Back in March 2020 Department for Education (DfE) awarded a contract worth £425million without tender to French company Edenred to provide vouchers to those eligible for free school meals (FSM) during the first lockdown. This was despite ‘limited evidence’ of the company’s capacity to deliver.
The National Audit Office opened an inquiry into the national voucher scheme and in its report on 3 December found the Department did not know details of the potential profit Edenred may have made. After further probing by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the DfE has refused to share details of Edenred’s profits, citing commercial confidentiality.
Even though the contract has been extended twice – increasing its value from £78m to £425m – there has been no attempt to renegotiate the terms, tender the contract or secure better value for public money. The PAC found the DfE was ‘surprisingly unconcerned about whether Edenred was profiting from the voucher scheme at taxpayers’ expense.’
These issues only exacerbate the dismay faced by families when using the voucher scheme. According to the PAC’s report, at the start of the scheme over 1 in 10 schools were farther than 5km from the nearest participating store. As over 90% of state schools registered to use the scheme, this would have meant long journeys for many families struggling in the midst of the pandemic.
More problems came in accessing the voucher codes. Edenred’s systems could not cope with the volume of parents and schools trying to contact them. DfE did not become aware until May 2020 that 40,000 vouchers had not been delivered to families. Indeed, almost half of eligible children did not access FSM during the first lockdown.
PAC also suggested that data sharing between government departments had caused problems. SFM has long called for auto-enrolment for free school meals, a system whereby families qualifying for benefits-related free school meals would be automatically registered for free school meals to ensure that no child misses out. This would require data sharing between Department for Work and Pensions and DfE.
We want to see any public money invested in feeding our most vulnerable children to be spent wisely to ensure the funds convert into good nutrition. This is vital when the Covid crisis has hit the poorest communities hardest.