Northern Ireland news

Heating scheme alternative never shared with scrutiny committee, MLA tells inquiry

The inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme heard yesterday that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), whose minister at the time was DUP leader Arlene Foster, was aware of a green energy option that would have delivered the same amount of renewable heat, but for £200 million less than the preferred RHI scheme

DETAILS of an alternative to the flawed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which would have saved the public purse £200 million, were never shared with a Stormont scrutiny committee, it has been claimed.

Patsy McGlone, the former chairman of Stormont's Enterprise Trade and Investment (ETI) committee – which was tasked with scrutinising proposed legislation for the RHI scheme – said government officials never advised members about the less costly option.

The SDLP MLA said yesterday that had the committee been told about the cheaper scheme it would have "triggered questions".

Mr McGlone was giving evidence to the public inquiry into the RHI scandal, which led to the collapse of the power-sharing executive 12 months ago.

He is the first elected representative to give evidence to the probe.

The inquiry heard that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), whose minister at the time was DUP leader Arlene Foster, was aware of a green energy option that would have delivered the same amount of renewable heat, but for £200 million less than the preferred RHI scheme.

However, the option, called the Challenge Fund, was not the preferred choice because it would have been difficult securing the money in the short term for it.

Mr McGlone said he was very surprised that details of the cheaper option had not been presented to the committee.

"It is probably one of a number of items I'm very surprised about in how this whole scheme has been handled and managed," Mr McGlone said.

"Savings of that magnitude, particularly at times when budgets are being constrained, that certainly would have triggered a reaction from the committee. It would have triggered questions. I have no doubt about it.

"Those levels of savings were not presented."

The Mid Ulster MLA said the ETI committee had relied upon the "professionalism and integrity" of DETI officials for information about the proposed RHI scheme.

"The scheme was being referred to by both the officials and the minister as successful," he said.

Mr McGlone said that at the time the committee was asked to consider legislation for the RHI scheme he had no concerns.

He said, however: "Looking back now (on the evidence presented to the inquiry) I have multiple concerns. It appears internal management was completely askew".

The inquiry was told that green energy group Action Renewables had raised concern with DETI officials that the scheme was potentially open to exploitation and suggested the insertion of an additional band of funding.

When asked what the committee did about the warning Mr McGlone replied: "I can't say what the committee did at the time about it."

He added that "retrospectively" the advice from Action Renewables should have set off warning bells.

Mr McGlone also said he could not recall if department officials had told the committee that watchdog Ofgem had advised them to amend the scheme to reflect controls in a similar scheme in Britain.

The inquiry, which is taking place at Stormont, was set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the energy initiative, after its costs spiralled.

The RHI scheme offered to subsidise the cost of its claimants' fuel – mostly wood pellets –for running new renewable heating systems.

But the fuel actually cost far less than the subsidy they were receiving, effectively meaning that users could earn more money by burning more fuel.

The most recent estimate put the projected overspend at £700 million over 20 years if measures to control the cost are not implemented.

The scandal led to a major political crisis in with the collapse of the power-sharing government.

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