Northern Ireland news

RHI Inquiry Live: 'The baton was dropped' senior civil servant says

Senior civil servant Andrew McCormick is giving evidence to the RHI inquiry

Good afternoon.

We're live with the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry from 2pm as it resumes following the summer break.

Senior civil servant Andrew McCormick is giving evidence after his written submission revealed a "dysfunctional" relationship between ex-DUP enterprise minister Jonathan Bell and his special adviser Timothy Cairns contributed to issues with the scheme.

For anyone who's forgotten about the scheme which contributed to the fall of Stormont, here's all you need to know.

The botched scheme, which was designed to encourage people to use more eco-friendly technology, effectively paid users for burning fuel.

RHI is expected to cost taxpayers around £490 million.

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Hearing begins

2pm

  • Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said it will continue to hear oral evidence over the next 30 days. He warned key participants in the inquiry to submit their written submissions by November 16
  • Closing oral submissions will be made in early December

Andrew McCormick begins to give evidence

 Andrew McCormick is giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry

2.15pm

  • Dr McCormick became the most senior civil servant in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), which ran the RHI scheme, in July 2014. He is now a director in the Executive Office
  • He will give evidence this afternoon and tomorrow. He will give further evidence on October 11
  • He said of his lengthy written statement on RHI "there was quite a lot that needed to be said"
  • When he came into Deti no one discussed RHI with him although he was aware it existed. He knew that energy was a "complex" part of the department and said it "clearly" got RHI "very badly wrong". "With hindsight" he would have asked for a detailed list of projects when he joined the department
  • He found it "very strange" that RHI was not discussed

3pm

  • Over his first few months in the department, he had some meetings with people in the energy field but nothing to do with RHI
  • Issues with RHI "should have been acted on before I arrived", he said, and concerns raised by whistleblower Janette O'Hagan that the scheme could be abused should have been tackled
  • It was "very disturbing" that issues about the scheme were not immediately drawn to his attention
  • The botched handling of the RHI scheme has raised serious questions for the civil service as a whole, he said
  • The inquiry heard that Dr McCormick arrived around a time of massive changes in the department's energy section, including the departure of three key staff within a few months. He accepted there were no proper systems to deal with those changes
  • "Evidently a lot of important information" didn't reach senior staff, he said. "The baton was dropped"

The botched RHI scheme will cost taxpayers £490 million

3.30pm

  • When asked what steps he took to make sure the processes within his department were "robust", he said "on the face of it there were good processes". He said he should have "stress tested" some of the systems but was "observant" throughout his first year how the departmental board worked. "I was maybe assuming a bit much". "I did place reliance on them (departmental processes)"
  • "A lot of these things come back to the same fundamental point...something wasn't getting through. There is a lot more that could have been done but a good expectation is a harder thing to judge"
  • "It's quite hard to understand how these things were missed given the wider awareness (of RHI schemes in Britain)... you expect a system to work together. The loss of continuity was critical"
  • "Systems failure is the sum of small failings," he said, adding that several omissions around RHI added up to greater problems
  • When asked why the scheme went wrong he said there was "human error" over how the scheme was designed and a failure to act when problems were first raised

4pm

  • If the scheme had been project managed and tariffs reviewed, it may have worked, he said. "There are quite a few things that had they been done a little bit differently would have made all the difference"
  • He agreed with chair Sir Patrick Coghlin that warnings about the scheme had been there from the beginning
  • Panel member Dr Keith MacLean asked if the RHI scheme could ever have worked with just "one-and-a-half staff" (one full time and one part-time)
  • Dr McCormick said he "couldn't defend" the scheme's staffing levels

4.30pm

  • He said no initial concerns were raised about cost controls for the non-domestic RHI scheme
  • When asked by Sir Patrick who advised that the domestic scheme be prioritised over the non-domestic scheme, he said he "did not know". "I find it frustratingly mysterious," he said
  • When asked by inquiry senior counsel David Scoffield why the non-domestic RHI scheme was not reviewed early enough he said "it's (about) fundamentally a lack of understanding"
  • The Department for the Economy failed to ask for re-approval for the scheme two years after it began, the inquiry heard. Dr McCormick said "the focus was...on the obligation to pay (scheme recipients)"
  • Sir Patrick said the Department of Finance was clear that the scheme was up for re-approval on March 2015. "The onus and responsibilty is on the spending department" (the enterprise department), Dr McCormick said
  • When asked by Mr Scoffield if the finance and energy departments had good co-operation, he said "looking back on it, in the cold grey light of dawn, it doesn't look good". He added that there appeared to have been "tension" between the departments. "I don't see mutual understanding"
  • He said the team behind RHI didn't flag up the scheme as "an unmanageable risk" due to a lack of understanding about the project
  • He wasn't told that staff working on the renewable heat project were "under the cosh" and needed more resources

5pm

  • The inquiry hearing ends

Dr McCormick's evidence will continue tomorrow

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