POLITICIANS in Cumbria are at loggerheads over changes that could affect the number of children across the county who receive free school meals.

All children over seven-year-old from households in receipt of Universal Credit have been eligible for free meals at school until now.

But a controversial vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday means free meals at school for youngsters in Year 3 and above will now only be available to those from households who receive the benefit and earn less than £7,400 a year.

Critics - including Cumbria's Labour MPs John Woodcock and Sue Hayman, as well as Liberal Democrat representative Tim Farron, have blasted the move - saying it will push working families further into poverty and leave up to a million children without a hot and healthy meal every day.

But supporters have rubbished the claims, adding the change will make the system fairer and allow 50,000 extra children to receive free a free school lunch.

One million children could be affected

Sue Hayman, MP for Workington, branded the changes to Universal Credit 'short sighted', just days after it was revealed Cumbria has 20,000 children living on the breadline - with 7,000 in the west of the county alone.

Mrs Hayman said: "The number of children living in poverty in this area has increased so this change is something we are extremely concerned about.

"I think it's terribly short sighted to restrict the ability of some children to access a healthy meal every day."

Mrs Hayman's view was echoed by John Woodcock, whose Barrow constituency contains some of the most deprived wards in the country.

He said: "If these changes deprive some children of a full and healthy meal at lunchtime in school, that is totally unacceptable

"Every child in Barrow and across our country should be able to eat a proper meal at lunch, whatever their background or family situation.

"School meals also encourage and enable children to have a healthy and hot meal at lunch, which improves concentration and learning, as well as being good for their health.

"I think what this debate has highlighted is the importance of free school meals to young school children in Britain, and that we should be working towards universal availability so we bring up all our children fairly, equally, and healthily."

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, added: “On the same week that the Government have promised yet another tax cut for the wealthy, it’s utterly heartless for free school meals to be taken away from some of the most deprived children in our country.

“There are well over 2,000 kids in South Lakeland who are currently living below the poverty line and now this disgraceful move is set to cause even more harm to them and their families.”

Mr Farron added: “It is simply shameful.”

Claims misleading

But concerns surrounding the change were said to be 'pure scaremongering' by Carlisle's Conservative MP John Stevenson.

Mr Stevenson explained the move will mean children from the poorest families will receive school dinners while those from households with a combined income of more than £40,000 would not.

"Free school meals will not be taken away from children who already receive them," he said.

"In fact, this will see around 50,000 more children qualify for school meals, it's an overall benefit.

"I think some of the comments made by Labour have been disgusting on this particular issue.

"It's right that there should be a proper and robust debate, but it has to be based on fact."

Trudy Harrison, MP for Copeland, agreed.

She said: “Free school meals are vital for many families and the claims that one million children will lose out on their free school meal is deliberately misleading.

"In fact the proposed changes to the eligibility criteria means that a further 50,000 children will receive a free lunch at school by 2022.

“Currently only around 65 per cent of children who are eligible for free school meals actually take them up, often because parents do not realise their children are entitled.

"On that basis we would expect 1.8 million children to receive free school meals."

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, said the right help and support for children came in many forms, not just free school meals.

"The claims being made on this are misleading.

"The key is making sure we target support in the right way to the most vulnerable people when our resources are tight.

"The right thing is that we have an education budget that focuses on what children really need - this could be school meals, it could be mental health support or extra learning support."

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a single benefit that replaced six separate benefits such as job seekers allowance and housing benefit.

Why are free school meals affected?

Children in Year 3 or above, from a household in receipt of Universal Credit, were entitled to free school meals.

The vote this week means only children from households on Universal Credit with an income of less than £7,400 will be entitled to them in future.

Will children already on free school meals no longer be able to have them?

No. Those who already have free school meals will continue with them until 2022 or until they finish school, whichever is the soonest.