Northern Ireland news

Conor Murphy says failure to act on RHI recommendations is ‘damaging confidence'

RHI subsidies were higher than fuel costs
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has said that public confidence in the political institutions is being damaged by a delay in implementing recommendations from an inquiry into the botched green energy scheme RHI.

The RHI scheme, set up in 2012, incentivised businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly boilers by paying them a subsidy for the wood pellet fuel required to run them.

But mistakes in its designs saw the subsidy rates set higher than the actual cost of the wood pellets with applicants finding themselves able to burn to earn.

The controversy over RHI led to the collapse of Stormont powersharing after the late Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at then First Minister Arlene Foster’s handling of the affair in January 2017.

The RHI had left the administration facing an overspend bill of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Subsequent cost-control steps have prevented that happening.

Last year a public inquiry identified a multiplicity of mistakes in the running of the scheme.

The probe, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, produced a 656-page, three volume report containing 319 findings and making 44 recommendations aimed at addressing the litany of failures identified by the investigation.

At the time, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said a dedicated Executive sub-committee would be established to act on the report’s findings.

During ministerial question time at Stormont today, Mr Murphy was asked to give an update on the work of the committee and the implementation of the public inquiry’s recommendations.

He said: “The Executive sub-committee on reform was established to consider the recommendations of the RHI report in full and to oversee their implementation.

“The sub-committee met in July, November and December 2020.

“Members of the Executive sub-committee agreed a draft report setting out the response to the inquiry and the actions that are required to fulfil the remaining recommendations from the inquiry report.

“This report was forwarded to the Executive for agreement on March 26 this year.

“The sub-committee also agreed a number of changes to the guidance for ministers and special advisers code of conduct in light of the recommendations of the inquiry, which have also been provided to the Executive Office for consideration.”

Sinn Féin MLA Declan McAleer asked: “Does the minister agree that if the public are to have confidence in these institutions, there should be no delay in the implementation of the recommendations from the RHI report?”

Mr Murphy responded: “I do agree, and it is a source of some frustration to me that a number of months on from this was submitted to the Executive, we are still waiting on it to be dealt with.

“The sub-committee was made up of representation of all parties in the Executive and the report was agreed by all of the members of the sub-committee so I am struggling to understand what the delay in terms of getting this agreed and getting it implemented is.

“But, nonetheless I agree that the longer this runs on, the more I think it damages, in terms of confidence, that the Executive is going to take the issues that were raised in the report and to respond to them in a proper and timely fashion.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “As well as reform, the other burning issue with many people, when they view the wreckage of RHI, was the question, is there any discipline?

“Has anyone within the civil service been disciplined for their actions or inactions during RHI and did bringing forward retirement cause many to escape discipline?”

Mr Murphy said: “There were a number of civil servants who were reported for further investigation and potential disciplinary issues, some people did retire in the interim, which I think is unfortunate.

“There are still ongoing matters which have not yet concluded.”

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