Education secretary Gavin Williamson approved a new GBP190m contract with the company blamed for "unacceptable delays" in the school meals voucher scheme, it has emerged. French company Edenred was criticised last year after its website failed to cope with demand during the first lockdown, leaving thousands of parents and teachers unable to access the system. The ASCL teaching union described the scheme's launch at the start of the pandemic as a "shambles".
A National Audit Office investigation identified "a range of problems" with Edenred's administration of the GBP15 voucher scheme, which resulted in its helpline being bombarded with 3,940 calls from worried parents and teachers in a single day in April. The House of Commons Public Affairs Committee also questioned whether the contract was value for money, concluding that the Department for Education "missed potential opportunities to reduce the cost or share in the profits." While the Department for Education acknowledged that Edenred initially had "insufficient capacity to meet demand", it claimed that "performance steadily improved as the scheme progressed" and stated that it had improved the terms of the contract "to ensure the better value for money for taxpayers."
However at that time it did not reveal the value of the three-month contract, which was eventually published on the government website earlier this week. It states that the value is up to GBP190m and that it ends on 8 April. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey told the Guardian the government was "addicted to wasting taxpayers' money on bad contracts with private firms, while refusing to pay our NHS and care staff properly".
He also tweeted: "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 said in a statement to The Independent that the scheme "has been delivered at no cost to the taxpayer over and above the money paid for each free school meal." The company added: "The insinuation that the Free School Meals contract has wasted taxpayer's money is completely false. "Over 95 per cent of parents have said they are satisfied with the scheme - a figure which has been consistent since the early launch issues were resolved last Spring.
In addition, every pound spent by the DfE has been converted into the equivalent value of vouchers for families."
Edenred said that by 3 March more than GBP90m worth of voucher codes had already been redeemed into supermarket gift cards for families.
The DfE said it would not be making any further comment.