Northern Ireland

Conclusions of Stormont green energy scheme probe ‘may never be made public'

The Renewable Heat Incentive aimed to cut the cost of green energy but ended with massive overspend
The Renewable Heat Incentive aimed to cut the cost of green energy but ended with massive overspend

THE conclusions of a Department for the Economy probe into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme may never be made public. 

The department, overseen by DUP minister Simon Hamilton, has told The Irish News that only when its investigation into why shortcomings with the green energy scheme were never spotted, will it decide if it’s appropriate to publicise any findings.

Unlike a corresponding scheme operating in Britain, the RHI subsidy to businesses and farmers had no cap, meaning claimants burned fuel to make money. 

An Audit Office report published in July forecast that the scheme could potentially cost the Stormont executive £1 billion-plus over the next 20 years. 

In an interview with The Irish Newsin October, First Minister Arlene Foster – who as economy minister in 2011 oversaw the introduction of the  RHI – refused to accept any responsibility for the scheme’s shortcomings.

The first minister suggested that a Stormont committee should shoulder some of the blame because MLAs failed to scrutinise it properly.  

The present economy minister enlisted business advisers PwC in September to establish why officials ignored a whistleblower’s claims about the scheme’s flaws.

The department said that the PwC report would be completed in the new year when officials would decide if it should made public.

Arlene Foster talking about the RHI scheme in October:

On Tuesday night, Mr Hamilton raised the possibility of reducing the amount the executive is paying out to RHI claimants, though he conceded this was subject to legal advice and further engagement with the European Commission ahead of a public consultation some time next year. 

The minister also signalled that abuses of the scheme would be curbed and fraud dealt with rigorously.

“I plan to bring a proposal to the assembly, and issue a consultation document, as early as I can in the New Year,” Mr Hamilton said. 

“I am absolutely adamant that where there is proof and evidence of abuse of the scheme, that appropriate action including, if required, criminal proceedings should begin against anybody who has abused the scheme or defrauded the scheme.”

However, the PSNI said it is not investigating any fraud relating to the RHI.

"These are serious, serious issues, which I am very seized of the importance of and am dealing with on an ongoing basis to try and find a resolution to many of the issues that have flowed from the allegations and concerns there have been with regards the Renewable Heat Incentive,” he said.

“My department is currently developing a proposal for changes to the Renewable Heat Incentive which, if accepted, would lead to significant reduction of future costs to the Northern Ireland Executive.”

The minister also rejected claims that his predecessors were “asleep at the wheel” when the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was rolled out by the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

He was quizzed about the botched initiative during question time at the assembly.

The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people off fossil fuels but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.

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

Management of the scheme is being examined by MLAs on Stormont’s public accounts committee.

Overall, more than £1 billion of public money will be paid by 2036 to Northern Ireland-based businesses that signed up to the scheme.

Branding the scheme a “squander made in Stormont”, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister posed the question: “It might cost him his job but would the minister agree that at least one of his predecessors, particularly Mrs (Arlene) Foster, was asleep at the wheel in terms of failing to exercise ministerial supervision and ensuring that there were adequate cost controls in place.”

However, Mr Hamilton hit back and said previous ministers had been ill-advised by policy officials.

“It is very clear to me that the ministers followed all advice given to them and because that advice was wrong; it was based on bad grounds the scheme was badly designed,” he said.

“Nobody has denied, least of all me that this was shocking and we need to deal with those problems.”