Health Committee unable to reach a consensus on the need for an Autism Bill

(Title Image: NAS Cymru)

Health & Social Care Committee
Stage 1: Autism Bill (pdf)
Published: 7th December 2018

“Some Members support the introduction of this Bill, believing it is both timely and necessary to put services on a statutory footing to deliver improvement where previous strategies have failed to do so, and achieve the change required for people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families.

“Other Members feel more time is needed for existing initiatives and legislation to take effect. Some were also concerned about the focus of the Bill (diagnosis rather than needs-led) and the potential consequences on people who will not receive an ASD diagnosis, and/or have other neurological conditions.”
– Committee Chair, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

The Autism Bill is a backbench law introduced by Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) – the details are available here.

1. There are concerns the Bill is too narrowly focused

The Welsh Government (and a number of witnesses) had concerns about the Bill because it would only apply to adults and children specifically diagnosed with ASD, not everyone presenting ASD traits – meaning those who don’t quite meet the criteria for ASD (or are “high-functioning”) will miss out on support. They also believe it would undermine aspects of the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014 and the Additional Learning Needs Act 2018.

Paul Davies AM rejected some of these concerns, telling the Committee that the Bill’s requirement for the Welsh Government to publish an autism strategy was much broader and people with autism and their families would continue to access support based on need.

2. Existing autism services need urgent changes, regardless of the Bill

One of the reasons the Bill was introduced was the long waiting times families and ASD people had to wait for a diagnosis. People in that situation were often redirected to Third Sector organisations run by volunteers and, subsequently, strongly supported the Bill.

There were particular concerns about employment support, with only 16% of ASD adults in full-time employment – Paul Davies AM committed to strengthening the Bill in this regard if it makes it to Stage 2.

The £13million Integrated Autism Service – introduced by the local health boards – was also criticised as a signposting and online support service, not something that directly helps people with autism and their families.

Witnesses said current laws like the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014 are failing people as the assessments included within the Act weren’t entirely suitable for ASD adults and children and people with “high-functioning” ASD (i.e. Asperger’s Syndrome) weren’t eligible for social services support.

The Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) told the Committee this shouldn’t be happening, resulting in the Committee recommending that specific provisions for ASD should be added to the Code of Practice for personal assessments under the 2014 Act.

3. There’s disagreement on whether an Autism Bill is necessary

Broadly-speaking, people with ASD, their families and the National Autistic Society (NAS) were in favour of the Bill. They told the Committee they had “lost faith” in the Welsh Government’s ability to deliver improvements through policy alone and it needed to be placed on a statutory footing.

The Welsh Government opposes the Bill (though some Labour AMs have spoken out in favour of an Autism Bill in the past) and told the Committee there’s no additional funding available to deliver it (the costs are estimated at around £7.4million).

Many healthcare professionals (Royal Colleges etc.) also questioned whether a Bill was needed just as new initiatives are introduced. In addition, they argued that the workforce, as it currently is, might be unable to deliver it and it could lead to a rushed/inappropriate diagnosis.

The Welsh Government and healthcare bodies also raised concerns that people with other neurological conditions and learning disabilities will see ASD getting “preferential treatment”. It could also lead to organisations and patients/families pushing for more condition-specific laws to be introduced.

Some Members of the Committee questioned the Welsh Government’s opposition, saying that if they were so concerned about a “condition-specific” law, why are they planning to introduce a statutory code of practice for ASD?

The Committee made no specific recommendation for AMs to either support or reject the general principles of the Bill when it goes before them for a vote in 2019.

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