Political news

DUP plans to limit RHI overspend to go before assembly on Monday

DUP plans to limit the Renewable Heat Incentive overspend are to go before the assembly on Monday

DUP proposals to try to limit the cost of the Renewable Heat Incentive are set to be debated in the assembly on Monday.

The plan, which will only cover one year, would cut payments to around 1,800 people who joined the scheme before cost controls were introduced in November 2015.

Proposals to be put forward by economy minister Simon Hamilton include introducing a two-tier tariff structure and a payment cap.

However, the proposed changes would not come into effect until April 1 and would stop on March 2018, with a longer-term plan to follow.

Finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir only received the proposals on Wednesday - a week after he held talks with Mr Hamilton.

A Sinn Féin spokesman said it had not yet decided whether it would support them.

"The RHI plans are being scrutinised by the finance minister," he said.

"Sinn Féin will decide on our approach on Monday."

With Monday the deadline for Sinn Féin to replace Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister to avoid an election, the party has already been moving to select candidates.

Barry McElduff, Michaela Boyle and Declan McAleer were nominated last night to run in the West Tyrone constituency.

SDLP assembly member Patsy McGlone said he only received details of the DUP proposals yesterday evening and was concerned they had not been scrutinised by committees.

"The proper procedures haven't been adhered to and given the mess over RHI you'd think people should have been given more time," he said.

"The DUP is just using this to cover themselves during an election.

"I think everyone will be looking at this very carefully. I don't want a total mess to turn into an even bigger mess.

"The competence that has been shown by the department so far doesn't exactly fill me with confidence."

RHI was set up by former First Minister Arlene Foster in 2012 when she was enterprise minister.

The botched scheme effectively allows some recipients to earn money simply for burning fuel and could lead to an overspend of £490 million over the next 20 years.

Industry regulator OFGEM has said of 63 installations examined, subsidy payments were suspended at 33. Payments were recovered from four, with another five having payments resumed after investigation.

Investigations are continuing in other cases.

The RHI plans and separate proposals to release payments to mitigate the impact of the 'bedroom tax' are being brought directly to the assembly because the executive is not functioning.

DUP communities minister Paul Givan is to bring forward bedroom tax legislation to ensure social housing residents will not lose out when the British government cuts benefits to those deemed to have spare rooms.

He will also put forward plans to make up for cuts to the overall welfare budget.

Despite a row between him and Mr Ó Muilleoir over the issue earlier this week, Sinn Féin is expected to support the welfare legislation.

Sinn Féin health minister Michelle O'Neill has also said she will press ahead with a strategy to tackle hospital waiting times.

She said she will publish the plan later this month, with an indicative budget. However with no Stormont budget or executive in place it is unlikely to be implemented.

Meanwhile, the DUP's Maurice Morrow looks set to chair a key assembly vote of no confidence in the speaker, the DUP's Robin Newton.

Deputy speakers Patsy McGlone and Danny Kennedy (UUP) told The Irish News they will not chair the debate and Sinn Féin's Caitriona Ruane is also thought to have ruled herself out.

Despite speculation that the DUP's Jim Wells would have to step in, it is thought that the role will fall to his party colleague Lord Morrow.

An assembly spokeswoman said the speaker would not be decided until Monday.

Sinn Féin has lodged a motion of no confidence in Mr Newton after he was criticised last month for his decision to allow Mrs Foster to make a statement without the support of then deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

In a letter to assembly members yesterday, the East Belfast MLA said again that he had taken the decision based on advice he received.

"I have been deeply saddened by allegations that I was motivated by any party political factors in how business was conducted on December 19 2016," he wrote.

"I reject that entirely in the case of this or any decision I have ever taken as Speaker."

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