The Government has been urged to increase benefits sooner and invest in skills training and more affordable childcare, as it introduced measures to get people on Universal Credit working more hours.
Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has confirmed plans to make around 120,000 more part-time workers receiving the benefit take active steps to seek more and better-paid work or face having their payments reduced.
Charities said the “punitive policy” will add pressure on people’s mental and physical health and make the winter harder for those in insecure jobs.
They also said the Government should urgently increase benefits in line with inflation so those struggling have increased payments to help them through the winter.
Poverty charity, Turn2us, said the measures “fell far short of helping put money into the pockets of people who need it most”.
Head of information programmes, Michael Clarke, said: “We know action on energy bills will provide some reassurance for people this winter, but the lack of targeted support in this announcement is something you cannot ignore.
“Furthermore, the introduction of a new punitive policy aimed at part-time workers on benefits will no doubt cause significant distress and impact people’s mental and physical well-being during what is already a difficult time.
“Helping people into stable and secure work which is suitable should be a positive step.
“However, the Government must implement more effective policies, such as affordable and accessible childcare, to remove the barriers that prevent people – disproportionally women and caregivers – from getting back into work full-time.”
Ben Harrison, director of the Work Foundation think tank at Lancaster University, called the plan “a big gamble … with the living standards of millions of people”.
He said: “The Government is betting that substantial tax cuts focused on business and those who are relatively well off – while putting pressure on workers getting Universal Credit to earn more money – will spur investment and growth.
“They are also betting that existing support for those most vulnerable to inflation and the cost-of-living crisis will be enough to see them through the winter.
“But the evidence is far from clear this will work. And while confirmation of the energy price freeze for employers is welcome, the fact remains nearly half of households already report they’re struggling to afford their bills.
“The Chancellor has also chosen to introduce stricter sanctions on those in low-paid, part-time work, which will make this winter harder for the six million people in severely insecure jobs.
“Instead, Government should bring forward the planned increase in Universal Credit payments from April 2023 to reflect the rising costs people are facing right now.”
Every year, the Work and Pensions Secretary must review benefits and pensions, and must increase certain benefits by at least the increase in prices or earnings as measured in September, taking effect the following April.
They may also increase other benefits “if appropriate, having regard to the national economic situation and any other matters”, Conservative MP David Rutley told Parliament in July.
The changes are due to be announced in November.
Disability Rights UK said it was disappointed not to see an increase in benefits for those who cannot work or can only work a limited amount due to disability.
It has “serious concerns” that disabled lives will be lost this winter.
Chief executive Kamran Mallick said: “Changes to Universal Credit will increase pressure on those capable of work to work harder to boost their income.
“Those who cannot work and are dependent on benefits are in for a harsh, punitive winter.
“The Government’s levelling up agenda is now in the dustbin of history. The new Cabinet appears to have replaced it with a survival of the fittest agenda.”
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said: “The Government could and should be making a big difference for low earners who want to work more.
“But sanctions make people poor, not help them get jobs.”
She called for investment in skills training and more affordable childcare.