are sufficient police interview advisers. Each police service has some of those, but again it is crucial that there are sufficient resources and that they are trained.
Thirdly, I will say a word about registered intermediaries. At the other end of the criminal justice system, we also need to ensure that people with ASD are given the right support. Back in 2012 the Prison Reform Trust published Fair Access to Justice?, which recommended that support should be made available for vulnerable defendants by registered intermediaries on the same basis as witnesses:
“The Advocacy Training Council … recognises that the handling and questioning of vulnerable people in court, in order to achieve best evidence, is a specialist skill; however, there is a lack of clarity concerning the provision and availability of intermediaries for defendants. While intermediaries appointed to support vulnerable witnesses are registered and subject to a stringent selection, training and accreditation process, and quality assurance, regulation and monitoring procedures, intermediaries for defendants are neither registered nor regulated. The practice of ‘registered’ and ‘non-registered’ intermediaries—potentially in the same trial and paid different fees—is anomalous. Intermediaries should be introduced into the statutory provision of special measures for vulnerable defendants”.
Finally, does the Minister agree that this recommendation is not only important but needs to be implemented?
My Lords, a young Japanese boy by the name of Naoki Higashida wrote a book entitled The Reason I Jump. It should be basic reading for anybody in public service who has to deal with other members of the public. It is just 198 pages long and is set out in a question and answer format. There are just 58 questions, each question no more than 10 words long, with the answer about 100 to 150 words long. Question 21 in the book is relevant to today’s debate. The question which some people ask him as an autistic person is:
“Why don’t you do what you’re told to straight away?”.
“There are times when I can’t do what I want to, or what I have to. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it. I just can’t get it all together, somehow. Even performing one straightforward task, I can’t get started as smoothly as you can. Here’s how I have to go about things.
1. I think about what I’m going to do.
2. I visualise how I’m going to do it.
3. I encourage myself to get going.
How smoothly I can do the job depends on how smoothly the process goes.
There are times when I can’t act, even though I really, badly want to. This is when my body is beyond my control”.
That one sentence jumps off the page for me:
“How smoothly I can do the job depends on how smoothly the process goes”.
Just think of that sentence, and how easy it would be for the most basic and simple encounter between a police officer and an autistic person not to go smoothly, and to get out of hand.
The plain truth is that people with autism have no more desire to commit a crime than any of us. But what may start as an innocent inquiry—an encounter with a police officer—could lead to a crime being committed. A situation could escalate simply because the police, in the main, have no idea about, and lack sufficient training in dealing with, people with autism.
People with autism communicate in a way that is not familiar to most of us. The command of spoken language in a person with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome does not necessarily indicate their true level of understanding or social awareness. The wider implications of a situation may not be apparent to a person with autism, and they may not understand the kind of information they need to give in response to questioning. People with autism are also often unaware of the consequences of their actions or the effect their behaviour will have on other people, because they do not link cause and effect.
Put yourselves in this position, my Lords, and imagine that you are autistic and for one reason or another enter into a confrontational situation with a police officer. Imagine the police officer telling you to do something. They, rightly, expect you to respond immediately. And then remember that young man’s question 21:
“Why don’t you do what you’re told to straight away?”
And his answer:
“There are times when I can’t do what I want to, or what I have to. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it. I just can’t get it all together, somehow”.
People with autism are often very single-minded about their interests, and can be unaware of the effect that their actions could have on others, or that those actions could lead to them putting themselves or others in danger, or committing a crime. A person with autism, when faced with a situation such as arrest, or following an incident, may have difficulties in managing their emotional reaction. The response of the criminal justice system to this is crucial. But without appropriate training in autism, the situation could escalate, leading to inappropriate sanctions being taken against a person with autism.
The refreshed autism strategy, Think Autism, which the Government published last April, commits the Home Office to working with the College of Policing to update the mental health training for new officers, and to look at the feasibility of an autism marker being used on the police national computer, so that police officers can identify whether someone has autism, and make appropriate adjustments. That point was well made by my noble friend Lady Uddin, who we congratulate on securing this debate. The strategy was signed off by both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. If there were a marker on the police national computer, it could also be seen by other criminal justice system professionals, including prison and probation staff. So may I ask the Minister what progress has been made in this area, and what processes exist to roll out autism training to all police officers and prison staff, not just to new recruits?
Contact with the criminal justice system will have a significant impact on a person’s life. This is no less true of a person with autism. Such contact may also be a sign that their existing care and support is no longer working. For some people with autism, the situation may have been compounded over recent years by their no longer being eligible for support as a result of changing criteria—or perhaps they never qualified for support in the first place.
