The Charity Times Interview: Matthew Downie

Written by Andrew Holt
December 2009

Not many charity campaign managers can say they have made legal history, but Matthew Downie, campaigns manager for The National Autistic Society can. He helped to steer a bill through Parliament that became the landmark Autism Act on November 12 this year. The process he went through was one of perseverance, passion and diplomacy.

Or as he says: "I had to be tenacious and diplomatic in equal measure. We knew we could not upset the Government too much, as there would be other issues in the future we would have to deal with them on." Adding a political twist to the campaign, the Government was initially opposed to the bill, as it believed such measures relating to autism did not need to be written into law.

The move for the first ever law on autism began with the launch of the The National Autistic Society I Exist campaign in February 2008. The focus of this campaign was on addressing the needs of adults on the autistic spectrum who are often isolated and ignored, as government, local authorities and health services did not know how many adults with autism there were in the UK.

Moreover, staff assessing and supporting adults did not receive training in autism and many people with autism failed to fit local services' criteria for support. "From the outset we knew to change this we had to make a difference through the law," says Downie.

Extensive research underpinned the I Exist campaign. It was found that: 63% of adults with autism do not have enough support to meet their needs; 60% of parents say that a lack of support has resulted in their son or daughter having higher support needs in the long term; a third of adults (33%) say they have experienced severe mental health difficulties because of a lack of support; over 60% of adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism have struggled to receive support from their local authority and/or health service.

"We drafted a bill that included what we wanted to work towards," Downie says. The ball then got rolling with a private Members Bill Ballot, which was the charity's chosen mechanism route. Subsequently, Angela Browning MP introduced a 'Ten Minute Rule Bill' on May 20 2008, which was based on some of the main demands from the I Exist campaign.

The Bill was initially supported by eight other charity organisations, which then rose to 16. The Bill slowly engendered the support beyond the autism sector, with many disability charities pledging support for its principles. "The support we got from leading autism and other charities was outstanding," says Downie

Then a Private Members Bill reception was held on the October 7 2008 to introduce the draft version of the Autism Bill which was put together by The National Autistic Society and its partners. The reception provided an opportunity for MPs to pledge to take forward the Autism Bill if they were selected in the Private Members Bill Ballot in December 2008.

Downie then orchestrated a highly successful tailored email campaign in which supporters and their contacts emailed their MPs with personal stories highlighting the difference an Autism Bill would make on their lives. 2,602 individuals carried out the action and the end result was Cheryl Gillan MP was selected first in the ballot taking forward the Autism Bill.

The next stage was to ensure that the Bill would be voted through at its Second Reading to the Committee Stage, but this would take place on a Friday, a day when MPs typically go back to their constituencies.

"The challenge was to secure enough Parliamentary support in the House on a day when MPs are normally away from Westminster, so that if necessary, they would be able to vote the Bill through," says Downie. 100 MPs would need to be sitting, otherwise the Bill would fail.

Another email campaigning action was initiated, which focused on tailored messages, urging all our supporters to request that their MP turn up and vote. Downie and his team also provided templates for supporters to use to write to their local newspapers.

"MPs became aware this was a constituency concern, and that their voters wanted them to be in Parliament supporting something close to their hearts rather than conducting their normal constituency affairs. The result was our most successful response with 6,000 individuals contacting their MPs," says Downie.

The Bill was now at a crucial stage. "The Government could at this stage 'shout down' the Bill and it would then be dead," says Downie. "But if the Government had done that to a charity it would not be good for its popularity." He admits though, this was the most difficult time. "There was plenty of points, if I am honest, that I was unsure if we would get our way, but this point, because of government opposition to the bill, was the most difficult."

What happened next was a turning point that meant the bill would go through. As a direct response to the mass support, both publicly and within Parliament, for an Autism law, the Government, ahead of the second reading, announced a set of measures which met many of the National Autism Society demands. This meant the charity had won.

Downie says: "Having achieved this unparalleled success in terms of Government commitments to autism we went into the parliamentary debate having accomplished our primary goals. The second reading debate on autism was a historic victory for all our campaigners as autism was debated for an unprecedented amount of time and received widespread support from across the House.

"The key to our success was at each stage continual lobbying and briefing of MPs and disseminating information, not only through partner organisations but coordinating activities within the organisation" says Downie.

What then did he learn from the process? "You need to realise that such a campaign will be at the cost of other parts of your campaign strategy and with the support of the CEO and senior management, which we had fully, was very important indeed for us to be successful. You have to be in it together to make a big campaign like this a success."

In this way, there was cross organisation work within the charity. "The campaigns team worked closely with our publications, web, marketing and membership teams to ensure that information was regularly updated."

And he says, the final push over the past year and a half via the legislative process cannot be separated from the initial planning steps of the I Exist campaign, which all contributed to the bigger plan.

"Ultimately, MPs came forward to support the Autism Bill and were prepared both to take it forward themselves and to vote in favour of it because they had been inundated with messages from their constituents, with their stories. By raising awareness that autism is an issue which affects many people in all areas it helped to localise the campaign. By reaching MPs in this way we created a consciousness for our campaign."

The final, current part of the campaign, includes guidance to local authorities ensuring the outcomes the Law sets out, are delivered. Here the Government will establish leadership at national, regional and local level to ensure the strategy is delivered and funding will be provided to ensure that the Autism Strategy will be implemented at a regional level.

The Autism Act will now guarantee the introduction of the first-ever adult autism strategy, which will set out how local services should be improved to meet the needs of adults with autism.



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