Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is facing criticism for awarding another £190m contract to a company blamed for the problems with a school meals voucher system in England that left families without food during the first lockdown.
The French company Edenred’s new contract, revealed on the government’s website, appears to bring its total income from the scheme to £615m since the pandemic began. An earlier investigation into the scheme by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that previous contracts had been signed with the company despite “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver.
The voucher scheme, hastily set up last year, was hit with problems as schools complained of difficulties in registering for the weekly vouchers and teachers struggled to log on to the website. At one point last April, the Edenred helpline was receiving almost 4,000 calls and nearly 9,000 emails a day from school staff and parents.
Williamson confirmed that Edenred’s contract would be extended when the scheme was reopened in January, but its value has only just been revealed. When previously asked by the public accounts committee to disclose the profits made by Edenred, the Department for Education (DfE) declined to do so on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”.
Ed Davey, the leader of the Lib Dems, accused the government of being “addicted to wasting taxpayers’ money on bad contracts with private firms, while refusing to pay our NHS and care staff properly”. He added: “Gavin Williamson should take a look at how the Lib Dem education minister in Wales, Kirsty Williams, got free school meals to children, when she refused to sign a contract with Edenred, used local councils instead and delivered a better service. The Tories’ use of poorly performing expensive private contractors in the pandemic is a scandal, in sharp contrast to the heroic performance of the NHS and so many councils.”
Edenred was approached for comment, but did not respond. However, it recently defended its performance, stating: “With 95% of families saying the free school meal voucher scheme has worked well for them and a contract which has ensured that every pound of public money was passed on to the children and families who needed it, with no charges to the DfE or the taxpayer, Edenred has delivered a programme which has provided vital support for families through the pandemic and value for money for the DfE.”
The DfE was also approached, but had not responded when at the time of publication. However, it has said that it improved the terms of Edenred’s contract after criticism from the NAO.