Digitisation of food vouchers for UK families left them hungry and desperate

Analysis: in a botched upgrade the fruit and veg Healthy Start scheme turned away numerous eligible low-income families

As the cost of living crisis blew up in March, and millions faced “starve or freeze” choices, it emerged – with dismal timing – that the rollout of the government’s newly digitised Healthy Start fruit and veg voucher scheme for low-income mothers was in chaos.

About 550,000 mothers who are pregnant or who have children aged three or under are in theory eligible for the scheme, which is worth between £4.25 and £8.50 a week. Designed to ensure their children get their five-a-day portions, milk or formula, it should have been a timely boost.

Rather than providing a nutritional safety net, however, Healthy Start was turning away tens of thousands of eligible mothers. As it moved from a paper coupon format to a prepaid card system, parents who had been using the old scheme were rejected for the new one, with no explanation. Some are owed months of back payments.

This chaos it seems was news to the authors of the government’s long-awaited food strategy white paper, according to a leaked version seen on Friday. “We have made it easier for young families to apply for and use the Healthy Start Scheme through digitisation,” the paper proudly insisted.

Many parents who got on to the system found they couldn’t activate their new card, or had it declined at the till. Some callers to the customer helpline waited three hours – and those not on phone payment plans charged 55p a minute. One claimant was told by a customer service adviser to get her baby formula from a food bank instead.

Even those who received cards found they could not be used to buy food online, and in some shops they could not be used as part-payment – to their shame and embarrassment users would find they had to separate out their Healthy Start items out at the counter.

In March, charities and public health officials wrote to the health secretary, Sajid Javid, warning the problems with Healthy Start were so rife, and the technical support so inadequate, that they were reluctant to promote the scheme locally “for fear of eligible residents being put off by the faulty system”.

For one exasperated local official, the disaster had the hallmarks of a classic public sector digital botch-up: pushing through a user-unfriendly system with little consultation and ignoring issues when they were flagged. It had echoes of the free school meal voucher fiasco, and the early days of universal credit.

“If you were trying to minimise spending on fruit and veg, this is exactly how you would design the scheme,” he said.

The NHS Business Services Authority acknowledges “there have been some issues” with the transition to digital Healthy Start. Since March, helpline capacity has been increased, and some IT glitches fixed. It has promised back payments for eligible mothers turned down for the card who can prove they tried to make a claim.

Nonetheless, many users report the issues are ongoing. One recent case seen by the Guardian involved a struggling mother forced to borrow cash from her family to buy formula for her baby. She has had no explanation about why her application was knocked back, or how or when she might get a back-payment.

Healthy Start’s problems have drawn attention to its wider shortcomings. The independent National Food Strategy last year pointed out at least 250,000 children under five in food insecurity were not eligible for the scheme. It called for it to be expanded to all households earning under £20,000, and extended to all children under five.

That would bring an additional 600,000 pregnant women and children on to the scheme. Take-up of the scheme, however, remains stubbornly low. Latest national figures suggest just 63% of eligible parents took up their entitlement last year, and more than £63m in vouchers went unclaimed.

The government’s slender food strategy white paper is clear there are no plans to expand Healthy Start or invest in a marketing push on the scale many believe is needed to substantially increase take-up.

At local level there is concern that the tricky application process and operational difficulties are not just excluding but alienating the very parents and children who desperately need support. The new voucher take-up figures are awaited with trepidation, says one official: “The real fear is they have fallen off a cliff edge.”


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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