ANGRY opposition councillors hit out at County Hall bosses for trying to scrap funding for a vital meals service for the elderly...

while scoffing free lunches.

Essex County Council wants to withdraw its subsidy for daily meals-on-wheels due to dwindling interest.

However, the move has been condemned by opposition parties as those still eating the meals face a daily price hike from £3.95 to £4.79, leaving some elderly people £218 a year worse off.

Critics are also angry the cuts could be made at the same time Freedom of Information figures show County Hall spent £68,549 over the past two years providing free meals for councillors.

Dave Blackwell, Independent county councillor for Canvey Island East, said: “If we had to choose between councillors getting free lunches and elderly people getting subsidised meals, there is no argument. I think it’s disgusting.

"What the council would save is peanuts. If we can’t help the most vulnerable in our communities then it’s a poor state of affairs. I’m ashamed to be associated with anything to do with this decision.”

The Tory-run council has ruled out axing the service, but wants to scrap the 84p it pays per meal.

The whole meals-on-wheels service is understood to cost £260,000 a year and the council has to save £200million in the next four years.

All 1,003 users are being consulted about the possible change.

Jamie Huntman, county councillor for Thundersley and leader of the opposition Ukip group, said: "What they're trying to save is such a minimal amount. If they wanted to cut a service which would save millions, we'd understand because we are in austere times. This is just chipping away at the edges, and it's going to affect a lot of vulnerable people.’’ He said his party donated money to the chairman’s chosen charity to make up for free meals provided in the members’ area at County Hall.

Mr Huntman added: “We don’t feel comfortable having free lunches, so we donate money to the chairman’s charity.

“Shunning it altogether would be cutting off our noses to spite our faces.”

Ann Brown, Tory councillor responsible for adult social care, said: “I am aware that, for some residents, meals-on-wheels is a vital service.

“However, as alternative options have appeared in the market, the number of customers has fallen, which means it is difficult to continue to provide the service in its current guise and provide value for money for taxpayers.”

The public consultation on the meals-on-wheels service will run until Monday, July 7.