Northern Ireland news

RHI report will 'strongly criticise some people', inquiry chair warns

Sir Patrick Coghlin, chairman of the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry. File picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker
Staff Reporter

THE final Renewable Heat Incentive report will include strong criticism of some people and organisations, the head of an inquiry into the botched scheme has warned.

Speaking on the final day of the RHI inquiry's oral hearings yesterday, chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin warned it is "very likely that some individuals" may receive "quite significant criticism" in his report.

He did not set a date for the report's publication but said he was determined "to ensure that no-one is treated unfairly".

Sir Patrick said earlier this week he was minded not to offer people a right of reply because it would delay publication.

The inquiry was in session for 114 days of hearings.

The RHI scheme aimed to encourage people to use renewable energy. However, it effectively paid recipients for burning fuel, putting the scheme massively over budget.

At one point, it was estimated that the scheme could cost taxpayers as much as £700 million.

It heard closing statements yesterday from lawyers representing key figures in the scheme.

Barrister Jeremy Johnson, representing civil servants in the economy department who took on the running of the RHI scheme from spring and summer 2014, said they accepted responsibility for their part in the disastrous project.

In a veiled criticism of former economy minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, he said the civil servants were not trying to escape blame.

"They're not dancing around on the distinction between responsibility and accountability. They accept both," he said.

On Thursday, Sir Patrick questioned Mrs Foster's claim that she was "accountable but not responsible" for the actions of her former ministerial adviser.

Dr Andrew Crawford, who was Mrs Foster's adviser when she had responsibility for the RHI scheme, has accepted that he should not have forwarded confidential material about planned cost controls to a relative.

Mr Johnson also criticised former economy minister Simon Hamilton who has admitted that his adviser John Robinson anonymously sent emails to their own department's top civil servant and journalists.

The emails, which showed contact between civil servants and people in industry about the RHI scheme in 2015, supported a claim by Dr Crawford that he had not caused a spike in RHI applications which contributed to the huge overspend.

Mr Johnson said there was a "conspiracy" in December 2016 between Mr Hamilton and DUP advisers to discredit economy civil servants "in order to protect" Dr Crawford.

He described Mr Hamilton's actions as a "gross betrayal" of the trust between ministers and officials.

A lawyer for civil servants who oversaw the implementation of the RHI scheme said Mrs Foster was told by officials of the dangers of going ahead with the project without cost controls.

Barrister Peter Coll QC said Mrs Foster was briefed during a key meeting in June 2012 but no minutes were kept.

Mrs Foster has denied she was ever told about the dangers of a lack of cost controls.

However, Mr Coll said Fiona Hepper, who headed up the economy department's energy team, warned the DUP leader in person.

He blamed an "unfortunate casualisation" of contact between the minster and her officials for the lack of minutes.

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