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Concerns about alleged abuse of RHI scheme by 'unscrupulous beneficiaries' raised by a second whistleblower

Bernie Brankin, who worked in the finance section of DETI, said she felt her department "shouldn't really be doing schemes like the RHI"
John Monaghan

CONCERNS about the alleged abuse of the RHI scheme by "unscrupulous beneficiaries" were raised by a second whistleblower, it has been revealed.

Documents on the website of the RHI inquiry show that renewables company Solmatrix wrote to the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

The inquiry had previously been told that businesswoman Janette O'Hagan was the only person to flag such concerns, which were ignored.

The department said that Solmatrix told officials that some people were "not only taking advantage of RHI support, but in many cases, notably within the poultry sector, appear to be actively exploiting it".

It remains unclear when the department received the correspondence, and whether any action was taken as a result.

The department has also said it has seen new evidence which has added to concerns that there was a "conspiracy of silence".

A public inquiry was set up after it emerged the scheme ran massively over budget, with a potential overspend of up to £700m over the next 20 years due to the cost of fuel for heating systems being less than subsidies paid.

Meanwhile, a former senior civil servant in the department has said that DETI "shouldn't really be doing schemes like the RHI".

Bernie Brankin, who worked in the finance division of DETI - which had responsibility for spending on RHI - made the comments in an interview with consultancy firm PwC in 2015, which was carrying out an internal investigation after problems were flagged.

"Yes, that's my view, and it still is my view", she told yesterday's sitting of the inquiry.

Ms Brankin, who retired last year, said that agencies such as Invest NI were much better suited to dealing with the complexity of the scheme as it "had the experience and the experts".

In 2011, she sent an email warning senior officials in the department that there would have to be cost controls built into the scheme and, having checked with the Treasury, advising that any overspend would have to come out of the DETI budget.

Ms Brankin described how a previous grant scheme for householders installing equipment for electricity, Reconnect, had also experienced difficulties but not to the same extent.

She said that schemes in Northern Ireland would normally follow similar projects in Britain to "the letter of the law", adding: "If you were deviating from that you would need a very good reason."

Another senior finance official, Mike Brennan from the Department of Finance, told the inquiry's afternoon sitting that there was a lack of clarity over what the spending terms would entail.

Mr Brennan said that the department had not been given instructions on how the finances would work but did not seek clarification and instead drew "inferences".

He said there was no understanding that a significant overspend would seriously harm the Northern Ireland budget.

The relatively minor initial £25 million budget for the scheme, combined with the fact that the DETI team was small and inexperienced, made for a "cocktail of a perfect storm", said Mr Brennan.

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