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Unemployed who ‘refuse to engage’ could lose benefits in Hunt crackdown

Welfare claimants who “refuse” to engage with their jobcentre or take work offered to them may lose benefits, under plans confirmed by the chancellor before next week’s autumn statement.

The crackdown, first floated by Jeremy Hunt in his Conservative party conference speech in October, is part of a wider government plan to tackle a decline in workforce participation since the Covid pandemic.

The chancellor will use his set-piece speech to the Commons on Wednesday to launch a “back to work plan”, with £2.5bn of funding over five years for employment support schemes. The money is intended to help up to 1.1 million people stay healthy, get off benefits and move into work.

Related: Jeremy Hunt urged not to use sharp fall in inflation to squeeze benefits

Speaking on Thursday afternoon, Hunt said the government wanted to address the “rise in people who aren’t looking for work” to help grow the economy.

“These changes mean there’s help and support for everyone – but for those who refuse it, there are consequences too. Anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits.”

Confirming the plans for a benefits crackdown, the Treasury said it would be taking steps to strengthen the current universal credit sanctions regime to incentivise claimants to comply with their work-search requirements and move into a job.

Under the current system, claimants can be subjected to open-ended sanctions if certain requirements are not met, such as attending a meeting with a work coach. These sanctions can result in benefit deductions until a claimant re-complies.

Under the new set-up, those facing this sanction for over six months could have their claims closed entirely, ending their access to additional benefits such as free prescriptions and legal aid. The Treasury did not spell out how many claimants the change could affect, but there are significant caveats – it will not be applied to those receiving any additional child, housing or disability benefits.

Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, said the government was expanding the help available for people with health conditions and disabilities. “But 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.”

Labour market experts roundly criticised the focus on tougher sanctions, saying that further eroding an already threadbare safety net for those in long-term unemployment would do more damage than good.

James Taylor, director of strategy at the disability equality charity Scope, said the government had promised to transform the lives of disabled people but was instead focusing on penalising them. “[It’s] all stick and no carrot. Where is the clear positive vision for disabled people and disability employment?”

Although the back to work plans were announced with a focus on benefits sanctions to appeal to rightwing Conservatives, they also include £2.5bn of funding to expand four key employment schemes the government already has in place.

Building on a £7bn package of jobs support announced at the spring budget, the investment will increase the funding available to help those with mental health, physical conditions, and cardiovascular disease. The schemes funded are NHS Talking Therapies, Individual Placement and Support, Restart and Universal Support.

Tony Wilson, the director of the Institute for Employment Studies, said the government ramping up funding for employment support was welcome, but risked being “drowned out by divisive rhetoric around ‘coasters’ who want to ‘take taxpayers for a ride’, adding: “This sort of language just pushes people away.”

Employers in the UK are grappling with almost 1m job vacancies as Britain struggles to overcome one of the weakest jobs market recoveries from the Covid pandemic in the developed world.

Official figures show 300,000 people had been unemployed for over a year in the three months to July, while more than 8.7 million working-age adults are classified as “economically inactive” – meaning they are neither in work or looking for a job. As many as 2.6 million are in this position because of long-term ill health, the highest number on record.

Experts – including the former Bank of England chief economist, Andy Haldane – have warned that years of underfunding for healthcare and wider public services has contributed to sharp rise in long-term sickness.

Liz Kendall, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said the government plans would do nothing to fundamentally change the state of the health service or jobcentre support.

“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.”