As a member of the Assembly all-party group on autism, I welcome the fact that the Autism Bill has reached Second Stage. I congratulate the chairman of the group and all those who put so much work into it.
As other Members pointed out, there have been a number of important and positive milestones on the journey towards meeting the needs of people with autism. Second Stage is another important milestone on the way to eliminating the discrimination against those people with ASD who fall outside the vision of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The all-party group autism proposes that the Government create a legal obligation for action on ASD by enshrining it in legislation. That is the approach taken by the Autism Bill, and the all-party group believes that that is the way forward. The Bill has widespread support among the general public and from seven of the eight voluntary agencies that are involved in autism.
As previously indicated, a number of research projects on autism have been carried out in Northern Ireland. Those include the Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Library Service’s 2008 reports, ‘Improving Services for People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)’, ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)’ and its 2010 report on the Autism Bill. Those were independent research reports, all of which support the principles of the Bill. In addition, the Assembly all-party group on autism carried out a consultation in March 2010, which resulted in an 80% approval rating for ASD legislation.
The Equality Commission and Disability Action confirmed that the new Bill would bring clarity. Many Members will recall the walk for legislation rally in which we participated in 2008. All the political parties were presented with a petition that was signed by thousands of supporters of the Bill. Again, all but one of the ASD-specific voluntary organisations supported the general principles of the Bill. All 26 councils have given some positive support for the Bill, and the political parties in the Assembly with, perhaps, one exception, have all agreed to vote for it. Some parties have included in their manifesto their belief that action on ASD should be treated as a priority. There is considerable support among political parties and the general public for the Autism Bill.
As part of the legislative process, the Assembly all-party group on autism issued a consultation document on the Bill to get the views of the various bodies that were involved in autism. The document was sent to 38 consultees across all sectors, and 26 completed responses were received, which was a response rate of approximately 70%. The main findings of the consultation were extremely positive. The need for a cross-departmental strategy was widely supported by 80% of the respondents. They agreed that the new law should require the autism strategy to be cross-departmental; in other words, that all the relevant Departments should be required to work together to agree on and implement the strategy, but not in the piecemeal way in which work is carried out at present, which causes people to fall through the net. Given the diverse needs of the autistic population, cross-departmental accountability is central to the successful implementation of the strategy.
Some 72% of respondents to the consultation supported the need for autism legislation. One respondent noted that the Bill should promote fairness and provide access to and support for services based on the needs of the individual, not on whether such individuals comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Another respondent claimed that the Bill would challenge the exclusion from services that faces many people with autism and their families and carers.
The consultation also highlighted the need for formal partnerships. Again, 72% of respondents agreed that the law underpinning a cross-departmental strategy should promote a partnership among Departments, public bodies and community and voluntary sector bodies, and they emphasised that such bodies had a lot of expertise that must be used. The consultation also highlighted the need for an agreed definition of ASD across all Departments and in guidance. That proposal received the support of 88% of respondents.
There are concerns, but they have largely been met by the Bill. The Bill can improve the lives of thousands of people with autism and their families, and, therefore, I support it.