A councillor who says she grew up in poverty has called for free school meals to be rolled out to all schoolchildren.

Labour’s Councillor Caroline Ball, who represents the Ashington Central ward on Northumberland County Council, said she remembered being embarrassed to collect her free school meals vouchers and called for the policy to be rolled out to everyone.

She argued it would improve the health of young people and be cheaper in the long run than paying for later health conditions.

READ MORE: Inflexible school policies blamed for poor attendance in county

Cllr Ball was speaking at Thursday’s meeting (March 7) of the council’s family and children’s services overview and scrutiny committee. Members were discussing a report on the council’s inequalities, poverty and hardship plan.

The document revealed that 31 per cent of children in Northumberland lived in poverty. The North East has the highest levels of child poverty in the country at 38 per cent overall, ahead of London on 35 per cent.

The council has a number of policies in place to help young people growing up in poverty, including Northumberland Holiday Provision which provides the scope and funding for partners and providers across the county to put on “enriching camps” and activities for children eligible for free school meals.

However, free school meal entitlement is only for families earning less than £14,000 a year on Universal Credit, or £16,190 a year on child tax or working tax credits. Cllr Ball argued that all children should be eligible.

She said: “I’m a child that was brought up in poverty, I was on free school meals. My mam sacrificed so much for me to be in the position I am in today but not a lot has changed since I was a child with a yellow ticket to get my meals that was mocked.

“Why hasn’t it changed in those years? People don’t want to be in poverty, teachers shouldn’t have to be social workers, benefits advisers and running holiday clubs.

“Free school meals need to be a universal offer. The long-term health implications will pay for itself.

“Children will have higher attainment and end up paying more in taxes. We’re one of the richest nations in the world, it would haver such an impact on health.

“I will bang the drum for this until I’m on my deathbed.”

In July last year, the Labour party ruled out implementing free school meals if it came to power.

It was claimed officials were said to view other measures as “more effective” when it comes to cutting poverty.

According to the food foundation, extending free school meals to all primary and secondary school children with parents on Universal Credit would cost around £477 million a year.

Providing them for all primary and secondary school children would require £1.8 billion a year.

Cllr Ball also raised concerns about restrictive school uniform policies.

She added: “I hear about schools where children aren’t allowed to play rugby unless they have the school’s branded rugby top. How are you going to excel and play for England if you can’t even play for your school team?”

The council’s executive director for children, young people & education, Audrey Kingham, told

Cllr Ball: “What I hope you see is a kind of relentless approach to see what else can be done.

“I hope you’re not hearing we expect the bare minimum.”

Cllr Ball did acknowledge that children’s services was doing “brilliant work” to support families.