The government has once again been caught on the wrong foot with regards to a lucrative ferry concession as the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB) has ordered that a controversial Request for Proposals (RfP) be withdrawn – for the third time.
Following objections filed by Virtu Ferries claiming “serious illegalities” and disregard of EU law, the PCRB ordered Transport Malta to cancel the €115 million call and to make sure that if another one is issued it should follow consultation with relevant EU authorities and include specific technical criteria to reduce “vagueness and subjectivity”.
Virtu Ferries, which operates the catamaran service between Malta and Sicily, argued in its objections that the RfP issued last July was again written to fit a particular company.
The government’s call was “so ill-conceived and so fraught with such a great number of manifest and serious illegalities that any responsible Board should order the outright cancellation of this RfP,” the company argued.
Both the government, through Transport Malta, and Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd – a partnership between Zammit Tabona’s Captain Morgan and the Bianchi Group of Companies – had replied to the objections raised by Virtu Ferries, insisting they were “baseless” and should be rejected.
Marsamxetto Streamferry Services accused Virtu Ferries of seeking to nullify the initiative in order “to retain its market dominance and strengthen its monopolistic position to the prejudice of the public interest”.
In its decision, the PCRB determined that the way the government issued the call created serious concerns that such a concession, if awarded, would be in breach of EU Treaties.
It concluded that if this happens “the financial consequences on the Authority (Transport Malta) could be substantial with damaging effect in general”.
The PCRB also harshly criticised the lack of professionalism in structuring the call, particularly due to open ended and vague definitions and technical requirements “subject to various interpretations”.
“Options allowed in the RfP document will create problematic issues during the evaluation process as the doors would be wide open for subjectivity,” the PCRB ruled.
The Board insisted that to assure transparency and a level playing field, Transport Malta must invite prospective bidders to abide by technical specifications and conditions strictly as stipulated in the RfP.
This is the third failed attempt by the government to deliver on its electoral promise made prior to the 2013 general elections for scheduled fast ferry passenger services between Malta and Gozo for the benefit of frequent travellers between the two islands.
The previous two calls were cancelled following the intervention of the courts based on objections by Virtu Ferries that were upheld.
On one occasion, an agreement for this service to start being provided by a company set up by Captain Morgan and Gozo’s Magro Brothers, producers of tomato products, was struck down and termed illegal by the Courts.
The latest government attempt varied the third concession call by leaving out the fast ferry option and instead calling for a point to point scheduled service between unspecified localities in Malta and Gozo.
Claims made by Supreme Travel – an interested party – that this latest RFP was once again earmarked for Captain Morgan were rejected. Edward Zammit Tabona had told The Shift that the vessels currently used for a hop-on-hop-off service it introduced last summer, did not match the specifications in the call.
Despite criticism by various constituted bodies over the latest tender, Minister Ian Borg insisted it was the right way forward. The PCRB did not agree.