The Autism Bill has made it through its final parliamentary stage and will now become the Autism Act – the first ever disability-specific law in England.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) heralded the new law as ‘groundbreaking’ and said health and social care services could now face legal action if they failed to provide support for people with the condition, which affects over half a million people in the UK.
Commented Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the NAS:
“Thousands of adults with autism told us they were experiencing serious mental health difficulties due to a lack of support. After a year of lobbying, this is the watershed moment they have been waiting for – this law could literally transform lives. It will add serious weight to the forthcoming adult autism strategy so now we’ll be keeping the pressure up on Government to make sure they get it right and deliver lasting change for people with this serious, lifelong and disabling condition.”
Once it receives Royal Assent the Bill will officially become the Autism Act, which will guarantee the introduction of the first-ever adult autism strategy, which will be published in early 2010.
Explains James Willis, Senior Associate from Thomson Snell & Passmore:
"The Autism Bill, on coming into force, will make the Government's planned adult autism strategy legally enforceable.
“In turn, the strategy is likely to document the duties and obligations of the NHS and Local Authorities, when addressing the interests of people with autism in respect of such matters as health, social care, employment and training.
“Currently, it is not clear exactly what the strategy will do to improve the employment prospects of people with autism. It may assist in focusing and coordinating the efforts of public sector bodies in helping autistic people into work.
“But it is worth emphasising the fact that this is not a strategy intended to heap additional legal obligations on employers. That said, employers are likely to be very aware of their existing duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
“As a result, employers are already bound to consider how they ensure that people with autism are not subjected to less favourable treatment and that adjustments are made to ensure that they are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in the workplace.”
“This is a specific piece of legislation intended to address the needs of a very specific group of people. I do not think that it is likely to result in a tidal wave of similar laws covering other conditions. Nor do I expect it materially to affect the legal obligations of the vast majority of employers in the United Kingdom."
However, the NAS is also calling for the strategy to tackle the woeful number of people with autism in employment. New research for the charity’s Don’t Write Me Off campaign, launched last week, found that a third of people with autism – over 100,000 – currently live without a job and without benefits.
For more information on the Autism Act visit www.autism.org.uk/autismact2009.
The strategy will be published by April 2010 and the accompanying legal guidance no later than December 2010.