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RHI Inquiry: David Sterling says Civil Service 'looks foolish for having not spotted the risk' involved

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, appeared at the RHI inquiry again yesterday

THE head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service yesterday admitted failings in the operation of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, telling the inquiry "we look foolish now for having not spotted the risk."

Giving evidence to the RHI inquiry for a second day, David Sterling told the panel that officials did not "apply a sufficiently sceptical eye" to the scheme.

Mr Sterling also told the inquiry he now felt he should have asked the then enterprise minister, Arlene Foster, not to go ahead with the project.

But he said he was not sure that it would have been accepted by Mrs Foster.

His evidence comes just days after he provoked controversy after admitting meetings between Stormont ministers and their staff were sometimes not minuted in order to frustrate freedom of information requests.

Regarded as a key witness in the RHI inquiry, Mr Sterling yesterday said there was "considerable pressure" on DETI to "move forward" on the scheme, But he accepted it "was a project too far for us".

Asked if DETI had the expertise to set up the scheme, Mr Sterling told the panel, "if I'd had a magic wand we wouldn't have done this".

The senior civil servant was questioned about staffing for the scheme, commenting there was an "extremely light allocation of resources for a very significant project", including few employees.

"To proceed with this project with such limited resource - I should have recognised at the time that this was an unnecessary risk," he said.

"It would have been better if we had come together and said 'look I'm not sure we can guarantee to deliver this in a safe and secure way and perhaps this is one that we need to go to the minister and say not just now'.

"There would have been resistance to that and I'm not sure that even if we had made the case that it would have been accepted.

"That's the way I feel now."

Mr Sterling also said there was "clearly a responsibility" on him and two senior colleagues, David Thompson and Fiona Hepper to have recognised the risks in the scheme.

"...it would have been better if had come together and said, look I'm sure we can guarantee to deliver this in a safe and secure way and perhaps this is one that we need to go to the minister and say 'not just now'," he said.

"Now there would have been resistance to that, understandable resistance for reasons which I have articulated before and I'm not sure that even if we had made that case that it would have been accepted, again that is the way that I feel now."

Just two DETI staff - one working full-time and one part-time - developed the RHI scheme.

Asked if two people were sufficient to oversee a project with the "novelty and complexity" of the RHI scheme, Mr Sterling accepted it was an "extremely light allocation of resources".

He admitted "we were taking a risk relying on such a small number of staff to do such a complex project".

"I would accept some personal responsibility for that."

The inquiry also heard that risks associated with the RHI scheme were identified when the business case was being prepared, "but were not adequately managed and followed-up".

He said there was not "sufficient analysis of what was going on in the scheme".

Asked why "so many people missed" the risks, Mr Sterling said "it's reasonable to summarise that perhaps people were looking to see something they expected to see, maybe they weren't questioning sufficiently".

He added: "It's reasonable to conclude we didn't apply a sufficiently sceptical eye to this, that we should have, particularly whenever the warnings came in from Ofgem that boilers were being used outside the expected range.... I think they should have caused us to stand back and say actually there's something going on here and we need to look at this and we need to look at it with a more sceptical eye".

Also asked if he believed the project delivered "value for money", Mr Sterling said: "No, I don't think I could conclude it did, particularly given the deficiencies identified".

Mr Sterling also told the inquiry that DETI had to accept some responsibility for the lack of tiering of subsidies in the RHI scheme, which would have prevented a claimant from overusing their heating system to collect more cash.

When asked about the growing awareness of "how lucrative the scheme could be", Mr Sterling said "it certainly didn't filter its way back to me at that particular time".

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