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High Court places temporary ban on publication of RHI boiler owners

By Alan Erwin

A High Court judge has temporarily banned publication of the names of more than 300 Renewable Heat Incentive boiler owners.

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton was set to reveal a list of those on the botched scheme on Wednesday.

But as a group of boiler operators launched a legal challenge to the plans, Mr Justice Deeny imposed an interim injunction to stop any members' personal details being disclosed.

His order will remain in place for up to a week and covers only those in the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland.

Lawyers for the body set up to represent boiler owners on the scheme claimed published names would create a media "feeding frenzy" and threaten the reputation of individuals who have done nothing wrong.

They argued that Mr Hamilton's plan breaches privacy and data protection laws.

The RHI scheme set up to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.

But it has been surrounded by relentless controversy since it emerged that users could legitimately earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

The flawed scheme, which could end up costing the public purse up to £490m, was a major factor behind Stormont's collapse and next month's snap Assembly elections.

Judicial review proceedings were issued by Michael Doran, chairman of the Association.

Mr Doran, who also heads up non-profit group Action Renewables, does not have a boiler and receives no subsidies under the scheme.

But he is representing more than 300 non-domestic operators, including poultry and mushroom producers, seeking an order quashing the Minister's plans to reveal their details.

Gerald Simpson QC, for Mr Doran and a boiler owner referred to as DA, told the court media coverage of the so-called "cash for ash" scheme had been "sensationalist".

Publicity has centred almost exclusively on alleged abuse of the system where money can be made through burning fuel unnecessarily, he claimed.

The barrister revealed that DA has spent around £300,000 in purchasing and installing biomass boilers for his poultry business.

He argued that those on the non-domestic scheme have a legitimate expectation that their privacy would be protected.

"What's anticipated here is the public dissemination to all and sundry of personal data identifying these individuals," Mr Simpson said.

"That is likely to lead to a feeding frenzy by the media, who are determined to identify all of the people who participated in this scheme, to investigate their backgrounds and everything else."

According to Mr Simpson publication would deflect criticism from officials and political representatives onto individual RHI recipients - most of whom have been operating the boilers legitimately.

"This is not disclosure of personal data to a third party in some limited way," he continued.

"This is disclosure to the public at large. What's being proposed here by the Minister is (publication) to the world at large."

The barrister insisted: "The reputation of individuals who have done nothing wrong will be damaged simply by the fact their names are being put in the public domain at a time when there's sensationalist reporting of the matter."

However, Tony McGleenan QC, for the Department, countered that public interest issues outweigh any privacy entitlements.

Pointing to the potential £490m costs over the next 20 years, he told Mr Justice Treacy issues around the scheme contributed to the collapse of Stormont and will likely lead to a judicial inquiry.

"The Minister and the Department have publicly stated their commitment to transparency in the production of details in so far as is lawful in relation to this scheme," Mr McGleenan said.

"It cannot be overstated that there's deep and profound public interest in understanding how this scheme operates and how it can be that the public purse will be depleted to the extent forecast this year and in coming years."

He added that the need for openness was reinforced in a case where "the quantum of public funding is potentially unlimited in terms of some recipients".

Following submissions Mr Justice Deeny reserved his decision on whether to grant leave to seek a judicial review.

He pledged: "I will deliver my judgment within one week, possibly less."

The judge also confirmed the Minister is prohibited from publicly disclosing names and addresses of any members of the Renewable Heat Association until then.

His order covers anyone who had signed up to the grouping by 5pm on Tuesday.

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