Stormont official tells RHI Inquiry he never considered people 'burning biomass just to make money on it'
A DEPARTMENT of Agriculture official has told the RHI Inquiry he never considered people "burning biomass just to make money on it" as the inquiry chairman yesterday questioned why there was a "total divorce" between Stormont departments.
Giving evidence to the Renewable Heating Incentive inquiry yesterday, Chris Johnston from the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (Afbi) said he "never considered" that people would take advantage of the scheme.
Mr Johnston, whose role falls under the department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, defended his decision of not raising concerns about the project, including the absence of cost controls.
He was questioned numerous times yesterday about why he did not "pick up the phone" to speak to officials in the department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), which had responsibility for the scheme.
"Why would I tell them something they already knew," he said.
The inquiry heard Mr Johnson had attended a renewable energy presentation in 2013 that pointed out the "perverse incentives" associated with schemes without tiering.
He said he "wasn't looking for problems" in the scheme and did not consider the prospect of people "burning biomass just to make money on it".
"I never considered that would happen," he said.
He also said he believed it was "a little unfair" to suggest he should have informed Deti about concerns of an over-generous RHI scheme, which were outlined at the event he attended.
"I honestly would've expected that they would've known or the information would've come from elsewhere," he said.
He added that he "never considered" there may have been an onus on him to inform Deti about the project was operating.
Asked by inquiry panel member Dr Keith MacLean about why he never contacted Deti, he said: "If I had known at the time that I would have been sitting here I would have paid a lot more attention to these presentations, but it wasn't my focus at these events".
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin also questioned why there was a "total divorce" between the two Stormont departments.
"It's one government for the people of Northern Ireland but there appears to have been absolutely no exchange between the departments when something could... appear to be badly wrong," he said.
The chairman added: "Your reaction appears to have been: 'Not my focus, Deti must know about it, there must be some other explanation'."
Mr Johnston was also asked if he had seen promotional material at events he attended relating to the RHI scheme, but said: "If these signs were there I should have seen them but I don't have any recollection".
Deti civil servant Stuart Wightman also returned to give further evidence yesterday.
The inquiry heard Mr Wightman emailed Deti finance officials in March 2015, saying more money would be needed to fund the RHI scheme because the number of applications had increased and was "expected to remain high".
Evidence was also heard about a "sense of panic" about the scheme's costs.
The inquiry continues.