An administration that prides itself on being business-friendly should never act in a way that raises suspicion it uses taxpayers’ money to favour non-compliant bidders in a public procurement process. No amount of last-minute “clarifications” by the Contracts Department can blow away the whiff of irregular practices in what should be a transparent process that guarantees the best value-for-money for taxpayers.

A controversial call for tenders by the Department of Contracts last December for a multi-million-euro cleaning contract at St Vincent de Paul Residence in Luqa was suspended amid objections by bidders on a number of issues. This newspaper had reported that when the cleaning contract expired in 2015, rather than issue a new call for offers, the government had decided to give a direct order every six months to a contractor.

After the call had been made, the Contracts Department issued a “clarification” on the conditions for bidding. It stated that the clearance certificates normally requested from the government departments, including one that confirms that all VAT and social security contributions by a prospective bidder had been settled, were not compulsory any longer on submission of bids but were only required before the successful bidder signed the contract.

One of the bidders objected to the changes announced through this ‘clarification’ and wrote to the Public Contracts Review Board protesting on the arbitrary action taken by the department. The Malta Employers’ Association, the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry and the Malta Chamber of SMEs – GRTU expressed concern at what had happened. The MEA declared: “This intervention by the Contracts Department does not inspire confidence in the business community that tenders are adjudicated fairly.”

The government reacted in an unconvincing way by saying the “crucial tax clause” had never been removed but only amended to reduce bureaucratic practices for bidders. However, in a formal decision, the Public Contracts Review Board ruled that the intervention by the Contracts Department on the last day of submissions of tenders was “concerning” and unacceptable. The Department of Contracts and the Finance Ministry had no option but to reverse the “clarification” issued just before the closing date of the cleaning tender.

One is justified in asking and expecting a credible reply from the government on whether the faux pas by the Contracts Department responsible for ensuring that public procurement process guarantees the best value-for-money for taxpayers is another example of gross incompetence by public servants or an abuse of authority to favour one bidder over others. Or were they obeying ‘orders’?

The Public Contracts Review Board has to be commended for the solid arguments it used to censure the actions of the Contracts Department. Indeed, those sitting on the contracts committee should consider their position after making the “clarification” decision that was clearly unacceptable to those who expect full transparency in the public procurement process.

The EU competition authorities, the Auditor General and perhaps the Public Accounts Committee, too, should follow up on this case to ensure that procurement regulations are not undermined by arbitrary decisions of senior public officials. If they come across any evidence that indicates there may be more than meets the eye, a thorough criminal investigation may also become necessary. The last thing the country needs is another possible case of alleged corruption.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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