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Arlene Foster: 'It is a matter of deep regret that goals of this scheme were not achieved - there can never be a repeat of this failure'

By Arlene Foster

The establishment of a renewable heat scheme was the right thing to do. Supporters of renewable energy and others were telling me at that time it did not go far enough.

We all know of the demand to increase usage of renewable energy and this scheme was aimed at helping meet those targets. RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) was a good idea, but was very poorly implemented.

The scheme was established to encourage a move away from fossil fuel heating and provide those who did so with a fair return on investment. It was not to waste heat or allow profit from running a heating system.

Our scheme was different to that implemented in Great Britain because of the differing natures of the market. The market in GB has a high usage of gas, with ours more dominated by oil. The need for a separate scheme was scrutinised and agreed by the Assembly's ETI (Enterprise, Trade and Investment) Committee.

It is a matter of deep regret to me that the goals of this scheme were not achieved. The outcome has been one of shocking failure with serious shortcomings in the design, management and delivery.

These have significant potential pressures to our public finances going into the future, but also have damaged public confidence in the stewardship of public money.

This is wholly unacceptable.

I am sorry that concerns raised by the whistleblower were not dealt with as they should have been when raised with officials in the department.

Without the benefit of hindsight, I did what ministers are supposed to do in such circumstances and passed the matter on to officials to investigate, establish the details and to address.

Had any proposals for action been relayed to me, or had I known of the whistleblower's dissatisfaction with replies she received from officials, then I would have taken immediate action. I entirely accept that I am accountable to the Assembly for my past and present ministerial roles. But that does not mean I am responsible for every action within departments.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that those leading the charge on suggesting this have never been ministers.

There are a number of investigations and inquiries ongoing that I want to assist in whatever way possible, mindful of different roles and responsibilities held by various committees.

It is vital these investigations, including by the Public Accounts Committee, conclude their work.

The mark of a politician is not how they act during the good times, but how they deal with difficulties and challenges.

Others have a history of walking away when problems lie ahead. However, I have a duty to deal with the issues which have been presented by the design of this scheme by experts in the field. I do not seek to underplay the significant problems associated with the renewable heat scheme, but there is a pressing need for action looking to the future.

If action is not taken, the public purse will face significant future costs associated with the scheme. Whilst £400million is regularly associated with the scheme, that is an estimate of potential future costs but is a level of loss that cannot be tolerated.

Work has been ongoing within the Department for the Economy on proposals to make a significant reduction on that future burden the Executive would face. This detailed work is the top priority for the department and for my colleague Simon Hamilton.

A firm proposal will be brought to the Assembly and if supported, a consultation document will be issued. This will happen as early as possible in the New Year.

Other steps are also being taken to further boost public confidence and allay concerns that have been aired.

Every installation within the RHI scheme will be inspected. There are many genuine applicants using RHI in the way it was intended, but there are serious accusations about abuse of the scheme.

This is unacceptable and the Executive will do all in its power to bring it to an end. The inspection process will determine that appropriate use is being made of the systems in each of the installations. Action will be taken anywhere where this is not the case.

Similarly, the department is writing to all applicants seeking consent for publication of full information, including names.

The demand by others to publish details without consent ignores applicants' legal rights of privacy and confidentiality. I hope there will be a positive response and that all those who are legitimate recipients will be treated respectfully given they have done absolutely nothing wrong.

These steps can deliver a significant benefit for our public finances and I would hope can boost public confidence. I look forward to the findings of the Public Accounts Committee and the Department for the Economy's fact-finding investigation.

The lessons learned must be spliced into the DNA of every department and government body so there can never be a repeat of this failure.

We owe that to the people of Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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