Northern Ireland news

Head of civil service says he is 'open to reform' in final days of RHI evidence

Head of the civil service David Stirling.

HEAD of the civil service David Sterling has said he would not rule out the future appointment of a minister to oversee and scrutinise public servants.

Mr Sterling was speaking during his forth appearance in front of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coughlin, now in the final days of oral evidence.

When problems with RHI were first identified by a Northern Ireland Audit Report in 2015, Mr Sterling was working as a permanent secretary in Stormont's finance department.

The inquiry has heard damning evidence about the role of unelected special advisors and civil servants in the run up to the RHI scandal.

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Mr Stirling, who has since been promoted to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, told the inquiry he was "committed to a program of improvement" for the civil service.

"We have assembly committees who do hold us to account when the assembly is sitting, we have the public accounts committee.We don't have a minister for the civil service" adding "I certainly wouldn't dismiss it out of hand".

Mr Sterling rejected a suggestion by former DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns that he had tried to blame the RHI failure on his civil service colleague Dr Andrew McCormick, saying the accusation was, "grossly unfair".

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Mr Cairns in his evidence to the inquiry claimed that in January 2016 there were plans to blame the enterprise department, led up by Mr McCormick, suggesting it might have been a "connection" to the appointment process for head of the civil service, for which both men were shortlisted.

Mr Sterling said he had known Mr McCormick for 18 years and "considered him a friend and a colleague".

"I would absolutely refute any suggestion that I would do anything to try and pin the blame on him, particularly to try and gain some personal advantage in a competition which hadn't even launched. There wasn't even a vacancy at that stage", he added.

And the senior civil servant also addressed the controversy over not taking regular minutes of meetings.

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He said he had "no doubt a returning executive will not want to be subjected to the same level of criticism " around the issue.

"I think I said before there's no excuse for not having a clear record of all decisions made ... this will be something we will be focused on.

Adding that he regretted giving the impression during a previous evidence session that "what we were doing was trying to frustrate the Freedom of Information act.

"There was concern sensitive issues being discussed might make their way into the public domain... I was never instructed by any minister not to take a minute of a meeting," he said.

"The test of whether we can get better, will be when we have a functioning assembly up and running again."

When asked if he would apologise on behalf of the civil service, he said "there were multiple mistakes, multiple failures", offering a "profound and unequivocal" apology saying lessons would be learned to prevent it happening again.

The final evidence of the day was from permanent secretary Andrew McCormick, who has also appeared several times in front of the inquiry.

Dr McCormick said a decision to postpone the closure of the RHI scheme for two weeks, during which there was a spike in applications, was a "political judgement for the DUP and Sinn Féin to make".

Saying he didn't see "anything untoward" about the decision at the time, but admitted there wasn't a sophisticated calculation about whether two weeks was a reasonable length of time for the postponement of the closure.

It was done "wanting to resolve and move on extremely quickly" he added.

Dr McCormick will be back for further oral evidence today, before Northern Ireland's former top civil servant Sir Malcolm McKibbin gives evidence in the afternoon.

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