Belfast Telegraph

Department of Economy 'held up RHI documents release,' says Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir

Those heating empty barns 'stealing' from public purse

By Jonny Bell

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir has said the Economy Department held up the release of documents to his officials adding to the delay in finding a solution to the Renewable Heating Incentive.

The Sinn Fein minister said the DUP held department was asked in July for the documents and again in October, but that he only received the papers last Friday giving him seven days to consider the options.

The minister said the BBC Spotlight programme into the scandal helped to bring a focus on the issue and an urgency that had not been there before.

He also said options to recover half the projected £400million overspend - as has been mooted by First Minister Arlene Foster - will be rejected by his department as not going far enough.

The scandal has delayed the publication of the minister's budget.

Mr O Muilleoir said the estimated spend on the RHI for this year was £30million and that over 20 years the loss to the Northern Ireland taxpayer would be £600m.

"The threat to our budget is enormous," he told the BBC.

"RHI is an existential threat to the budget and we really need to find a way immediately to find a solution to work.

"If I'm presented with a solution that will save half the money I will send it back.

"I will not accept any solution that does not get to grips with the problem."

More: Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded

The MLA said none of the options presented to him in the past seven days "stands up", he added: "Until the Department of Economy comes forward with a solution that works I will not be signing off on it.

"There are all sorts of problems with buying people out of the scheme. We know there are people that are scamming this heating incentive - not everyone.

"But the way scheme was introduced was wrong and the way it was operated was wrong and the way it was closed was wrong because there was a spike in applications.

"I don't want to reward those that have been gaming the system. I want to go after them.

"People that have been using the scheme to heat empty barns have been stealing from the public purse.

"I want a solution that goes after them."

The finance minister said hundreds of people had been using heat in an "ineligible way".

"Ofgem and the Department of Economy have ability to close down some of these schemes.

"I would like the Department of Economy to send letters out to people to say we will be coming after those that have been gaming the system and you should be using this system correctly and use this heat correctly and wisely in the way it is supposed to be.

"And that could happen today."

The minister also said Speaker Robin Newton should "absolutely" step down.

"I would be surprised if he was in the post in 2017," he said.

A spokesperson said for the Department for the Economy said: "In regards the cost of the RHI scheme the C&AG’s report estimated the 20 year costs of the scheme if nothing is done to be £1,150 million. C&AG stated this involves 'a number of uncertainties' and represents 'the best estimate of the worst case’. 

"Based on a forecasted 3% Barnett share of the allocation for the GB scheme, the projected available budget is £660 million.  Based on those published figures, the maximum burden on the Northern Ireland budget would be £490m.

"The Department has been  developing proposals for changes to RHI which, if accepted, could lead to a significant reduction in future costs to the NI Executive.

"This has required  detailed discussion including legal advice and further engagement with the European Commission given the scheme received approval within the State Aid regime. The Department of Finance’s role is to assess and approve the Economy Department’s proposals based on value for money, propriety and regularity criteria."

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