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`No one told me of spike in RHI applications' - Jonathan Bell

EVIDENCE: Jonathan Bell was giving his second say of evidence to the RHI Inquiry
Brendan Hughes

THE RHI Inquiry returned to its core work yesterday after an incendiary session of oral evidence from former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry minister Jonathan Bell.

Before proceedings kicked off, panel chair Sir Patrick Coghlin made clear he would not allow a second day of revelations unrelated to the issues being examined by the Inquiry.

"There is no open invitation to witnesses to come along and use the hearings for the purpose of publishing material to which they object or take offence for reasons which are irrelevant to the inquiry," he said.

"It is not a media sensational platform."

On September 3 2015, Mr Bell formally signed off an agreement to push back changes to the scheme's subsidies from that October to November, but "didn't ask any further questions about it".

"I regarded it as a matter that had been resolved," he told the inquiry.

A core issue for the inquiry was why the delay was brought in which allowed a flood of applications to the non-domestic scheme - the core of its massive overspend.

The decision was taken during a period when DUP ministers were taking part in rolling resignations - quitting office and returning every few days - in protest at the murder of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast.

Mr Bell's special adviser Timothy Cairns claims in his written evidence this contributed to the delay in introducing the regulations and the resulting spike in applications.

However, Mr Bell insisted he had made clear he would deal with "all urgent business" during his spells in office, adding Deti was working "as normal" in his absence.

He told the inquiry he had "no recollection" of approving the further two-week delay in bringing in the cost controls - during which still more applicants cam on board at the unsustainably enhanced rate.

Applications to the RHI scheme soared by 100 per cent during the fateful six weeks before the controls came in.

Mr Bell also insisted that he had never been informed "through the agreed processes of the department" of the application spike - despite Inquiry counsel David Scoffield showing him a submission, marked `urgent', the minister had received from officials on November 6 advising of an "unprecedented surge" in applications and doubling of the projected spend.

Mr Bell insisted he should have been told earlier.

"Had they told me after week one then I would've looked at urgent procedure (or) other legislative mechanisms that were in our arsenal to address that type of concern."

Under interrogation, Mr Bell conceded "maybe I should have pressed" for details about how the spike happened and what could be done to prevent future blunders.

He maintained he could not recall if anyone spoke to him during "literally hundreds of conversations" every day before the end of August 2015 about the need for cost controls.

The Inquiry heard that a submission for Mr Bell written on New Year's Eve 2015 on the proposed closure of the RHI scheme was sent to Mr Cairns, who sent it back to officials with a handwritten note asking for the Ulster Farmers' Union and the renewable heat industry to be consulted.

Mr Bell said he "gave a very definitive 'no'," adding it would have been "wrong to advertise a heads-up to get in before we close it".

He accused those who leaked the information of "doing Northern Ireland a gross disservice".

When Poultry producer Moy Park discovered closure was imminent it advised its farmers to submit applications immediately.

Asked why chose the `longest' option for closing the RHI scheme, he told the Inquiry: "This was what the best expertise in my department was telling me was the soonest available date we could".

Mr Bell gave official approval to close the RHI scheme on January 22, 2016, but it was withdrawn 20 minutes later.

A text message from Mr Cairns, sent three days later, stated the closure decision was "in the hands of DUP party officers".

Mr Bell said he was not aware that the approval had been rescinded and denied his adviser's claim he was kept informed - a circumstance Mr Scoffield described as "extremely curious", given civil servants had been told.

"Everyone else seems to know what has happened apart from you," he noted.

Mr Bell insisted he "never withdrew my consent".

** Yesterday's RHI report should have referred to former permanent secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment as Dr Andrew McCormick

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