Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has warned Universal Credit claimants they face extreme sanctions such as cutting access to free NHS prescriptions and legal aid.

Under reforms announced today, the penalties will apply to people sanctioned for more than six months, who also face their claims being closed.

In response, critics argue that "ministers are more interested in penalising people rather than helping them get treatment."

Digital tools will also be used to "track" claimants' attendance at interviews and job fairs under the toughened sanctions regime.

Hunt unveiled the measure as part of the Government's Back to Work Plan - a key part of next week's Autumn Statement - with Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride.

It comes as the Government also considers a real-term cut for millions of families struggling with benefits at the same time as cutting inheritance tax for some of the richest.

The Treasury said "stricter sanctions" will be imposed for people "who should be looking for work but aren't". They will include "targeting disengaged claimants by closing the claims of individuals on an open-ended sanction for over six months and solely eligible for the Universal Credit standard allowance, ending their access to additional benefits such as free prescriptions and legal aid".

A single person over the age of 25 in receipt of the Universal Credit standard allowance currently receives a monthly payment of £368.74. The department stressed the tougher penalties will not apply to people receiving additional child, housing, or disability benefits.

Mr Stride also accused some of "taking taxpayers for a ride". He said: "Our message is clear: if you are fit, if you refuse to work, if you are taking taxpayers for a ride - we will take your benefits away."

It comes despite an internal government report - published in April - warning that benefit sanctions lead claimants to find work less quickly and earn less when they do.

The £2.5billion work plan also aims to help up to 1.1million people, including those with long-term health conditions and disabilities, look for and stay in work, the Treasury said.

"Ministers are more interested in penalising people"

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liz Kendall said: “This poor excuse of a proposal does nothing to fundamentally change the state of our health service or our Jobcentres after a decade of failure from the Tories.

"A record 7.8 million people are still stuck on NHS waiting lists, and 2.6 million people are trapped out of work due to long-term sickness, with the increase since the pandemic alone costing the taxpayer an extra £15.7bn a year.

“A healthy nation is critical to a healthy economy. But look beneath the bonnet of today’s announcement and you will see more of the same - a failing approach that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problem.”

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: "The Government fails to understand that thousands of people with health conditions, disabilities and on long-term sick leave are desperate to get back to work - it's this Conservative Government's failure to tackle NHS waiting lists that's stopping them.

"This announcement does absolutely nothing for these people. Our NHS is at breaking point, with this Conservative Government imposing brutal cuts and doing nothing to solve understaffing. Yet ministers are more interested in penalising people rather than helping them get treatment."