New figures on emergency payments to benefit claimants show that the UK government is creating 'horrifying' levels of destitution, according to an academic.

Data published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) shows a dramatic increase in the number of people claiming hardship payments since stricter rules were brought in.

Three years ago the government introduced a controversial sanctions regime with stricter rules leading to more people having benefits stopped for allegedly breaking the rules and longer, more severe penalties for those sanctioned.

Since then, Dr David Webster, of Glasgow University's School of Social and Political Sciences, said that the figures showed a sharp increase in the rate of claims for hardship awards. Before October 2012, fewer than 10 per cent of those sanctioned were claiming the emergency payments. That rose to 30 per cent by February 2013, and has since climbed to more than 40 per cent, he said.

Hardship payments can be claimed by those who are left without any income due to benefit sanctions, and enable them to receive 60 per cent of the benefits they have had stopped, or 80 per cent of they are deemed to be especially vulnerable.

Dr Webster added: "The most striking feature is the huge increase in the number of hardship payments immediately upon Ian Duncan Smith's introduction of the more severe sanctions regime, with longer sanctions."

"What these figures show is that a higher proportion of a larger number of applicants, are completely destitute."

A DWP spokesman said the number of hardship claims had dropped again in more recent months and said Dr Webster's analysis was misleading: "Our well established system of hardship support offers additional support for those who need it," she said. "The fact that the number of applications has fallen by more than 40pc over the last year is positive news.

"We know that the best way to support people is to help them into work – and we now have record employment, a growing economy and unemployment is back to pre-recession levels.”