Byline: edited by RICHARD GARNER
MILLIONS of British adults are fighting a daily battle with the written word.
Now the Government has launched a pounds 1.5billion crusade in a bid to end our devastating illiteracy problem,
People who cannot read, write or add up properly lead lives of constant struggle, according to a government report, Skills For Life, published today.
Dozens of times a day, they reveal the give-away signs that would tell an expert they are struggling to master the basics. One of the commonest is: "I've left my glasses at home... could you read that sign for me?"
But a lack of the basics makes it a nightmare for many adults to do simple things such as plan a shopping trip or work out the change they should be given. They cannot tell if they have been cheated.
Today, Prime Minister Tony Blair is backing the pounds 1.5billion three-year plan - to be launched by Education Secretary David Blunkett - aimed at dramatically cutting the number of illiterate adults in the UK.
The report underlines the shocking fact that seven million adults can't read or write properly. When it comes to doing sums, the figures are worse.
"This has disastrous consequences for the individuals concerned, weakens the country's ability to compete in the global economy and places a huge burden on society," says the report.
Business chiefs believe the lack of basic skills among the working population is costing the UK pounds 4.8billion a year in lost orders.
"One in five employers reports a significant gap in their workers' skills," the document says. "And over a third of those companies with a literacy and numeracy skills gap say they have lost business or orders to competitors because of it."
The cost to the country could be as high as pounds 10billion a year, once unemployment benefit and health care are included. People with low basic skills may earn considerably lower incomes and are more likely to have health problems or turn to crime.
But it is their daily struggle to cope with ordinary life which is the biggest challenge ministers hope to overcome.
The report says: "Whether we are reading a newspaper or the instructions on a medicine bottle, using a bus or train timetable or working out whether we can afford to buy something, not being able to understand written words or numbers could make our day a source of worry, uncertainty and stress,
"People with these poor literacy and numeracy skills get by, usually by relying on others for help or by avoiding situations where they need to read, write or calculate.
"But, because they lack literacy and numeracy skills, they and their families may well exclude themselves from advantages others take for granted.
"People with inadequate numeracy skills earn on average six to seven per cent less than others, while people with inadequate literacy skills could earn up to 11 per cent less."
The document sets a target to reduce the illiteracy rate in the UK by 750,000 within the next three years. It adds: "In the longer term, we want to make sure that England has one of the best adult literacy and numeracy rates in the world. And ultimately we want to eliminate the problem altogether.
"Every adult who is improving his or her literacy and numeracy skills will be given support. Education and training will be entirely free, no matter where it is or who provides it.
"Some will want to learn in a classroom, others at work and others at home. Some will want to combine literacy and numeracy with their other studies.
"New technology will give us wider options for learning. We will ensure that these are properly developed, tested and exploited so that as many potential learners as possible can benefit.
"Inertia and fatalism - not least among low-skilled individuals - are our chief enemies. We must be bold and imaginative to overcome them. …