College refuseniks may lose benefits

Thousands of long-term unemployed with reading and writing problems could lose their benefits unless they agree to enter further education, under radical new proposals about to be presented to government.

The proposals to extend the Government's Welfare to Work programme come as a new report from the Basic Skills Agency reveals the damage long-term unemployment has on already poor numeracy and literacy skills.

Being out of work for long periods causes people to lose often already weak skills, leaving thousands - mostly men - "past the point of employability, " the report says. People who struggle with the basics are much less likely to get a job in the first place. There is concern that welfare to work measures which tie benefits to education, training and work placements for many unempolyed people may not go far enough.

The plan to link benefits to better basics is expected to form part of a "carrots not sticks" package designed to improve levels of literacy and numeracy in the adult population. It is estimated that eight million Britons struggle with basic reading, writing and number skills, one of the highest rates in Europe.

"It is a total shame and disgrace that this rich nation has something in the order of 15 to 20 per cent of adults who have serious difficulties in reading, writing and doing simple calculations." said Sir Claus Moser, who is heading a Government task force charged with devising a national strategy to combat the problem.

Speaking at the Basic Skills Agency annual conference in London this week, Sir Claus promised the groups reccomendations, which will be presented to Governemnt in January 1999, will be "radical and new era". "I am not interested in fiddling around making changes on the existing margins" he said.

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