Assessing suitability etc under Reg. 111 Public Contracts Regulations 2015

Reg. 111 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (PCR2015) imposes a significant restriction in the assessment of suitability of tenderers and bidders for contracts below EU thresholds by prohibiting contracting authorities from including a pre-qualification stage in their procurement [reg.111(1)]. 

For these purposes, “pre-qualification stage” means a stage in the procurement process during which the contracting authority assesses the suitability of candidates to perform a public contract for the purpose of reducing the number of candidates to a smaller number who are to proceed to a later stage of the process [reg.111(4)]--ie, no PQQs or, as the Crown Commercial Service has summarised it, 'in practical terms ... PQQs used as part of a pre-qualification stage are not permitted' (which goes well beyond the use of a standardised PQQ for above threshold procurement under reg.107 PCR2015). 

This creates significant legal uncertainty in contracting authorities tendering relatively small contracts, which are now left with the problem of ensuring that their contractors are qualified without knowing exactly how to go about it [see Pedro's views on this here]. And the main effect of such uncertainty is that they will have a very strong incentive to rely on contractors they know and have dealt with in the past, so that they are not negatively affected by the prohibition on the use of PQQs. The end result may well be to significantly close local markets to entry by SMEs and larger companies without a previous track record with a given contracting authority. Consequently, this provision needs to be strongly criticised.

Moreover, the actual implications and limitations derived from the no-PQQ rule are far from clear and reg.111(5) indicates that, in any event, contracting authorities may ask candidates to answer suitability assessment questions only if each such question is relevant to the subject-matter of the procurement; and proportionate. Reg.111(6) tries to clarify that “suitability assessment question” means a question which relates to information or evidence which the contracting authority requires for the purpose of assessing whether candidates meet requirements or minimum standards of suitability, capability, legal status or financial standing. 

Thus, the puzzle is served and the practical discussion of whether (small, tiny) PQQs can be used but they need to be labelled SAQs keeps most procurement practitioners on the edge. Unfortunately, the guidance published by the Cabinet Office does not solve this practical problem. And this is particularly troublesome because the Mistery Shopper scheme applies to reportable deviations from the prohibition of using PQQs or the eventual disproportionate use of SAQs. The comments made in relation to reg.107 PCR2015 apply.