THOUSANDS of disadvantaged children could lose free school meal privileges when a new benefit scheme takes full swing, according to a leading children's charity.

More than 8,500 schoolchildren in Reading and West Berkshire are deemed to be in poverty, but nearly three-quarters of them may miss out at school as part of the new Universal Credit (UC) measures.

The government is planning to introduce means testing for free school meals, but The Children’s Society believes this will fail to reach around 160,000 children in poverty in the South East alone.

Matt Rodda, MP for Reading East, said: "I am deeply worried by the news that thousands of Reading and Woodley children may miss out on free school meals, as these play a very important part in helping children from families on modest incomes get by.

"This is yet another indication that UC is deeply flawed and needs to be paused and fixed. Without an urgent re-think it risks doing significant damage to many families in our area."

Reading Chronicle:

Matt Rodda MP

The figures show that 3,700 schoolchildren in Reading deemed to be in poverty, but 2,400 are expected to miss out on free school meals under the new measures.

Meanwhile, nearly 80 per cent of children in poverty in West Berkshire (4,800) face the same cuts.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children's Society, added: “The government has a golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in poverty in England does not go hungry at school.

"At least one million children will miss out if this change is introduced.

“Continuing to provide free school meals for all children on UC would not only help vulnerable children, it would also prevent low income parents being left worse off if they take on more hours or get a pay rise.

"It was designed to always make work pay, but these plans will undermine that very principle.

“If the government wants to show it is truly committed to tackling the growing crises of inequality and child poverty, delivering free school meals for children in low-income working families is a crucial step.”

The consultation on free school meals entitlement under UC closes on January 11.

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