Unemployment benefit claimants will have to wait seven days before they can sign on for help, as part of a series of measures designed to tighten eligibility for welfare, and to cap social security spending.
Those without jobs will also be required to prove they are already actively looking for work before registering for benefits.
The measures, presented by the chancellor, George Osborne, in the spending review, amounted to an expectation, he said, that people should do everything they could to find work.
The move would also “help people stay off benefits, and help those on benefits get back into work faster”.
But charities said that the new measures would increase child poverty, squeeze low-income working families, and force some low-income claimants to rely on loan sharks and food banks, by extending the length of time they had to wait before receiving benefit support.
Official data suggests the average wait for benefit claims to be processed is 16 days, though food banks report that in some areas claimants can wait for up to 25 days. Adding another seven days to that period would mean some claimants trying to survive a month without an income.
The Child Poverty Action Group’s chief executive, Alison Garnham, said: “The decision to delay eligibility for Job Seeker’s Allowance to seven days is a food-banks-first policy that will hurt families stuck in the low-pay-no-pay cycle, moving in and out of insecure, low-paid jobs, and it will lengthen food bank queues.”
Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, said: “Our clients already have to deal with long delays before benefit claims are processed, leaving them penniless in some cases. Making people who lose their job, or are on low wages, ineligible to claim for a week on top of this will needlessly leave more people utterly destitute.”
Osborne also announced a requirement for all claimants with poor spoken English agree to improve their language skills as a condition of receiving benefits, a populist measure aimed at clamping down on alleged “benefit tourism”.
He said: “From now on, if claimants don’t speak English, they will have to attend language courses until they do. This is a reasonable requirement in this country. It will help people find work. But if you’re not prepared to learn English your benefits will be cut.”
Treasury sources said that there were 100,000 jobless foreigners who would face the threat of sanctions if they did not learn English.
But other official data suggest the supposed benefits of the measure are exaggerated. The most recent census data, published in March, shows there were only 138,000 people in England and Wales who could not speak English at all – equating to 0.3% of the population – and there no published figures for how many of those people were claiming welfare benefits.
Overall welfare spending is also to be restricted by a cap, dubbed “a limit on the nation’s credit card” by the chancellor, which will enable the government to restrict eligibility for housing benefit, tax credits and disability allowances.
But the chancellor said the cap would not include the state pension, which accounts for over half of welfare spending. This was on the grounds that it was wrong to penalise people who had worked hard all their lives. “Cutting pensions to pay for working age benefits is a choice this government is certainly not prepared to make,” Osborne added.
The overall welfare cap on the government’s annually managed expenditure (AME, or spending that cannot be planned in advance, such as debt interest) will be introduced in April 2015. It will be set as a cash limit, and if the government looks set to breach the limit, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility will issue a warning, obliging ministers to cut welfare spending or explain why it is they are going to breach the cap.
AME accounts for £157bn of spending. Although the state pension and Job Seeker’s Allowance will not be included in the cap, the government will consider whether to add additional elements of social security spending over the next few months.
Other measures announced by the chancellor include an obligation on single parents, with children aged as young as three, to actively seek work, and a “temperature test” that will block the winter fuel allowance to UK pensioners who live abroad in countries with warmer climates.
Meanwhile the Department for Work and Pensions will have its budget cut by £500m in 2015-16, a reduction of 9.5% on the 2014 total of £5.5bn. Its settlement includes £530m set aside to meet the cost of implementing welfare reform in 2015, including £300m for its flagship universal credit programme.