A report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has found that more than 300,000 pupils are not eating the freemeals because the way some schools run the system leaves children vulnerable to bullying. Many primary and secondary schools have separate queues in the canteen for those taking free lunches, so the recipients feel stigmatised.
The report adds further evidence of a North-South divide, as the number of pupils eligible for school meals in the North-east is double that in the South-east. It also shows that although children are at the centre of many of the Government's anti-poverty policies, the number of those taking free meals has dropped since it came to power. In 1997, 776,000 primary school pupils, 17.3 per cent, ate free meals, compared with 690,000, 15.3 per cent, in 1999.
The charity is concerned about the nutritional implications of so many poor children missing what the Department for Education describes as their "main meal of the day".
Tim Marsh, the co-author of the CPAG report, said that if all children living in poverty had free school meals, it would cost the Government only pounds 410m extra a year.
Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "Yet again this independent report highlights the gap between the Government's rhetoric and the reality of poverty in Britain today. The Prime Minister is obsessed with Middle England, but there is another country out there, one he does not want to see."