Abnormally low ... again

July 2018 will live long in the memory: long hot summer days, a World Cup semi-final and a Welshman winning the Tour de France. With all the excitement it is perhaps not surprising that the latest determination by a judge of what Regulation 69 requires a Contracting Authority to do (or not do) passed by without comment from this blog. However, with the arrival of Autumn it is time to look back at some of the summer’s most interesting procurement decisions.

One of those decisions was Fraser J’s latest analysis of Regulation 69 and whether Contracting Authorities have a positive obligation to investigate if a bid is abnormally low.

In a trial that included evidence that the Claimant might deliberately have over-bid in order to “hurt” the Defendant and in order to effectively create a scenario in which it could bring a challenge based on ‘abnormally low bids’ the judge was critical not just of the behaviour of the Claimant but, more pertinently, of the way it had attempted to demonstrate that the winning bid was ‘abnormally low’.

The judge described the approach to establishing “abnormally low” as “entirely ignoring commercial factors”. The Claimant chose to challenge the bid based on a comparison of rates for some items along with a consideration of its own profit margins. However, the judge was very clear that a simple comparison of numbers is not enough. In every case commercial judgement has to be allowed for including the experience and business skill of the tenderer.

The judge reiterated that the law on abnormally low bids remains that set out in NATS (Services) Ltd v Gatwick Airport Ltd despite the fact that this decision related to the 2006 Regulations and earlier Directive. In particular he emphasised the finding of the court in that case that the purpose of the Regulations is to encourage competition and that:

“A key aspect of this is price and tenderers who are keen to secure a project will want to pitch their prices at a level which will be the lowest. They might be keen to break into a market or establish their market share. There is nothing wrong with that for them or for the utilities or contracting authorities, who are (almost) always keen to place contracts at the lowest price and, preferably, at lower than they have budgeted. One needs to consider how, commercially, a tenderer, which is not the incumbent provider or not the market leader, will ever get a contract unless it puts in attractively low prices”.

Mr Justice Fraser approved the NATS judgment and concluded that the court should be “very slow to interpret the Regulations…as imposing some wide ranging obligation….to determine whether there is or might be an abnormally low tender”. As for whether failing to consider if a bid was abnormally low might amount to some kind of “manifest error” on the part of the Authority this risked “placing an impossible burden on contracting authorities, and stifling true commercial competition.”

The judge concluded that there was no obligation under Regulation 69 to investigate any allegedly abnormally low tender. Regulation 69 simply requires that if a bid is to be rejected as abnormally low then it must be investigated before that is done. There is no corresponding duty to investigate it if the bid is accepted albeit that many contracting authorities, including here, may carry out some form of independent verification of bids as part of their own due diligence process.

For anyone interested in the behaviour of bidders, and perhaps particularly incumbents, the case generally makes interesting reading not just because the judge found that the Claimant “took a conscious decision not to bid on a commercial basis….to try to engineer a situation where the other bids were far lower than its own, in order to justify an attack on the outcome…”. There was also some interesting evidence on the behaviour of (some) incumbents when providing TUPE information and the disclosure of some damning evidence on the decision making process which the judge refused to keep confidential. This included the presentation slide about seeking “to hurt” the Defendant.

It is possible that this case sounds the death knell of challenges on abnormally low bids. They are difficult anyway but the emphasis on commercial factors, nous and experience are all intangible factors which might be impossible to gainsay. That is not to say that we will see an end to Authorities rejecting abnormally low bids but it must be right that the factors the judge relied on here to dismiss the claim must also have to be factored into an Authority’s thinking when considering a bid under Regulation 69 and whether or not it can properly be rejected as ‘abnormally low’.

SRCL Limited v The National Health Service Commissioning Board (also known as NHS England)

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