As the cost of living crisis flared up in March, leaving millions of people to ‘starve or freeze’, it turned out – with bleak timing – that the introduction of the recently digitized government-digitized fruit and vegetable voucher scheme for mothers with low income was in full swing. chaos.
About 550,000 mothers who are pregnant or have children aged three or under are theoretically eligible for the scheme, which is worth between £4.25 and £8.50 a week. Designed to ensure their kids are getting their servings of five a day, milk or formula, it should have been a timely boost.
However, instead of providing a nutritional safety net, Healthy Start turned down tens of thousands of eligible mothers. When it moved from a paper coupon format to a prepaid card system, parents using the old scheme were turned down for the new one, without explanation. Some are owed months in arrears.
It seems this chaos was news to the authors of the government’s much-anticipated white paper on food strategy, according to a leaked version seen Friday. “Through digitization, we have made it easier for young families to apply for and use the Healthy Start Scheme,” the newspaper proudly emphasized.
Many parents who entered the system found that they could not activate their new card or were refused at the register. Some callers to the customer helpline waited three hours — and those who didn’t have phone payment plans charged 55p per minute. A plaintiff was told by a customer service advisor to get her baby food from a food bank instead.
Even those who received cards found that they could not be used to buy food online, and in some stores they could not be used as partial payment – to their shame and embarrassment, users would find that they had to separate their Healthy Start items at the counter.
In March, charities and public health officials wrote to the health secretary, Sajid Javid, warning that the problems with Healthy Start were so widespread and technical support so inadequate that they were reluctant to promote the scheme locally “for fear that eligible residents deterred by the faulty system”.
For an exasperated local official, the disaster had the hallmarks of a classic public sector digital failure: pushing through a user-unfriendly system with little deliberation and ignoring issues when flagged. It had echoes of the free school luncheon voucher fiasco and the early days of universal credit.
“If you were trying to minimize spending on fruits and vegetables, this is exactly how you would design the schedule,” he said.
The NHS Business Services Authority acknowledges “there have been some issues” with the transition to a digital Healthy Start. Since March, the capacity of the helpline has been increased and some IT failures have been resolved. It has promised arrears for eligible mothers who have been turned down for the card and who can prove they have tried to file a claim.
Nevertheless, many users report that the issues are ongoing. A recent case seen by the Guardian involved a struggling mother who was forced to borrow money from her family to buy formulas for her baby. She has not been given an explanation as to why her application was reversed, or how or when she might get a delinquent payment.
Healthy Start’s problems have drawn attention to its broader shortcomings. Last year’s independent National Food Strategy pointed out that at least 250,000 children under the age of five who face food insecurity are not eligible for the scheme. It called for it to be extended to all households earning less than £20,000, and to all children under the age of five.
That would bring another 600,000 pregnant women and children to the scheme. However, use of the scheme remains stubbornly low. The latest national figures show that just 63% of eligible parents made use of their entitlement last year, and more than £63m worth of vouchers went unclaimed.
The white paper on the government’s lean food strategy makes it clear that there are no plans to expand Healthy Start or invest in a marketing push at the scale many believe is necessary to significantly increase uptake.
At the local level, there is concern that the cumbersome application process and operational difficulties not only exclude but also alienate parents and children in urgent need of support. The new voucher withdrawal figures are eagerly awaited, an official says: “The real fear is that they fell off a cliff.”