Depressing incompetence, a lack of forward planning, and a hefty dose of cronyism: these are the hallmarks of Government’s handling of the pandemic. And, of all the impacts, amongst the worst is that vulnerable children have gone hungry.
When we first went into lockdown last March, and schools across the country closed, some fire-fighting was inevitable. To feed children eligible for free school meals who were no longer going to school, Government rushed to set up a national food voucher scheme, run by Edenred.
Many of the operational problems with the scheme were ultimately resolved – but fundamental questions remain. For example, the Department for Education still does not know how many children were supported by the voucher scheme. And, despite the value of the Edenred contracts increasing from an initial £78m in April to £425m by the end of August 2020, at no point did Government renegotiate better terms or value for money.
Fast forward to this lockdown.
Government started off promoting a ‘food parcels first’ approach, encouraging schools to provide parcels rather than vouchers (or cash). Amongst the reasons given (now deleted from DfE guidance) was that this would allow “the continuation of financial support to school caterers”. And judging by some of the miserly food ‘hampers’ that found their way to vulnerable children from catering giants like Compass, those financial benefits were all those companies had in mind. Only when photos of their greed emerged did the Minister for Children, Vicky Ford, announce that the DfE were working “night and day” to roll out the national voucher scheme once more.
So in January 2020, ten months later, we’re back where we started. Huge multinationals have been caught selling children short. And we’re once again using an untendered and sub-optimal voucher scheme run by Edenred.
But we shouldn’t be here.
On 17th December, a senior civil servant, talking of the policy choices made in March and April of 2020, told the Public Accounts Committee that cash transfers to affected families “were our preferred option” and that “if we had our time again, maybe we would need to find a way to make that happen, but hopefully we will not be here again.”
Of course, they did have their time again. And we are here again.
And we’re left to wonder: why didn’t the DfE use the past nine months to develop a system that would allow for the provision of cash to eligible families? Were they alone in thinking there would be no second wave?
Meanwhile Chartwells – and its peers – continue to profit by providing inadequate food for inflated prices. More than two weeks after schools reopened, the voucher scheme is only just cranking back into life. And we as taxpayers are having to pay more for a voucher scheme that civil servants think worse than cash.
Hungry children are potent symbols of an incompetent Government lacking compassion. But mostly they are hungry children. We continue to anticipate bringing legal action to try and establish a meaningful right to eat.
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