Universal Credit claimants could lose access to free NHS prescriptions and legal aid under new tougher sanctions unveiled by Tory Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. The penalties would apply to those sanctioned for more than six months, who also face their claims being closed.

The Government said it would use digital tools to "track" attendance at job fairs and interviews under the toughened sanctions regime. The stricter measures form part of the Back to Work Plan - a key part of next week's Autumn Statement - with Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride, the Mirror reports.

The Treasury said "stricter sanctions" would be imposed for people "who should be looking for work but aren't" and would 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".

READ MORE: Heartbroken mum pays tribute to 'courageous' son, 19, stabbed to death

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

While the Tories risk being accused of returning to the austerity-era rhetoric of demonising those on benefits, Mr Stride has accusing some of "taking taxpayers for a ride", adding: "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."

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. This is despite an internal government report, which was published in April, warning that benefit sanctions led claimants to find work less quickly and earn less when they do.

Save the Children UK has branded the new measures "unspeakably cruel". Head of UK child poverty Becca Lyon said: "It is right to provide additional support to help people back into work but this cannot be tied to the threat of totally losing any form of safety net. Families are currently experiencing a severe cost-of-living crisis and 4.2 million children in the UK are already in poverty. One million of those are destitute, going without essentials like heating and clean clothes."

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liz Kendall said it was a "poor excuse of a proposal" that did "nothing to fundamentally change the state of our health service or our Jobcentres after a decade of failure from the Tories". She added: "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."

However Mr Hunt said: "We're serious about growing our economy and that means we must address the rise in people who aren't looking for work - especially because we know so many of them want to and with almost a million vacancies in the jobs market the opportunities are there."