Northern Ireland news

RHI inquiry: Scheme warnings removed from submissions to DUP minister

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell

A WARNING over the cost of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was removed by senior officials from submissions to an incoming DUP minister, the RHI inquiry has heard.

The public inquiry at Stormont heard yesterday that language in a key submission to Jonathan Bell on July 8 2015 was watered down in a series of drafts – and a "stark" warning on cost controls was removed.

The paper aimed to set out the problems with RHI and outline the need for cost controls to address the issues.

But an early version which stated that the projected expenditure was twice the budget available was amended to remove the cost controls warning.

And a paragraph that suggested a funding shortfall might have to be paid out of other departmental spending commitments was also taken out.

It was also confirmed yesterday that senior officials of poultry giant Moy Park have been called to give evidence to the RHI inquiry.

Former chief executive Janet McCollum will attend, as well as the firm's head of customer support, David Mark.

Poultry producers for Moy Park were the main beneficiaries of the subsidy scheme.

The RHI inquiry was set up after the scheme, which was aimed at encouraging the use of eco-friendly wood pellet boilers, ran significantly over budget.

It paid out more in subsidies than the cost of fuel due to a lack of cost controls, causing a potential overspend of £700m over 20 years.

The political fallout over the scandal led to the executive's collapse and the continued Stormont deadlock.

Yesterday, the inquiry heard that Moy Park was being informed of planned cost controls for the RHI scheme 12 days before they were publicly announced in September 2015.

The number of boilers accredited to the scheme doubled in October and November 2015 before cost controls were introduced that month.

Stuart Wightman, who was then responsible for the day-to-day running of the scheme, said he asked a colleague to inform Moy Park and other interested parties as a "courtesy".

He said they had liaised with the industry some months earlier to try to manage opposition to any final policy decision.

Mr Wightman said he felt they should be told as the policy change became clearer, but now accepts officials should have waited for the ministerial announcement.

He said his team was fielding multiple calls on the future of the scheme at the time, and providing the information was a bid to manage that and "stop the phone ringing for a while".

The information was passed on just as the formal policy decision was being sent to the minister for approval.

Others told in advance included the Ulster Farmers' Union and biomass installers.

The inquiry heard how the information was passed on by some of those interested parties, including biomass company Alternative Heat.

The company's managing director Connel McMullan had told his staff to circulate it to other "trade contacts", the inquiry heard.

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