Can I ask for relief from KPIs or service credits under a contract with a public sector body if the Covid-19 outbreak means that I am having difficulty in performing it?
The Cabinet Office has published a useful Procurement Policy Note (“PPN”) on relief available to suppliers due to Covid-19 (available here). In brief, you should not be penalised by a public sector body, if, in the current circumstances, you are unable to comply (fully or partly) with your contractual obligations. Public sector bodies are expected to work with suppliers and, if appropriate, provide relief against current contractual terms. This is in order to maintain business and service continuity and avoid claims being accepted for other forms of contractual relief, such as the occurrence of a force majeure event.
The types of relief that may be available to suppliers to the public sector will depend on the existing contracts in place. Some contracts may have a payments by result mechanism, whereas others may be based on certain key performance indicators (KPIs) being met. Other contracts may not include any such mechanisms and therefore it will be a matter for discussion between suppliers and the public sector body.
The PPN provides that, rather than a supplier seeking to invoke a clause that would permit the supplier to suspend performance of its obligations (such as a force majeure clause), public sector bodies should first work with the supplier to amend or vary the contract. Any changes should be limited to the particular circumstances and considered on a case-by-case basis. Changes could include:
- Amending the contract requirements
- Varying timings of deliveries
- Relaxing KPIs or service levels
- Extending time for performance (e.g. revising a contract delivery plan), and/or
- Preventing the public sector from exercising any rights or remedies against the supplier for non-performance (e.g. liquidated damages or termination rights).
These should only be temporary variations and the contract should return to the original terms once the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the contract has ended. Discussions with the public sector body about any changes that are agreed should be documented, in a variation signed by both parties.
A public sector may also need to take account of regulation 72 of the Public Contract Regulations 2015, to ensure that any changes to a contract (even of a temporary nature) do not trigger a requirement to conduct a new tender process. Whilst this may be unlikely to be the case with temporary variations, suppliers should still bear this in mind when discussing any changes to a contract with a public sector body.
If you are a supplier to a public sector body and you are currently struggling to meet your contractual obligations, we recommend that you take legal advice as to whether it might be possible to take advantage of the flexible approach that the PPN requires public sector bodies to adopt – it could be that you can avoid service credits or other financial deductions, or the need to serve formal notices such as “force majeure” or other relief notices.