I share the disappointment of the National Autistic Society—here I must declare an interest as a vice-president of that organisation—that the revised adult autism strategy failed to highlight the need to reassess a person’s needs when they enter or leave the criminal justice system. So I ask the Minister: what steps are the Government taking to ensure that people with autism in prisons are identified and given appropriate support? I must stress that they need to be properly assessed to ensure that support will be there for their journey out of prison and back into the community.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I believe that training plays a key part in trying to overcome some of these problems. The questions and answers in the small book that I have spoken about should be essential reading for everybody working in the public sector. It would make a difference in solving some of these problems.
My Lords, I start my contribution to this debate by thanking my noble friend Lady Uddin for tabling this Question for Short Debate. In the light of the case of Faruk Ali, she raises an important issue about how people with autism are treated when accessing the criminal justice system as victims, witnesses, suspects or offenders. The role of victim support is important, and a proper understanding in this respect is also needed. I agree with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said when he paid tribute to the people who work in the criminal justice system.
What is autism? As other noble Lords have said, it is a developmental disability that affects how people communicate with, and relate to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. A person with autism may display a number of characteristics, which can include, among other things, being unable to read social cues, appearing to lack empathy, behaving in what would seem an odd or inappropriate manner, having difficulty in understanding tone of voice or facial expression, and making literal interpretations of figurative or metaphorical speech. They may also become extremely anxious because of unexpected events or changes in routine.
It may not be immediately obvious if someone has autism. Unusual behaviour may invite the attention of others, but it can also be said that autism is a hidden disability. People with autism do not always understand the implications of their actions or the motivations of others, and they may not learn from past experience. There are examples of people with autism being victims of crime because they are not able to deal with the situation and avoid becoming a victim. I read about the example of a person with autism who understood that it was important to avoid dark places with few people around in the late evening or at night. But they were unable to cope with the situation of being threatened by a gang in the High Street on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Only a small minority of people with autism come into contact with the criminal justice system as victims, witnesses, suspects or offenders. But it is important for people in authority to have a proper understanding of autism and to deploy effective strategies on an individual basis to ensure clear and effective communication. Some people with autism find it difficult to make eye contact, and that could, in certain circumstances, be misconstrued as being shifty or dishonest, for example. People with autism are individuals, but they all experience difficulty with social interaction, social communication and social imagination. They may not always be easy to recognise. Where a person, on coming into contact with the criminal justice system, displays unusual behaviour, it is important for the person in authority to consider whether the person has autism, and where they are on the autism spectrum.
People with autism often find unexpected or unusual situations very difficult. Encountering a situation that involves anyone from the criminal justice system or the emergency services is just the sort of situation that could be very difficult for a person with autism. My noble friend Lord Touhig gave us an excellent example of how difficult it could be for a person with autism to deal with the criminal justice system.
When the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, responds to the debate, it would be useful if he could explain what advice and guidance is given to professionals from the criminal justice system on adopting effective strategies for dealing with autism. Is he confident that police forces have fully understood the condition, and the steps they need to take when dealing with a person who has this disability, in whatever context?
It appears to me that more could be done to raise awareness among professionals in the criminal justice system. I read one report about a victim of crime with autism who was viewed as someone who would make an unreliable presentation in court, so the case against the suspect was dropped. It could of course be that the people who questioned the victim did it in a way that did not enable the victim to tell their story. Instead—unintentionally, I am sure—they caused that person stress and made it impossible for them to get their points across effectively, and they were denied justice as a consequence.
Organisations such as the National Autistic Society run bespoke courses for professionals in the criminal justice system. Does the Minister know what the take-up of such courses is, and what the Ministry of Justice is doing to encourage greater take-up? Has the ministry thought about talking to the Home Office and seeing whether at least one officer, if not more, in every police station has been on a course designed to equip them with the skills to communicate effectively with a person with autism?
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made an important point about training in the criminal justice system. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, can tell us what he understands the Crown Prosecution Service does to communicate and deal with the needs of people with autism it comes into contact with. Is any discussion taking place with the legal professions to ensure that they have an appropriate appreciation of the condition and of how people with the condition need to be communicated with? My noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede made an excellent contribution highlighting what happens when a person with autism appears in a magistrates’ court and the problems that delays and other issues cause them.
