Even in Richmond in west London or Farnham in Surrey, 10 per cent of people could not correctly answer simple reading questions; a quarter could not deal with basic maths, the Basic Skills Agency said. In the worst areas, like Tower Hamlets in London and Knowsley in Liverpool, 25 per cent have trouble reading and between 40 and 50 per cent could not deal with simple mathematical problems.
Sir Claus Moser, the agency chairman, condemned the situation as "a double scandal for a civilised country". He said: "Somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of adults have very low levels of literacy; that is in the order of 6 million to 8 million adults.
"It's an enormous barrier to economic success and an enormous barrier to social inclusion. The figures are bad enough in themselves but they exclude people who cannot read or write at all, so the estimates are on the conservative side."
A council-by-council breakdown produced by the agency shows the worst problems in London, the North-west and the North-east. But even across Middle England up to a third of people needed help with basic maths and up to 13 per cent needed help with reading. The breakdown, the first of its kind, was based on a survey of 8,000 people aged between 16 and 60.
They were given simple reading tests, such as finding a 24-hour plumber from the Yellow Pages, understanding a simple letter or recognising the words "fragile - handle with care" on the side of a box. The maths test included adding up the cost of a loaf of bread and two tins of soup, reading a train timetable and working out the floor area of a room.
Basic Skills Agency director Alan Wells said the results, which only included people educated in Britain, would give colleges and local authorities the first accurate breakdown of educational problems. He said local targets would be needed to help improve standards.
Mr Wells said people with poor English and maths spent five times longer on the dole as people with average skills. He said: "I know of people who always say they have forgotten their glasses when required to read something, or pretend to have their arm bandaged when they are supposed to write something down."
The survey backs government plans to promote the Three Rs in schools and colleges. The Green Paper on lifelong learning, published last month, proposed doubling to 500,000 the number of people offered help with basic skills each year. Key skills are also a central feature of the Government's New Deal for long-term unemployed. Ministers are also planning basic-skills summer schools for adults before the start of the national year of reading in September.
Mr Wells said: "Even if the strategy in primary schools works it will take several years. For those who have already left junior school they will be marooned as the parade moves by. If we are going to improve the capacity of adults in the community and reduce the number struggling we will have to have some comprehensive and challenging targets."
Councils with the best and worst levels of reading and writing
* The 10 councils with the highest numbers of people with poor levels of literacy are (%):
Tower Hamlets 24.4
Barking and Dagenham 21.6
* The 10 local authorities with the lowest numbers of people with poor literacy scores are:
Hart (Hampshire) 9.0
South Cambridgeshire 9.6
Surrey Heath 9.7
South Bucks 9.7
Mole Valley 9.8
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