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Probe into contentious renewable energy scheme 'a top priority'

The Department for the Economy is probing a controversial renewable energy scheme
Lesley-Anne McKeown

A PROBE into a renewable energy scheme - dubbed a burning ash-for-cash racket - is a top priority, Stormont's Public Accounts Committee chairman has insisted.

Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann said those who ran the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - through which a farmer can allegedly pocket £1 million for heating an empty shed - had many questions to answer.

"We will not be deflected. This is most important," he said.

The committee had been due yesterday to hear from officials and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly, who outlined the scale of the public overspend in a damning report earlier this year.

However, much of the meeting was held in private.

It was later adjourned to facilitate the conclusion of investigations by the Department for the Economy, which replaced the Department for Trade and Enterprise (DETI).

A committee statement released afterwards said: "The PAC considers this particular inquiry to be of the most acute public interest and achieving maximum transparency and accountability on this issue are paramount.

"The PAC will not be deflected in its determination to fully carry out its political and scrutiny responsibilities."

The RHI encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.

Unlike in Britain, no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to the size of boiler, effectively enabling a business to burn unnecessary heat just to make money.

In his report, the Auditor General questioned the level of expenditure and claimed major design and operation errors left the initiative exposed to abuse.

Sinn Fein MLA Michelle Gildernew said: "There are other ongoing investigative processes into RHI and it was the correct decision by the PAC to adjourn its public session."

The committee is expected to reconvene on October 26.

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