The Department for Education failed to run an open tender for the most recent free school meals voucher contract, rolling it over to supplier Edenred for the third time.

Ministers were criticised for not running an open tender for the first two contracts handed to Edenred last year which rose from £78 million to £425 million. The public accounts committee criticised the DfE for not seeking to negotiate better terms when the first contract was extended.

Now the DfE has told Schools Week that there was no open tender when the voucher scheme relaunched on January 18.

Geoff Barton, general secretary at ASCL, said: “It does beg the question of why the government did not foresee the likelihood of another lockdown and run a tender process at an earlier stage.”

However, a DfE spokesperson said the government had “improved the terms of the contract”, although they would not confirm what these were.

The department is working with the Crown Commercial Service to launch a cross-government and public sector tender for retail vouchers, including food vouchers.

A prior information notice for the £3.3 billion procurement, published on January 29, says the contract notice will go out on March 5.

Meanwhile the Cabinet Office is consulting on a green paper published in December called Transforming Public Procurement to “speed up and simplify procurement processes”. It includes a proposal to allow “limited tendering in cases of extreme urgency”.