ESFA delays European Social Fund tender contracting for second time after ‘error’

A fresh 10-day standstill period has been issued by the Education and Skills Funding Agency for European Social Fund contracts in some areas after it admitted to making an “error” in its tender.

FE Week revealed last week that multiple providers alleged that the government broke tender rules in the procurement that is worth £282 million in total.

The original date for handing out ESF contracts to the winners was January 29, but the ESFA delayed this while it handled the complaints which mainly protested about the exclusion of the “track record” section in bids which led to providers like Serco Limited winning big despite an Ofsted grade three and financial losses of £29.5 million in 2017.

I’m not sure how they can legally commit to awarding contracts when they acknowledged an error has been made

Now, the ESFA has told providers who bid the areas that Serco won in that a new standstill period will begin on February 11 following an “error” with its name in its tender.

“It has come to our attention that the standstill letter incorrectly named the successful tenderer as ‘Serco Regional Services Limited’,” said an update to an ESF bidding provider, sent by the ESFA yesterday and seen by FE Week.

“In fact, the successful tenderer was ‘Serco Limited’. This occurred as a result of an error in using the ESFA’s e-tendering system, Bravo.

“However, the ESFA confirms that a valid tender was submitted by Serco Limited and that the selection questions, the tender evaluation and due diligence were all completed on this basis.”

It continues: “In view of this error, the ESFA will be issuing fresh Standstill Letters on Monday 11 February 2019 and observing a fresh 10 day Standstill Period.

“We regret any inconvenience caused, but stand by the outcome of the tender.”

The ESFA told FE Week that the new standstill period will only apply to those providers that bid in an area where Serco won.

“This is unprecedented,” said one provider that lost out to Serco but wished to remain anonymous.

“I’m not sure how they can legally commit to awarding contracts when they have acknowledged that an error has been made, especially when it involves something so critically fundamental as a company’s name.

“They are insisting that an error was made by ‘Serco Regional Services Limited’ being listed as the successful bidder. How did they even know about the existence of ‘Serco Regional Services’?”

Prior to the first delay FE Week asked Serco if it did bid as Serco Regional Services but a spokesperson denied this: “We bid for this work as Serco Ltd not Serco Regional Services.”

We regret any inconvenience caused, but stand by the outcome of the tender

Documents about the ESF winners, seen by FE Week, show that Serco won contracts in at least six different regions totalling more than £37 million.

These included the Black Country, Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire, Coventry and Warwickshire, Derby and Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, and Leicester and Leicestershire.

The ESF is funding that the UK received, as a member state of the EU, to increase job opportunities and help people to improve their skill levels, particularly those who find it difficult to get work.

The current funding round is worth about €3 billion (£2.3 billion) across England over the period from 2014 to 2020.

England’s fund is administered through the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Big Lottery Fund, which each provide match funding.