(Title Image: National Autistic Society Cymru)
Yesterday, the Autism Bill – proposed by the Conservative leader, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) – faced its first major vote in the Senedd since it was introduced. A summary of what was proposed is available here.
The Health Committee didn’t come to any firm conclusions on whether the Bill was necessary or not, while the Welsh Government opposed the Bill from the start. So the Autism Bill was always facing an uphill struggle.
Here’s how that final debate panned out.
This has been one of the most keenly-contested and lobbied-for pieces of legislation in the Senedd’s history, so this article will be a bit longer than usual.
Due to the number of speakers, it’s best to divide AMs into the Committee Chairs, those who supported the Bill, those who supported the Bill in principle (but would vote against it) and those who outright opposed the Bill.
Chair of the Health Committee, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) ran through the conclusions of his Committee’s Stage 1 report – which is summarised here.
“….we have not….been able to reach consensus on whether this legislation at this particular time is the most appropriate way of achieving these much-needed improvements. Some Members….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….Other Members feel more time is needed for existing initiatives and legislation to take effect.”
– Health Committee Chair, Dr Dai Lloyd AM
Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales), said his Committee was unable to make a recommendation due to a lack of engagement by the Welsh Government with Paul Davies to provide accurate cost estimates. He described this as a “worrying precedent that should not be repeated”.
The Health Minister said in reply it “wasn’t the Government’s job to do the Member’s work for him”.
Chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd), was worried that the powers in the Bill which would enable it to be amended to include extra neurodevelopmental conditions was too broad and wasn’t “good legislative practice”. For this reason, the Committee recommended rejecting the Bill.
The Bill’s Supporters
The Member in Charge, Paul Davies AM, was disappointed the Welsh Government wouldn’t support the Bill, as he believed it would build upon many of the measures the government are introducing like a statutory code.
“I believe this Bill will improve services for people with autism across Wales and I would urge Members not just to listen to me, but to listen to the many charities, the many activists, the many families living with autism, which affects them each day, all day, every day. The autism community have demonstrated sheer clarity on this issue and they shared their many stories and experiences with me, so many stories are deeply upsetting, and they’re campaigning for legislation to give them protection and assurances that signpost them to services that will help improve their quality of life and that of the people around them.”
– Paul Davies AM
Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said the Minimum Alcohol Price Act was introduced with minimal accompanying evidence yet was deemed necessary – an insinuation the Welsh Government rejected.
“Autism must have a statutory identity in Wales, with specific duties placed on, amongst others, local authorities and health boards. Reliance on the Welsh Government’s revised ASD action plan and integrated autism service otherwise promises more of the same. Every single day, I and my office are contacted by autistic people or their family members in crisis because public service providers don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, what autism is, despite going on the training course.”
– Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales)
Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) was sceptical about the need for a law, but having heard the evidence changed her mind. Some of the stories were heartbreaking and there was a shocking lack of consistency nationally.
These comments were echoed by Caroline Jones AM (Ind, South Wales West) who said very little had happened since the first autism plan was published ten years ago; it was becoming clear these plans and strategies had failed.
UKIP’s Michelle Brown also spoke in support of the Bill, as it would otherwise let the government off the hook for mismanagement of the health service.
Neutral/Supported in Principle; Voted Against
Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) – whose daughter is awaiting a diagnosis – ran through a number of examples of the type of questions parents of autistic children ask, including those relating to schooling, communication skills and even things like toilet training.
Hefin said he wouldn’t base his vote on the government whip, but from meetings he had with the Health Minister, Paul Davies AM and other interested groups. In the end, concerns over whether the views of children are properly taken into consideration and whether a diagnosis-specific bill is appropriate led him to decide to vote against – though the Minister should see this as a “call for action”.
“What I want the Minister to say unequivocally to me today for me to not vote for this Bill is that if the appraisal finds that these initiatives that the Government has brought forward are not working, then the Government will introduce its own Bill during this Assembly term.”
– Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)
The Bill’s Opponents
Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), acknowledged there were real, legitimate concerns over how services are working at present and that’s why the government has invested in new services. The Minister also believed the new statutory Autism Code – which has a consultation open until March 1st 2019 – would be enough to address the concerns raised in the Bill. He did, however, leave the door open to a law if the Code doesn’t work:
“We believe that we have all the legislative powers that we need to deliver the required improvements in autism services, and we are delivering on our commitments set out in the autism strategy. If the improvements that we’re committed to making are not realised, then the door is, of course, open to future legislation, if that would make the difference that we all want to see.“
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething