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Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell under fire as heating scheme is closed

By Rachel Martin

Published 16/02/2016

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell announced 11 days ago that the renewable heat incentive scheme was to end
Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell announced 11 days ago that the renewable heat incentive scheme was to end

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell was told he should "consider his position" as the Assembly last night voted to end the renewable heat incentive scheme (RHI).

TUV leader Jim Allister also said the Minister had been in China - where he took part in a trade mission in November - when he should have been "looking after the shop".

The Minister disclosed the end of the scheme, which was to encourage the use of renewable forms of heat, in a shock announcement 11 days ago.

It emerged last week that the scheme had overspent by around £30m, leading to its immediate suspension.

With 3,500 renewable heating installations to date, the Minister said uptake of the scheme was higher in Northern Ireland than other parts of the UK.

He said that an announcement made last year that the whole scheme would no longer be funded by the Treasury meant his department was no longer able to continue the scheme.

Last night around two-thirds of 94 MLAs voted for an amendment to shut down the scheme by February 29.

It's been claimed up to 2,000 jobs are at risk as a consequence.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, chairman of the enterprise trade and investment committee, accused the Minister of being "asleep behind the wheel".

Mr McGlone said: "I have listened as business owners have told me how scores of staff and millions of pounds are at risk because of the utter ineptitude of the Enterprise Minister in dealing with these issues."

During the meeting, it was claimed that the cost of continuing the scheme would be £95m over five years to the Northern Ireland Block Grant.

Ulster Unionist MLA Adrian Cochrane-Watson described it as "a story of failure and incompetence... for which there must be consequences".

Mr Cochrane-Watson highlighted that the tariff for the scheme in Great Britain was over three times as high as in Northern Ireland, and yet was still able to cope with the demand.

He said that as a result, firms in Northern Ireland found themselves unable to compete and called for the Minister to "consider his position".

And Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn highlighted one Lisburn firm with orders on its books worth £185,000 which he said would "completely disappear".

Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O'Muilleoir said: "Without a doubt this is a dog's dinner, this should never have been allowed to get to this position."

And TUV MLA Jim Allister said the scheme had been "mismanaged" and allowed to "run out of control".

"This wasn't some third party in some distant place that failed to control - this was a supposedly hands on local minister.

"Wherever he was China, wherever, he wasn't looking after the shop where this scheme is concerned, now he comes on as if this isn't anything to do with him.

"It has everything to do with him. And as far as the consequences are concerned it is everything to do with our constituents are going to pay the price for this incompetence."

Minister Bell read from the Hansard Record in which he raised the issue in November 2015 that he would take a decision on the scheme should Treasury funding be suspended.

"We simply have no other option. My officials and officials in DFP have exhausted all other options."

Responding to accusations that there was no evidence of abuse of the RHI Scheme, he said: "Let me put on the record that we have received anonymous correspondence alleging abuse of the non-domestic scheme."

Over 900 applications were made in the six weeks leading up to a change in tariff, a spike which he said was unforeseeable.

He concluded: "I must take the course of action which addresses the risk to the public's finances."

Belfast Telegraph

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