Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

Autism bill clears first hurdle

Cheryl Gillan
Mrs Gillan says she has widespread support for her bill

A Tory MP's bid to improve support for people with autism has cleared its first Commons hurdle, despite government opposition.

Cheryl Gillan's bill would put a legal duty on councils and NHS services to look after people with autism.

Labour claims their autism strategy would achieve the same effect without the "blunt instrument" of legislation.

But Tory MPs cheered as they won a vote to stop the bill being "talked out" by 131 votes to 25 - a majority of 106.

They had entered the Commons chamber to support the closure motion in unusually large numbers for a Friday and the bill was given an unopposed second reading - allowing it to move into its detailed committee stage.

'Landmark victory'

Chesham and Amersham MP Mrs Gillan came top of the private members' ballot in December, which allows opposition parties and backbenchers to launch their own bills.

But although it had cross-party support, a letter from Health Minister Phil Hope to MPs earlier this month raised concerns the government would try to block the bill at its second reading on Friday.

This has to be enshrined in regulation and statute that will work
Angela Browning
Conservative MP

He said the government believed it was best done without legislation and was already planning work to achieve the same results. The letter was hailed as a "landmark victory" by the National Autistic Society.

But in Friday's debate, Mrs Gillan - who is shadow Welsh secretary - said she had a "huge groundswell" of support behind her bill, which she said was a "golden opportunity" for the government to showcase its action on autism.

She said she would "not let people with autism down" by dropping the bill and relying on a voluntary agreement.

'Good intentions'

Her bill is co-sponsored by Labour MP Joan Humble who said there were still "gaps in provision" of services that needed filling.

And Tory former minister Angela Browning, vice president of the National Autistic Society, told Mr Hope the government had "good intentions" but last year's promise to hold a study into the prevalence of autism had not materialised.

"This has to be enshrined in regulation and statute that will work," she said.

Legislation can be a very blunt and crude instrument for driving through change
Phil Hope
Health minister

Labour MP Janet Dean, chairman of the Commons all-party group on autism, called for more assurances that measures demanded by the National Autistic Society would be implemented.

But Lib Dem Mark Hunter intervened to ask why she was "reluctant" to support the bill instead - which was "one of the best ways of being reassured about the progress of this issue".

Ms Dean said the society had asked that the debate should be used to "secure government commitments" and said the government's autism strategy was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to provide a "step change" in autism services.

Shadow health minister, Tory MP Anne Milton, said there was "no reason" for the government not to support the bill adding: "My fear is the government are playing a rather shoddy political game because in their eyes they simply can't bear the fact that this bill has been introduced on our side of the house."

The health minister said the government needed "no persuading of the need for action on autism" but statutory guidance, rather than a bill, would "address the key issues at a local level".

Mr Hope set out measures the government planned to bring forward including new "statutory guidance" for authorities on children with autism, "robust" data collection systems, commissioning guidance for Primary Care Trusts and a new consultation on a strategy for adults with autism.

Asked why government would not back the bill, he said: "Legislation can be a very blunt and crude instrument for driving through change, especially where the end we seek is better awareness and better use of the expertise and resource already in the system.

"We need to preserve for councils the freedom and flexibility they need to meet the complex web of local needs, not to avoid them, but to meet those needs in ways that are relevant to them in their area."

Minister urged 'keep autism bill'
24 Feb 09 |  Politics
MP's plan to boost autism support
21 Jan 09 |  Politics
Gillan wins chance to set own law
11 Dec 08 |  Politics
Autism 'may be missed in girls'
16 Sep 08 |  Health
Autism misunderstood by public
29 Oct 07 |  Health

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