‘Rastamouse’ creator slams the Universal Credit benefit system for the rise in Food Banks

The creator of the Rastamouse children’s TV series has criticised the Universal Credit benefits system after he was left needing help from a food bank, writes Owen Sheppard.

Author and screenwriter Michael de Souza, pictured, 65, has been getting help from the North Paddington Food Bank.

The manager, James Quayle, said demand for the food bank had doubled since 2017, including from single mothers and young men. And it has been spurred partly by the long waits some claimants experience before receiving their first Universal Credit (UC) payment.

UC’s roll-out in the borough of Westminster began in June 2018.

It replaces eight other benefits – such as for disability, parenting and unemployment – that are gradually being phased out.

Shirley Springer, chief executive of Westminster Citizens Advice Bureau, said many people run into trouble from having to wait five or more weeks for their first UC payment after transferring from one of the old benefits.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) says 95 per cent of first payments are received within five weeks, which it says is “on time”.

At the food bank in Elgin Avenue, Mr de Souza told of how a double whammy of bad luck left him unemployed and needing help, despite his past success with the Rastamouse TV series, which aired on CBeebies from 2011-2015.

He was transitioned on to Universal Credit in September by the DWP, and had to wait five weeks before receiving his first monthly payment on October 23.
That same month, he was convicted for benefit fraud whilst claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance, one of the benefits that preceded UC.

He pleaded guilty to failing to declare income from presenting workshops about black history at Camden, Croydon and Portsmouth councils, and was sentenced on September 9.

In his defence, Mr de Souza, of Little Venice, said he forgot to declare the earnings because he had been grieving the death of a young relative.

“I didn’t declare the payment because my head wasn’t in the right place. I was thinking of other things,” said Mr de Souza, who has two grandchildren.

Adding insult to injury, the conviction also made a would-be employer cancel a job with him. He said: “I was concerned about being put on Universal Credit, because I had heard about the hardship it has caused people.

“I had to wait five weeks to get my first payment. I now get £317 per month.

“The amount of money you’re supposed to live on is just unbelievable. I actually couldn’t believe I was in this position. It has completely knocked me back.

“I have to prioritise rent. I’m fortunate to have a travel pass [for Londoners aged 60+] but honestly this food bank has been a massive help.”

Against this backdrop, Mr de Souza saw his GP, who gave him a referral to the food bank, with four vouchers to collect one food package per week.

Speaking from the centre last week, he said: “This is my third time here and I’ll have one voucher left. I have a new job that starts in December but I don’t know what I’m going to do until then.

“I was also really surprised how many people come here. And they’re all different kinds of people. You realise that people end up needing help for all sorts of reasons.

“There’s a stigma about coming here, it’s not a great feeling. But I would advise people to come here and get help when they need to.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Under Universal Credit, people can get paid urgently if they need it and 95 per cent of payments are made in full and on time.

“We spend over £95 billion a year on welfare, and have simplified the benefits system.”

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