The autism alert card produced by the National Autistic Society is a useful initiative and can help people when dealing with someone with the condition, although I understand the point that the right reverend Prelate made in that respect. I do not intend to comment on the Faruk Ali case as IPCC proceedings are under way. In conclusion, I again thank my noble friend Lady Uddin for raising this important matter in the House today.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for securing this debate, and raising the important issue of access to, and support from, the criminal justice system for those with autism spectrum disorders. It is, of course, a spectrum. As has been rightly said, those with higher functioning autism can be particularly difficult to identify. Generally, autism can sometimes be difficult to identify or diagnose.
A lot of information is available about Mr Faruk Ali’s case. However, as a number of noble Lords have indicated, the two police officers were cleared after a trial relating to the incident which took place on 20 February. Both officers remain suspended pending the outcome of a misconduct investigation. In those circumstances, it would be inappropriate for the Government to comment further. However, I have no difficulty at all in saying that we expect the highest standards of professionalism in all aspects of policing and across the criminal justice system and I am extremely happy to condemn any racist or discriminatory behaviour by any police officer in any circumstances. The decision as to whether to take further action against these officers is a matter for the Independent Police Crime Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service.
I am well aware of the need for all parliamentarians, and especially those who work in public services, to be more conscious of the needs and experiences of people with autism. This issue is particularly important as regards the criminal justice system. It is thought that around 2% of the general population have autism, but I recognise that the figure within the offending population could be much higher as a percentage.
The Government’s autism strategy, which was updated in April 2014, contains specific actions in relation to criminal justice. The Ministry of Justice is a signatory to that strategy. The update contains new obligations for the Ministry—obligations which I am pleased to say we are taking forward. These include the commitment to establish a cross-government group to take forward issues with autism and the criminal justice system. I am pleased to say that although the system encompasses a large number of players, as noble Lords will understand —for instance, the police and prosecutors, to which the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred, as well as courts, prisons and probation—my department is leading on this work and chairing the group.
We also agreed, as part of our commitments in the strategy, to examine and share good practice in prisons towards prisoners with autism. We are also considering whether autism awareness training can be made available to probation staff. We are having conversations with the new independent Probation Institute about this. As part of our strategy, we agreed to make information available to potential bidders for contracts for the new providers of probation services under our transforming rehabilitation programme.
All the strategy objectives have one thing in common: they are helping with our aim to ensure that the criminal justice system can adapt to cope with people with autism, whether they are suspects, victims or witnesses. As a number of noble Lords have said, training is key to this. All staff in the criminal justice system cannot be expected to be subject experts in every disability they may encounter, as my noble friend Lord Addington said, but they should at least be on notice that there might be a problem, which I think was the burden of his remarks. For example, a person whose possibly different perception of social norms may get them into trouble and the chances of someone in the criminal justice system encountering someone with autism is therefore significant.
As part of the autism strategy, the Home Office has committed to ensuring that the College of Policing develops better training for the police in recognising autistic spectrum disorders. I am pleased to update noble Lords on the fact that the college now has a full-time mental health co-ordinator and, arising from that role, it has set in train important streams of work around the development of new authorised professional practice guidance on mental health, including autism. The new guidance should be available to consult in the near future and we hope will go live and be public by autumn 2015.
The guidance for police will be underpinned by the first comprehensive package of training, pitched at different levels of detail and relevance for different ranks and roles of officers across the service. These training packages will be relevant for the promotion process and professional development, right up to the Police National Assessment Centre, which selects senior officers. This training is delivered through a formal training board, including the police national curriculum manager, and has already highlighted the need to understand the extent to which police training should confirm condition-specific awareness.
It has been recognised that these disorders may need to affect a policing response. The work is at an early stage and will develop in 2015, with a view to training products being ready for piloting in 2015 and completed for consumption nationally by the end of the first quarter of 2016.
As to prison officers, NOMS has a Prison Service instruction, a set of binding rules for prisons which covers autism. It includes a specific section to help people understand autism as well as a section on communicating with people who have learning difficulties or related disorders because it is sometimes the case that there is comorbidity, as it were. There may be autism and other difficulties within one person.
Some prisons have developed their own autism strategies and sets of training materials—for example, the excellent work that is being done at Dovegate prison. As I mentioned earlier, my department is very keen to find best practice among local practitioners and to share and promote this more widely.
I am glad to say that within the Ministry itself training is available for staff on autism. I know that a number of charities offer training on interacting with people with autism, written specifically for criminal justice professionals. I hope that this will mean a real improvement in the experiences that autistic people have when they interact with the criminal justice system.
