Civil servant tells RHI inquiry: Unrealistic to-do list left me panicky

Davina McCay, who spent 35 days as head of renewable heat at the Department of Trade and Investment, was given a `wholly unrealistic' to-do list

A SENIOR civil servant, who spent 35 days as head of renewable heat at the Department of Trade and Investment (Deti) was given a "wholly unrealistic" to-do list which left her "a wee bit panicky".

Davina McCay, who was acting up to the key position, told the RHI Inquiry that she was preparing to be hand over to a colleague who would become her new line manager and "wanted to have as much done as possible".

The initiative offered financial incentives to encourage businesses to switch to using renewable fuels for heat, but flaws in the scheme meant claimants could earn greater than intended returns, with a projected overspend of £700 million over 20 years, instead of the projected £490m.

Ms McCay took the role after Joanne McCutcheon and Peter Hutchinson, who had been involved in setting up and initially running the scheme, both left the unit.

The inquiry heard this left her as "one person trying to cover essentially two posts" and with no one left in the team who had been involved in policy-making for the scheme.

Meanwhile, she continued to do work from her previous role, line-managing aspects of that as well as her new post.

"...Everything I wanted to do seemed to take longer because I had to go back and research," she said, adding there was also a "high volume" of calls from the public about the domestic scheme which her work was focused on.

She told how, during a June 2014 meeting with John Mills, head of Deti's energy division about issues over Carbon Trust loans, he ran his hands through his hair, appearing perturbed at the arising problems.

"I remember him standing at his window in his office and saying: 'I was told RHI would look after itself'."

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin suggested Mr Mills was experiencing "surprise heading towards despair".

Sir Patrick said a handover note from Mr Hutchinson included a list of immediate actions for "consideration of tiered tariffs to prevent excessive payments", adding it was "strange to the point of careless" not to review that as a priority.

"That would mean that excessive payments of public money were being made throughout that time," the chairman said.

Tiered tariffs would enable drops in subsidy rates when a set usage limit by a claimant's heat system has been reached.

Ms McCay said she "didn't get the significance of it" and believes Mr Hutchinson did not emphasise such a review was "absolutely crucial, it has to be done straight away".

The inquiry heard that whistleblower Janette O'Hagan had contacted Deti on June 9 2014 about a warning she had given the previous year about RHI.

Ms McCay's reply said the department intended to "review elements" of the scheme, "including tariffs, within the next few months" and that "the issues you've raised are on our radar" . That answer "relieved" Ms O'Hagan.

The civil servant insisted she "honestly believed" the review would be done, despite her punishing workload, blaming not passing the undertaking on to her successor on being "overwhelmed with work at the time without adequate resources".

Ms McKay said, although she had no meetings with then minister Arlene Foster, there was a "general impression within the department" that she wanted a similar initiative to that running for domestic applicants in Great Britain.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access