COUNCILLORS could soon be tucking into free meals before major meetings, despite slashing £12million from public spending.

Bosses at Southend Council have agreed to pay for a two-course meal for all councillors and senior officers attending Thursday’s full council meeting for the first time in three years.

Tory chiefs argue the move lets councillors, who have to come straight from work to satisfy their hunger, as well as allowing different parties to mingle informally before official business begins.

The move has been criticised by Labour councillors and campaigners, who called for the council to show “a little humility”.

Julian Ware-Lane, a Labour councillor for Milton, said: ““What sort of message does this send to the electorate? That the council is happy to cut services, but still wants free meals?”

Jack Monroe, a Labour activist and avid blogger, added: “This is the same council that can’t afford to prop up the essential meals-on-wheels service for our elderly any more, but can afford to lay on a two-course meal for its elected members.

“I’m absolutely, utterly disgusted.”

Free meals before full council meetings were scrapped in 2009 as part of a cost-cutting exercise by Tory chiefs.

In this year’s budget, bosses outlined cuts worth nearly £12million, including raising the daily price of the meals-on-wheels service from £3 to £4.50 and slashing 120 jobs.

Nigel Holdcroft, the Tory council leader, said he decided to reintroduce a meal before the meeting after discussions with the three other group leaders and the chief executive, Rob Tinlin.

The meal will be used to gauge its popularity, and a decision will then be made as to whether to continue the practice for the rest of the political year – a total of five meetings.

Mr Holdcroft said there was a chance councillors could be charged for any future meals.

He said: “My own view is that some suitable catering should be on offer to members and officers, and, in particular, those who have no opportunity to return home because of the length and timing of the meetings.

“However, assuming we can deliver a reasonable quality and choice, this should be subject to a charge.”