Liaison and diversion schemes, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others, are key to this. It is, of course, crucial that we are able to identify autism. Twenty- five million pounds has been invested across England to fund mental health professionals in police stations and courts to establish liaison and diversion services. These services identify people when they first come into contact with the youth and adult criminal justice systems and help support the most appropriate outcomes. They are available 24 hours a day and ensure that across the trial areas they will be provided with the same level of care and service.
By identifying someone with a health problem such as autism when they are brought into a police station or involved in court proceedings, liaison and diversion schemes can ensure that an individual is supported through the criminal justice system and into the right mental health or social care service. We have strong anecdotal evidence that they can reduce the overall length of court proceedings—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby—through the provision of timely reports to magistrates, limiting the number of court hearings, and probably adjournments, and therefore avoiding periods on remand. They should be passed between authorities and should follow the individual through the criminal justice system to probation or prison services, so that from the first encounter, quite apart from the question of flagging this on a computer—that important point was raised and is being looked into—there is not, as it were, a gap in people’s awareness.
There is a real opportunity here for the liaison and diversion service to help courts do their job. The case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, was a considerable challenge to the court, by the sound of it. It almost sounded like an exam set for a judge in all the most difficult problems a court would have to confront. Even the question of unfitness to plead, I dare say, would have come before the court on that particular occasion. I am sorry that there were delays. Of course, delays can sometimes be encountered in finding the appropriate expert to make the diagnosis or identify the disorder. It can still take too long. I have had briefings from the Department of Health on this issue. It has commissioned the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence to produce guidance which will lead to quicker diagnosis. There is a role for NHS England in looking at people’s experience of diagnosis, and the importance of timely and effective services will be highlighted in a forthcoming statutory guidance on autism for local authorities and the NHS.
The new model—the liaison and diversion model—has already seen more than 10,000 children, young people and adults, come through the service while going through the justice process. The model will be independently evaluated to inform a business case for services to cover all of the English population by 2017-18. As to victims and witnesses—as in the case raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, there can be times when both a victim and a defendant may need support—it is very difficult for a court and all those taking part in the criminal justice system to come to the truth and nevertheless respect the rights of all those involved in the process.
The Government are committed to providing support for all types of vulnerable and intimidated victims and have a range of special measures in place to support them in the criminal justice system. Of course, the courts have an inherent right to ensure that someone on the autistic spectrum has appropriate facilities to assist them in their defence, including the use of intermediaries. There is guidance given to judges as to this use of special measures and the access to materials on the private judicial websites. If they are confronted with difficulties they should be aware of the possibility—and indeed they are—of helping those who have difficulties, although, as I said, the information should be conveyed by the liaison and diversion services or through the probation service in any event.
The registered intermediary should help them communicate their evidence. Intermediaries are communication specialists to help vulnerable witnesses provide their best evidence. They are one of the special measures introduced in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act. In 2014, 499 requests for a registered intermediary to help witnesses with disorders such as autism were received. In addition, victims and witnesses can also expect to be able to use communication aids, devices such as books and symbol boards to help them communicate when giving evidence in court.
A new victims’ code implemented in December 2013 sets out the support and services that victims can expect to receive from agencies throughout the criminal justice process. It also sets out that victims in the following three priority categories of crime are entitled to receive enhanced support and information: victims of the most serious crime; intimidated or vulnerable victims; and persistently targeted victims, which can be a particular feature of those who are on the autistic spectrum. The code entitles them to receive this enhanced support including the referral to specialist organisations.
The police and the Crown Prosecution Service have a duty under their code to assess the victims’ needs at an early stage—this is a partial answer to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy—and to refer any eligible victims for enhanced services for pre-trial therapy where appropriate. So every single player in the criminal justice process should be equipped—and should be better equipped—to identify and help those with autism. In addition, of course, victims with disabilities, or a close relative, can nominate a family spokesperson as a single point of contact to receive services under the code.
The conclusion that I invite the House to reach is that there is an increasing appreciation by the Government —increasing joined-up thinking—that the criminal justice system must respond to the challenge of autism. I genuinely think that the Government are taking this seriously and that the access to and experience of the criminal justice system for those who have these disorders should improve in the future.
This is a very sad case, whatever ultimately may be the determination of the facts. If it has done anything, it has perhaps helped stimulate this debate and further reinforced the importance for all those in the criminal justice system to be aware of autism, the challenges that it confronts, and responding appropriately to them.
I thank all noble Lords for their contribution to this useful debate.