Third time lucky? European Social Fund tender contracting delayed again

The Education and Skills Funding Agency is delaying the issuing of European Social Fund contracts for a third time after it experienced “technical issues” with its latest award notices.

FE Week can also reveal that one provider that is fuming with the way in which the recent controversial tender for these contracts was run has delivered a pre-action legal letter to the agency.

The ESFA ran its latest European Social Fund (ESF) procurement, worth around £282 million in total, towards the end of last year and was supposed to award contracts to the winning bidders on January 29.

But, as previously revealed by FE Week, multiple providers alleged that the government broke tender rules during the process and last week the ESFA had to start a fresh 10-day standstill period, starting February 11, after it admitted to making an “error”.

Yesterday, in a message to providers who bid in 10 areas relating to the skills support for the workforce part of tender, the ESFA revealed it is having to delay issuing contracts again.

“ESFA have identified some technical issues with the award decision notices that were issued on Monday 11 February 2019, for the following lots: Greater Birmingham and Solihull MD, Greater Birmingham and Solihull TR, Black Country, Coventry and Warwickshire, D2, Dorset, Leicester and Leicestershire, N2, Stoke and Staffs, Worcestershire,” it said.

“Revised notices will be issued in due course and a new standstill period will apply. We will keep you updated on the position.”

The ESF contracts are supposed to come into force from April 1.

A lot of the controversy around the procurement relates to the exclusion of the “track record” section in bids, which led to providers like Serco Limited winning at least £37 million despite an Ofsted grade three and financial losses of £29.5 million in 2017.

Meanwhile, other top-performing training providers missed out. One provider, which lost out to Serco but wished to remain anonymous, is now looking to take the ESFA to court over the whole fiasco.

“We are really disappointed with the ESFA lack of clarity on the challenges raised from providers,” the boss of the company told FE Week.

“They have failed to show that adequate due diligence on the winning bidder had been conducted and failed to provide an explanation on several key process points throughout the tender including how they managed to get the name of the winning bidder wrong.”

The ESFA said it cannot comment on the European Social Fund debacle as it is still a live procurement.

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.