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1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) not only on obtaining the debate but on the way in which he has tackled the issue--not only while I have been a Minister at the Department for Education and Employment but during the previous Government's time in office.

I was interested to hear at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech that he is an honorary member of the Left-Handers Club. I had not known anyone in the club until I met him, and he has certainly put it on my agenda in a way that no one else has.

I know that the hon. Gentleman sincerely cares about the issue and thinks that it is of real importance to many children in our schools. If he thinks that left-handedness has affected his development--I have had a quick chat with the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), who also is left-handed and has concurred with some of the hon. Gentleman's comments--the issue must be of concern to the Government. We do not want to pretend that it is not an issue. Today, therefore, I am prepared also to stand up for the rights of left-handed people. The debate centres on how great an issue it is and on exactly what has to be done.

We are accustomed in politics to arguing about left and right, and about the differences between the two, but the hon. Gentleman has put a new gloss on that debate. I wondered briefly whether the Government's search for a third way might be relevant to this debate, but--after 30 seconds--decided that, of all policy spheres, perhaps only left-handedness does not offer a third way. It really is a debate about left and right, and perhaps about achieving equal rights.

I hope that things have changed. My father was left-handed as a child and was forced to write with his right hand; he has developed the ability to write equally well with either hand--he is ambidextrous. The hon. Gentleman gave interesting examples of words that were used to describe left-handed people. I hope that none of them would be used now for that purpose.

I accept that there has been prejudice and discrimination against left-handed people, and a feeling that left-handedness was wrong and unacceptable. It was thought that left-handed people, perhaps like people with a squint in their eye, needed to be treated--corrective measures had to be taken so that they could be like the rest of world and write right-handed. I hope that we have put those days behind us.

I was sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman's story about the seven-year-old who was made to write with his right hand. Such a practice in our schools is totally unacceptable, and I hope that head teachers and others would act if a teacher ever made a child use a hand to write uncomfortably.

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The list of famous people given by the hon. Gentleman partly defeats his own argument, as he cannot for a minute say that those left-handed people have not aspired to the greatest heights or achieved at the highest levels, or have not taken their place among the good and great.

In the past week--as I knew that I would have the honour of replying to the debate--I have asked everyone entering my office whether he or she is left-handed or right-handed. Initially, they gave me a strange look as--having come for a discussion on the national curriculum, for example--they did not know why they had to answer such a question. Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Gentleman that many people in the Department are left-handed. I am thinking of launching an inquiry into a conspiracy in the Department, whereby only left-handed people have been given the top jobs.

I think that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree that left-handed people have not been held back. As someone who is very keen on watching tennis, I have often wondered why so many tennis finalists, for example, are left-handers.

Left-handedness is an issue, and there is probably a genuine debate about how it should be addressed. I was please to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he no longer felt that it was a special need. He took that line in some of our earlier correspondence. However, I entirely accept that I did not realise the basis of his position. Nevertheless, I would not have advised him to take that line, and I think that he was right to abandon it.

Left-handedness is not a special need, for two reasons. The first is that it is a norm for a group of people and should be as acceptable as other physical or mental characteristics. Labelling would be wrong for those who are left-handed. We do not want to give left-handed people a greater hang-up than they might have already about being in a minority. Labelling sends its own messages.

Secondly, I feel very strongly--having seen many of those who truly have special educational needs--that left-handed people will always have difficulties in competing for resources or expertise against children with genuine SENs, who require an awful lot of resources. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for helping to establish that we should no longer think of left-handedness as an SEN.

We do not count how many children are left-handed. Moreover--amazingly--we do not count how many children have special educational needs. There is subsequently a difficulty--which will not apply to left-handedness--in defining various special educational needs. Left-handed people are not being discriminated against, because those numbers are not being kept.

The hon. Gentleman will see that there is hope in the documents that we published recently--building on work set in train by the previous Government; I seek no political edge in the matter--on teacher training, children's needs and the need to be conscious of children's differences. I am optimistic, and think that there is a hook--I do not use the word as he did--on which we can hang greater awareness of left-handed children.

We are not terribly prescriptive in any of the documents on standards for qualified teacher status or SEN co-ordinators published by the Department or the Teacher Training Agency. We never say, "This is how you've got

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to look at dyslexic children or at autism." None of those conditions is mentioned in any of the documents that we have published.

I cannot promise to start including in documents statements that trainee teachers should be taught about left-handed children. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman hope that embedded in the documents will be instructions to teacher trainers that teachers must be able to identify the needs of individual children and know that children must be dealt with individually.

I expect all teachers to know which children in their classes are left-handed. The hon. Gentleman's comments on elbows were helpful. Teachers have to know who is left-handed so that they can arrange their classroom and offer children specialist equipment and other help.

