OFFICIALS in a Scots council where one in four youngsters live in poverty have accused Whitehall of blocking attempts to automatically hand needy children free school meals and uniform grants.

Inverclyde said the Department for Work and Pensions was refusing to allow information collected for council tax purposes to be reused to help tackle child poverty.

Council leader Stephen McCabe branded the position “totally incomprehensible” and insisted the local authority was now taking the fight to the Scottish Government.

He said: “Inverclyde Council is doing its utmost to tackle child poverty. Given that one local child in four lives in poverty, there are few things which are a higher priority for us.

“We see using information from the DWP as an important step in achieving this goal.

“The DWP is more than happy to cross reference information to combat benefit fraud and, in fact, contacted us last week seeking information from our social work system.

“However, it seems to see no benefit in using information, that it has already given to one council department, to make sure that children in need receive the help that they are entitled to.”

The row centres on data provided to the council by the DWP to administer Council Tax Reduction – a benefit to help poorer families pay their council tax bill.

Inverclyde wants its finance department to be able to share this information with education services, who have responsibility for free school meals and uniform grants.

This would allow the local authority to automatically ensure eligible children get the help they are entitled to, without the need for applications.

But the DWP insists existing laws do not allow the data to be reused in this way.

Inverclyde’s chief financial officer Alan Puckrin has now asked MSPs on Holyrood’s social security committee to step in.

In a letter to convener Bob Doris, he said the council believes reusing the data is “necessary for the performance of a public task carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority”.

It adds: “Tackling child poverty and deprivation forms one of the strategic aims of Inverclyde Council.

“It is in the public interest for the council to provide free school meals and assistance with footwear and school clothing to pupils who are entitled to them.”

The council insisted there is a “clear basis in law” for reusing the data in order to help tackle child poverty.

Its letter adds: “Inverclyde Council considers such reuse is compatible with the original purpose for which the DWP provided the data.

“Through such reuse CTR [council tax reduction] customers will be made aware of and be informed of their entitlement to benefits which they may not otherwise have been aware.”

A DWP spokeswoman said tackling poverty “will always be a priority for the UK Government”.

She said: “We recognise that some families need more support and continue to work closely with our partners to look at what more can be done to help the most vulnerable and improve their life chances.

“The Welfare Reform Act and The Social Security Regulations unfortunately don’t allow the reuse of data shared for local council tax reduction, to administer school clothing grants or free school meals.

“DWP is happy to discuss the local authority’s concerns and provide any further support.”

SNP MSP Stuart McMillan said using the data “would help to combat some of the Tory austerity and welfare cuts which have been forced on people in Scotland”.

He added: “Councils should not have to jump through hoops to provide support to those who need it. It’s vital that people know which benefits they are entitled to.

“The barriers put in place by the DWP do little to disprove the point of the UN Special Rapporteur, who accused the Tory government of being in denial about the problem of poverty.”