Northern Ireland news

RHI Inquiry: `Panic' in department over extent of financial crisis

Stuart Wightman oversaw Deti's energy efficiency branch from June 2014

A Deti official has insisted civil servants "didn't go out of our way to make things look rosy" for ministers, despite "panic" within the department over the emerging extent of the RHI financial crisis.

Stuart Wightman, who was recalled yesterday for a fourth session at the inquiry into the botched green energy scheme, oversaw the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment's energy efficiency branch from June 2014.

Finance officials within the department warned the RHI team to stop spending money on it in May 2015, when the severity of budget issues became clear.

Inquiry panel member Dr Keith MacLean asked why, instead of heeding this, a proposal was put forward to introduce a cost control of subsidy tiering.

Mr Wightman said they thought additional funding for the scheme could be obtained from the Treasury and it was "a worthwhile venture in terms of the European targets".

"We wanted to reduce demand for the scheme if we could and that's where the tiering came from," he said.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin suggested that most of the planned changes to the scheme were dropped when officials realised they had "made bad mistakes" and they formulated a new plan to run with just two changes "to try to present to the minister an agreed policy without explaining".

Mr Wightman insisted that, while they were in a "panic" at the time, officials did "present the facts" to the minister and they "didn't go out of our way to make things look rosy".

He admitted that the department had not been prepared for the sharp rise in applications that came in autumn 2015.

Mr Wightman told the panel Deti had been "a bit too open" about the plans for the scheme with commercial operators, describing it as "victims of our own success" in having promoted the scheme.

He said civil servants simply "weren't alive" to the commercial opportunities which it offered and had a "sense of naivety" in sharing information about it with the renewable energy sector.

Mr Wightman was asked about information he passed to Fergal Hegarty of Alternative Heat, which spread across the sector.

The panel heard that one firm, Dennison Commercials, ordered 11 boilers from FG Renewables on August 10 2015 which were accredited by mid-October - beating the deadline for the changes to the subsidy rate and installed and ready to run within three weeks.

Mr Wightman explained there was "quite a supply base waiting to react" because in the Westminster-run scheme, cost controls had depressed that market.

Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Coghlin described the departments as being "almost like planets revolving in different universes", such was the lack of communication between them about RHI.

"Nobody cross-fertilises what they're trying to do; there's no direction; there's no leadership as to what should be done."

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