The issues of left-handedness have been placed firmly in my mind in the past 12 months, and today's public debate has reiterated issues raised in the private debate that the hon. Gentleman and I have had. I can give him the undertaking that I will talk to the TTA. I cannot deliver on his request to require all student teachers to be made aware of the problems of left-handedness, but, once we have seen the video produced by the Post Office--for whose sponsorship I am grateful--and determine that it is of an acceptable quality, we shall be happy to distribute it to all providers of initial teacher training. I am sure that he will be happy to accept that caveat. Perhaps that will be a first step in putting the issues in the minds of the public--as he and his former constituent have put the issue in my mind.

In my discussions with those who have influence in the matter and who train teachers, I am prepared to ensure that left-handedness is not thought of as a special condition, as part of the SEN agenda or as something peculiar or odd. We should ensure that all teachers--in their work in the classroom of identifying the special characteristics of each of our children--bear in mind the fact that left-handedness is an important facet of some children and must be taken into account in planning lessons.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire for drawing the matter to my attention. As someone who writes very badly, though with my right hand, I had not given proper thought to it before. By correspondence and in his speech today, the hon. Gentleman has enabled me to give it more thought. If that helps children and raises standards, the debate will have been worth while.

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1.29 pm

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I begin by saying that I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Argentina. It is a long time since the House debated the relationship between the United Kingdom and Argentina. Whatever problems may have existed between us in the past, I am delighted to say that the relationship is now excellent, and a wide range of activities takes place between our countries. I have no doubt that that relationship will be further enhanced by President Menem's official visit to the United Kingdom in October.

Contact between our two countries started long ago, and today many families living in Argentina can trace their roots back to the United Kingdom. Argentina is a large country. Its population is nearly 36 million. It is the second largest country in Latin America, and 10 times larger than the United Kingdom. In 1997, its economic growth was 8.4 per cent. For a number of years, it has followed policies of major economic reform, and its people and ours are pleased that it now has a thriving democracy, due to the policies of its Government and its President.

The normalisation of diplomatic and consular relations between our countries occurred in 1989-90. Since then, there have been many high-level visits. Argentina's Minister of Justice visited the United Kingdom and met the Lord Chancellor. Its Foreign Minister has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and its Minister of Defence attended in London the first seminar on defence policy between our two countries.

The Lord Mayor of London has visited Argentina, as have the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport. Although there have been important exchange visits, those of us who take an interest in the economic developments in that country feel that real progress has been made in that respect.

Argentina is now the second most important Latin American market for the United Kingdom. In 1997, British exports to Argentina were worth more than $800 million, and it is one of the fastest growing markets for the United Kingdom. I pay the warmest tribute to the many major British companies that, by sheer hard work, have developed a market for a wide range of products. Without doubt, they have used their experience and know-how to develop trade with Argentina.

In addition, United Kingdom direct investment in the country has been most impressive. More than $2.13 billion was invested between 1990 and 1996. I am also delighted that, as British trade and investment in Argentina have developed enormously, equally, trade and investment from Argentina are increasing here. The range of British companies investing there is most impressive, and includes all our major industries. They all praise the helpfulness of both Governments in developing the range of investment opportunities.

It is also pleasing to note that, although Argentina is a long way from Europe, it continues to develop links with the European Union. It also fully supports and works for the liberalisation of internal trade, a matter which both Governments pursue and seek to develop. All those developments closely build on the existing links between us, to the benefit of the people of both countries.

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I mentioned the families who live in Argentina and can trace their links back over many years--in some cases, centuries--to the United Kingdom. I look to cultural and personal exchanges for further developments in culture, music, film, theatre and education. I hope that, in future, more young people will travel between our countries, and that the tourist trade will develop. Like the United Kingdom, Argentina is a beautiful country, with much to offer visitors. We all know that distance means very little these days. People visit countries throughout the world. I look to my hon. Friend, in his reply, to confirm that it is a future avenue of development between our countries.

I have already mentioned the problems between our countries in the past. Although there are differences concerning the Falkland Islands, they should be resolved by the two Governments and the people of the islands. In no way should they restrict the developments that I have already outlined.

I also mentioned President Menem's forthcoming visit to the United Kingdom in October. Bearing in mind Argentina's troubled past, he deserves enormous praise. He has led his country to the democracy that it now enjoys and protects, and he deserves great credit for that. He now travels to many countries throughout the world, and is always warmly received. I have no doubt that, when he makes his official Government visit to the United Kingdom, he will be warmly received here. His will be the first visit to the United Kingdom by an Argentine President since 1961, and he will be the official guest of the British Government. He will meet the Queen, the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers. He will address Members of both Houses of Parliament and meet a wide range of business people, undoubtedly seeking to develop trade and investment between our countries. His visit will build on the relationship that our two countries jealously seek to protect and develop.

Many hon. Members on both sides will join me in paying a warm tribute to His Excellency the Argentine ambassador--who, I am pleased to say, is in the House today--for all the work that he and his colleagues at the embassy do. He is a true friend of the United Kingdom, and has done a great deal to develop relations between our countries. I am sure that he will play a major role in the visit of President Menem in October.

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