The six million adults with no formal qualifications and the one-fifth of the workforce with a literacy level below that expected of an 11-year-old represented a "serious situation in this country which we need to address", the minister told MPs at the committee stage of the Learning and Skills Bill.
Without action to remedy the skills gap, Mr Wicks said that the country was "in no fit state to face the challenges ahead". Further education was, he said "crucial to our economic well-being".
But Tim Boswell, the former Conservative minister for further education, criticised the national and 47 local learning and skills councils intended to replace the Further Education Funding Council and 72 trainng and enterprise councils. He said they would "shackle and inhibit delivery of education rather than facilitate it".
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat FE spokesman, tabled an amendment, later withdrawn, that the learning and skills councils be replaced by nine councils covering the same areas as the regional development agencies.
The Bill, which will be scrutinised by MPs over the coming weeks, has already attracted controversy over the amendment on sex education guidance to replace Section 28 of the Local Government Bill, which bans the promotion of homosexuality.
But Mr Willis told the committee that debate on the amendment during the Bill's second Commons reading had been "disgraceful". "The hysteria that has been engendered does not do this House's reputation any good ... legislating for morality has no place in a civilised society."