AROUND 500 poor Southampton children are missing out on their free school meals, alarmed MPs are warning.
One in every 12 eligible pupils in the city does not receive free healthy dinners, according to figures released to a parliamentary inquiry into hunger and poverty.
The problem is even more worrying across Hampshire, where a staggering 2,800 poor youngsters – or one in seven – go without.
Yet, in many other parts of the country, local councils are achieving 100 per cent take up of free school meals, for all pupils aged between four and 15.
Now the inquiry is poised to recommend that all town halls adopt a pioneering scheme which automatically registers pupils for free dinners and avoids the “stigma” of applications.
The figures were revealed as free meals are introduced for all four-to-seven-year-olds this week.
Frank Field, the Labour MP leading the probe, warned of a “first come, first served” policy where schools lacked capacity – forcing older eligible children to the back of the queue.
Mr Field said: “Free school meals are of enormous help to families getting by on a low income as they remove some of the pressure on weekly household budgets.
“But thousands of children are missing out on a good meal each day because of where they live.”
Under auto-registration, parents are not required to fill in application forms for free school meals.
Instead, schools supply the names of parents, as well as their national insurance numbers and dates of birth, which are then matched against lists of people receiving other income-related benefits.
It is then a simple process for the council to tell the school which pupils are eligible for free meals – and for those children not to be charged.
Southampton City Council could not say whether it had any plans to adopt auto-registration, but insisted its own “online checker” was “very popular”.
Councillor Dan Jeffery, Cabinet member for education, said: “We work closely with our city’s schools and parents to ensure that eligible pupils are benefiting from the free school meals they are entitled to.
“We are really pleased that this has led to our council being ranked in the top 25 per cent of authorities in England for ensuring that eligible pupils are benefiting from the offer.
“We don’t want any eligible children missing out, so please find out whether your child qualifies at their school or through our online checker.”
Auto-registration was set by the department for education (Dfe), linking benefits information from the department for work and pensions, HMRC and the Home Office.
In evidence to the inquiry, officials described it as allowing councils to “check very quickly and determine whether a parent can claim free school meals”.
However, councils are not compelled to use the system – and a Dfe spokeswoman told the Daily Echo it was entirely a matter for town halls.