Northern Ireland government 'could pay off RHI claimants' to avoid £400m loss to taxpayer
The Stormont Executive is considering paying off those in receipt of payments from the Renewable Heating Incentive, in order to avoid a £400m loss to the Northern Ireland taxpayer.
Government officials are working on ways to reduce the projected loss of money after it emerged the scheme to encourage businesses to ditch fossil fuels for sustainable wood pellets was seriously flawed.
The scheme paid out more money than it cost to buy the fuel for biomass boilers. In some cases businesses were found just to use the heating system in order to rake in huge sums of money.
Under the scheme those payments could continue for the next 20 years and the overall bill could hit almost £1.2billion. The Westminster Treasury is covering almost two-thirds of the cost.
The scandal has sparked a political crisis which Sinn Fein has threatened could bring down the executive.
First Minister Arlene Foster - who has faced intense pressure and survived a vote of no confidence over her role in the matter - has said the Executive is working on a plan to reduce losses.
The BBC reports that one option is to completely close the scheme and pay off those that are in receipt of payments.
The cost of that option is not yet clear. Officials are considering making buy-outs of the contracts voluntary, but the broadcaster is reporting that advice has been sought on its options to make it compulsory.
Another option under consideration is to continue on with the scheme, but reduce the subsidy rate.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the scheme was worthwhile but missed one key element, namely a cap on payments. He suggested the Westminster government could introduce a tax on those claimants receiving over the odds for the use of the boilers.
TUV leader Jim Allister said Stormont should look to apply rates to those profiting from the scheme to claw back some of the outlay.
As steward of the public finances, I will ensure that any Dept Economy plan to close RHI stacks up and brings this sorry episode to a close.— Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (@newbelfast) December 20, 2016
Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said robust action was required to minimise the losses to the public purse.
Speaking after a meeting with Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, he said: "The public has been let down badly by the introduction and operation of this scheme.
"It is essential that public confidence is restored.
"There must be immediate and effective action to reduce the losses and bring to book those who have abused this scheme.
"Over the coming period I will scrutinise options brought forward by the Economy Minister to ensure that RHI costs are reduced to the absolute minimum and that any plan stacks up and brings this sorry episode to a close."