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Ministers should rethink or delay plans to force lone parents, disabled people and the long-term jobless to seek work, a senior government adviser has said.
Sir Richard Tilt said reforms in Wales, England and Scotland could "push people into poverty" as unemployment rises.
Under the plans lone parents will have to look for work once their youngest child is 12 or face losing benefits.
Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said plans would offer support to the jobless, not penalise them.
Sir Richard, who is head of the social security advisory committee, said the so-called "welfare to work" reforms risked "falling into disrepute".
He called for the changes to be delayed by one or two years.
Currently, single parents can claim income support solely on the basis of being a lone parent until their youngest child is 16.
But from Monday, those with children aged 12 and over will no longer be able to make a new claim for income support.
Instead, they will be able to claim Jobseekers Allowance if they are actively looking for work.
For those already claiming income support, changes will be phased in next year.
The total amount they can receive will be almost exactly the same, but anyone not complying with the new rules could face sanctions, including having their benefits cut by up to 40%.
Sir Richard said that could push people "much closer to poverty".
"Of course, the child will suffer, but it's not the child that has fallen foul of the system."
He said he was concerned about the availability of suitable, affordable childcare and there was often a reason that the lone parent was staying at home.
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"It may be to do with disability or chronic illness, or in some cases it may be to do with behavioural problems," he said.
"So pushing the lone [parent] in those circumstances into work may actually not be in everybody's interest.
"In many cases it will be harmful and lead to further behavioural problems."
But Mr Purnell said it was more vital than ever to help the jobless seek employment.
"We are not forcing people to work and leave benefits," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"What we are saying is people should take up the support which we know works.
"I think it would be wrong at a time when it may be harder for people to find work to provide them with less help."
Reaction from Tory Chris Grayling and Lib Dem Jenny Willott
Conservative spokesman Chris Grayling said the changes were badly needed.
"The whole point of radical reform to our welfare state ... is actually to help people out of poverty," he told the BBC.
"Nobody is going to get out of poverty by being left on benefits."
For the Lib Dems, Jenny Willott, told the BBC that in addition to concerns about childcare and the effect on child poverty, she was worried Jobcentre Plus might not be able to cope.
She urged the government to make sure staff were properly trained and more recruited to deal with increased Jobseekers Allowance claims from both lone parents and the newly unemployed.
"I have real concerns that Jobcentre Plus is not going to be able to cope with the numbers coming on."
For lone parents already claiming income support, the changes will be phased in from March 2009 for parents of 14 and 15-year-olds and from July 2009 for parents of 12 and 13-year-olds.
By October 2010, lone parents with children aged seven and over will be required to look for work in order to get benefits.
According to the government, there are 1.8m lone parents in the UK, 56.3% of whom are in work.
There are 738,600 lone parents on income support, and of those, just over 100,000 have children aged 12 and above.