An investigation into the free school lunch voucher fiasco, which left many families without food during the lockdown, found that the government had signed contracts worth up to £ 425million with a company for which it there was “limited evidence” of his ability to deliver.
The struggling program was set up in just 18 days and awarded to French company Edenred, despite the government’s own assessment that the UK arm of the company lacked the financial capacity that would normally be required for the scale of the contract, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The public expenditure watchdog said Edenred was appointed to manage the program using an existing government framework contract, as it was already a supplier to a number of ministries, which meant it didn’t was not necessary to launch a long tendering process.
Within weeks, however, problems began to emerge, with schools across England complaining of problems signing up for weekly vouchers of £ 15 per child. School staff worked overnight trying to log into Edenred’s website, and parents waited up to five days for their vouchers.
At one point in April, Edenred’s helpline was receiving nearly 4,000 calls and almost 9,000 emails a day from frustrated school staff and parents. At the height of the crisis, ministers were forced to intervene directly, and education ministry officials had daily calls with Edenred to monitor progress.
One of the main issues identified in the NAO report was Edenred’s IT capacity, which was insufficient to meet the challenge of providing vouchers to 1.4 million eligible children for free school meals.
The report says performance improved as a result of the DfE intervention, with order processing times dropping from an average of five days in April to a few hours in July and wait times to access the website dropping from 42 minutes with virtually no wait over the same period.
According to the report, Edenred issued 10.1 million vouchers in total for a final cost to DfE of £ 384 million, significantly lower than the initial cost estimated at the start of the program. The report states that the DfE “doesn’t know if Edenred made a profit” on the program, but while the government paid them the face value of the supermarket vouchers, Edenred was able to generate income by purchasing vouchers at a price. reduced on their face value.
Meg Hillier, Chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “The DfE chose a suitable out-of-the-box system to save time. But when it was launched, families typically had to wait five days to get the vouchers they needed to buy food.
“Edenred’s systems faltered under the pressure, and schools and families found it very difficult to make contact when things went wrong. DfE and Edenred finally made a difference, but too many parents have had to wait too long for the support they need.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The problems at the start of the program led to a frustrating experience for many schools and families, but DfE and Edenred worked hard to address these issues. The performance constantly improved as the program progressed.
Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford said: “The NAO has recognized the swift action we have taken to ensure that eligible children can access this important provision while schools were partially closed, with £ 380million in coupons having been redeemed for supermarket gift cards by the time the plan ended.