Former senior civil servant cannot explain why RHI scheme was not reviewed nor cost controls implemented
A FORMER senior civil servant in the department which launched the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has said he cannot explain why the introduction of cost controls and a planned review of the initiative never took place.
David Thomson was part of the top management team at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) from January 2010 until he retired in 2014.
Mr Thomson returned as a witness to the public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme yesterday, after originally appearing on Wednesday.
In 2013, a public consultation was launched by DETI about the potential introduction of cost controls, as had been implemented in the scheme in Britain.
Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said that the department should have been encouraged by the responses, given that there was "virtually no objection to cost controls in the public consultation".
However moves to cap the expenditure were never progressed in Northern Ireland.
The potential overspend is expected to cost almost £700 million in public money over the next two decades.
Junior counsel Donal Lunny observed that the issue of cost controls "almost disappeared" from DETI's radar.
A review of the RHI scheme, which was due to begin in January 2014 with changes being introduced the following year, also did not go ahead.
Internal DETI documents read to the inquiry showed that the issue of the review had gone from being "central" to "discretionary".
Mr Thomson said he "knew that a review had to be done", but "didn't recall" any discussions to "narrow down or defer" it.
He said that if any such conversations took place about the review or cost controls, they should have been put into writing and referred to the then minister, Arlene Foster.
Mr Thomson said that he "absolutely" accepted some responsibility for the fact information was "lost or confused" in the changeover after Fiona Hepper stepped down as head of DETI's energy division to be replaced by John Mills in late 2013.
Panel member Dame Una O'Brien asked the former senior civil servant: "How do you think it happened that it was lost? What is your explanation?
"I just don't know," he replied, adding that cost controls "should have been brought in" but that he was not aware of any "conscious decision" to defer them.
Sir Patrick Coghlin noted: "Somewhere along the line somebody was making these decisions."
In 2015, after major problems came to light, the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) were asked to carry out an internal review of RHI by DETI.
Mr Thomson, who was by then retired, said he initially refused to be interviewed but later agreed after receiving a letter from the department stating that it would be confidential.
The former senior official said he would have said things "differently" if he had known that the PwC report was to be published, as it later was.
Mr Thomson said he "didn't recall" who in the department gave him the assurance that it would be confidential, after being asked by Sir Patrick whether it had come "from the very top."
The former civil servant also said he believed it was the "incorrect decision" and "too risky" for the department to allow Joanne McCutcheon and Peter Hutchinson, who had worked on RHI since its inception, to leave the team within weeks of each other in 2014.
The inquiry is due to sit again on Tuesday March 13.