The tokens, worth up to £80, were distributed to households as part of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, a government-funded programme under which local authorities have been able to make discretionary payments to those in need of support during the darkest months of the pandemic.
They are in addition to vouchers supplied during school holidays to families of children who would usually receive free school meals, which have been unaffected by the problem.
Lancashire County Council has said that it is investigating the issue and that no families will lose out as they have until 29th June to use the vouchers.
The winter scheme was was recently extended by the government, with the final round of vouchers landing on doormats in recent days.
However, a mum-of-three from Morecambe took to social media when she discovered that the 16-digit code required to redeem the token was missing a number - and soon found she was not alone.
Trina Lawrie says she has been in contact with around 60 families since Saturday who have either been sent shortened codes - or even full-length ones that nevertheless were not recognised by the website through which they had to be submitted.
She says that those receiving vouchers, herself included, had not been expecting them - but that their surprise arrival actually compounded the distress of being unable to cash them in.
“They came out of the blue and many families will have seen them as a way of getting out of a hole.
“So it was almost like we had had £80 dangled in front of us and then told that we couldn’t have it - it felt like a bit of a slap in the face.
“There will be many people who aren’t that technically-minded who will have thought that they were doing something wrong when they couldn’t get the vouchers to work.
“The worst thing about it was that there were no contact details on the letter for if you had a problem.
“Some people have even guessed at the correct codes and managed to get them to work, which is understandable - if you were desperate to feed your family you would do that. But if they have actually ended up using someone else’s code, it's going to take an awful lot of sorting out,” Trina said.
Department for Work and Pensions guidance accompanying the scheme said local authorities should ringfence 80 percent of their local fund “to help those who are struggling to afford food and utility bills”. The remaining 20 percent can be used for “related essentials”, such as warm clothing, boiler repair or buying white goods like fridges and ovens.
In a response to the deputy leader of the opposition Labour group, John Fillis, who raised the issue with the vouchers over the weekend, Lancashire County Council’s head of schools and residential care catering, Nigel Craine, said the problem appeared to be “widespread” - but that it was unclear whether there had been an administrative error or a problem with the “redemption system” used by the voucher code supplier.
“Further communications will follow once there is an understanding of the root cause, volume of voucher codes affected and [an] appropriate resolution agreed.
“The additional funding provided for the Covid Winter Grant is intended for use by 16th April, so whilst the current issue is frustrating for residents, who are unable to use their codes, it does not mean that there will be any loss of benefit to those eligible groups,” Mr. Craine added.
It is understood that the 16th April date relates to the time for the funding to be distributed and the vouchers themselves can be used until 29th June.
The authority’s cabinet member for schools, Phillippa Williamson, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the county council was working “as quickly as we can to sort the problem out and ensure all families get the vouchers as soon as possible”.
She added: “It is very disappointing that this has happened and we understand that it is very upsetting for the families impacted who will be anxious to know when it will be fixed.”
However, the Labour county councillor for Lancaster East, Lizzi Collinge, branded the situation “totally unacceptable”.
“There’s a pattern here of basic administrative incompetence on behalf of both the Conservatives and the private companies they’re paying to administer these schemes. Taxpayers’ money is being handed out to companies with no guarantee of good service.”
The debacle also drew attention from cookery author Jack Monroe, who wrote on Twitter that it was “absolutely abysmal”.
Lancashire County Council was allocated £3.9m from the original £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme pot, but has since received an additional share from the £59m top-up provided by the government to cover the programme’s extension through to the middle of this month.
Support is not limited to families receiving benefits and councils were advised to use the "wide range of data and sources of information at their disposal to identify and provide support to a broad cross section of vulnerable households in their area".
On Tuesday evening, Lancashire County Council said it was investigating how the problem occurred and urged people who had experienced difficulties to get in touch.
A spokesperson for the authority said: “We are so sorry this has happened. It isn't acceptable that people who have been promised these vouchers have then been unable to access them - and we want to fix it as quickly as possible.
“We want to be clear – this should not have happened, and we apologise again for letting you down.”
Anybody having problems with the vouchers is being asked to email [email protected] with their name, full address, voucher number and letter reference (beginning CWG). They will then be sent a new code to allow them to download their voucher, which will be eligible to be used until 29th June.
A spokesperson for Edenred, the private company supplying the vouchers to the county council, said: ““We’re really sorry to hear some parents had issues redeeming their voucher codes this weekend. This was caused by an error when the council distributed the codes over the Easter holiday. We are working with the council to ensure the codes are re-sent as soon as possible.”