A MUM and dad claim they took to shoplifting because they couldn’t survive on Universal Credit while having to support two children.

Cheryl, 39, and Ross Nelmes, 43, who are crack cocaine addicts, stole almost £600-worth of meat, alcohol and electrical items between them during a crime spree spanning three months after they got moved onto the controversial new benefit.

Having targeted Marks & Spencer and Tesco, both in Worcester, between April and June, the couple’s thieving was described as having “all the hallmarks of professional shoplifting” by District Judge Kevin Grego.

But solicitor Mark Turnbull insisted they were in “very dire financial straits” and the family, including a 16-year-old daughter with mental health problems, “were starving” after seeing their benefits drastically reduced.

He said the family have been using the foodbank but are hampered by the fact one person can only receive donations three times over a six-month period, adding the items stolen were “to eat or to sell on”.

Speaking at Worcester Magistrates Court on Thursday, Mr Turnbull said Ross Nelmes worked successfully as a herdsman for some years, with the family living in Wales and Bedfordshire, previously.

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However, after having two hip replacements he could no longer continue in his line of work.

Fast forward a few years and the family of four, which also includes an adult son, are currently living in a two-bed sheltered flat in Chedworth Drive, Worcester.

Until February this year, the family was supported by Ross Nelmes’ incapacity benefits and tax credits, while Cheryl Nelmes works eight hours a week on a zero-hour contract at Iceland.

Mr Turnbull said between February and May the couple’s income reduced to a fraction of what it had been, leaving them in “financial difficulties”.

“It has very much been about a family in very dire financial straits,” he said.

However, he went on to admit his clients “both have problems with alcohol and crack cocaine”.

The court also heard that Ross Nelmes, who accepted five counts of theft from shops, is still subject to post sentencing supervision for another offence until July 18. Along with his wife he is having contact with addiction charity Swanswell, though the former is “not engaging with them on a voluntary basis”, according to a probation report.

He is on a methadone prescription which is being reduced by 10ml per week to help him come off crack cocaine, though the court heard he often misses appointments.

Mr Grego said Ross Nelmes has been in court 26 times for over 60 offences since 1995.

Cheryl Nelmes accepted one charge for shop theft at Tesco on June 4, where, alongside her husband she stole meat, earphones and alcohol to the value of £116.

The court heard she had been involved in drugs 15 to 20 years ago and had received a suspended sentence previously.

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She had been caught driving whilst disqualified in 2005 but had been “out of trouble for a considerable amount of time” according to Mr Greco, before being fined for shoplifting in April.

He said he would give the defendant “one last chance” before the court would have no option but to put her “liberty at risk”.

She was given a conditional discharge for 12 months and ordered to pay £120.

Ross Nelmes was given a 22-week custodial sentence suspended for 12 months, along with a 90-day curfew from 7pm to 6am, and ordered to pay £150.

“I frankly don’t buy that the only way you could survive is the foodbank. If you stay away from drugs your money may start to improve and you will earn a living.”

He added the dad was “you have one foot in prison”.

Mr Turnbull informed the court Ross Nelmes had recently started a job in Hartlebury, which would be jeopardised by the curfew.

Mr Grego said he would need to see proof from his employer before he would consider amending the hours of the order.

The district judge went on to say: “The retiring Head of Criminal Justice said earlier this week, petty shoplifters should no longer receive prison sentences. But what about those who don’t learn and keep offending?

“You have to send them into custody.”