Desperate Copeland residents with debts totalling more than half a million pounds have been flocking to a lifeline charity.

Copeland’s Citizens Advice Bureau said it had helped 265 vulnerable clients owing £567,952 between November last year and this June – and the bureau blamed the Government’s flagship Universal Credit scheme for the crisis.

Under the present system, claimants can have their payments docked because they have been assigned to the wrong category.

Setting out the problem in a report to Cumbria County Council’s local area committee, the charity said that an “inappropriate commitments” which did not reflect a claimant’s personal circumstances could have a knock-on effect on benefit-seekers and their families.

The report said thatbeing put in the wrong group could prove “very stressful” and “lead ultimately to financial vulnerability”, adding: “In particular, our advisers report that a significant proportion of the people affected by inappropriate commitments have learning disabilities or mental health conditions.

“We remain concerned that people in vulnerable situations sometimes feel they have no choice but to sign up to commitments that don’t appropriately reflect their personal barriers to work, and may place them at unnecessary risk of sanctions as a result.”

Responding to the report, the local committee agreed to invite a representative of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the CAB to come to their next meeting to discuss the shock figures.

Mike Hawkins, Labour councilor for Mirehouse, branded the Government’s Universal Credit as “absolutely ridiculous” and “wicked”.

He said: “I work for a charity that supports people going through hard times in their life, including mental illness.

“I come across people facing these sanctions on a weekly basis in my working life. These are people who are struggling with their mental and physical health, and they just don’t know where to turn.

“It’s a wicked system brought in wicked Government and the sooner we get rid of it, the better. I have seen too many people over the years suffer with Universal Credit. Disabled people, people struggling with children.”

Chris Whiteside, Conservative Councillor for Egremont North and St Bees, agreed that Universal Credit was not a “perfect system”.

But added stressed that the “previous system wasn’t perfect either” and that there had been foodbanks operating before the benefits programme was rolled out.

Frank Morgan, Labour councilor for Cleator Moor West, described the affect of Universal Credit, particularly on children, as “tragic”.

He said: “Even this morning we had the Local Government Information Unit come back to us to say that more than a third of people affected by the benefit squeeze have less than a hundred pounds a month to live on after paying rent, council tax, gas and electricity.

“The worst hit Universal Credit claimants are disabled people and claimants with children are the most likely to have gone without.

Of this £567,952 debt, £97,005 was made up of priority debt and £470,947 of non-priority debt.

This gives an average debt per client of £2,065.

Just over half of those who approached the CAB for help, 143 were men (52 per cent) and 65 per cent of the total clients had a disability.

And 48 per cent of the CAB’s clients were unemployed, 15 per cent in part-time work, 14 per cent working full-time with 23 per cent were retired.

Nearly 51 per cent were single, 17 per cent were single parents, 15 per cent were couples and nearly 17 per cent were families with children

Of the clients seen, 53 per cent of were living in social housing, 25 per cent in private housing and 21 per cent were owner occupiers.

The charity has reported a rise in the number of people in Copeland seeking help with Universal Credit claims.

A specialist worker, based mostly in the Whitehaven office, offers a ‘Help to Claim’ service over the telephone, face to face and via web chat.

The service helps benefit claimants to appeal decisions, to understand payments and access internet to make a claim.

Citizens Advice Copeland, a charity run by volunteers and paid staff, provides free, confidential advice people in Copeland on their rights and responsibilities.

The charity has officers in Whitehaven and Millom but offers advice from Distington, Cleator Moor and Egremont.

The service is available on weekdays via drop-in advice sessions, specialist appointments and telephone advice on issues including debt, relationships, employment, and housing.

The service also helps people manage budgets including money-saving tips and helping people change electricity supplier.

The CAB is now collecting more evidence as part of an investigation into how Universal Credit could be improved.