Shock revelation that 59 applications for top rate payments still being considered
Exclusive: Yet-to-be-approved applicants who could get big payouts branded ‘astonishing’
Almost 60 applications for the lucrative 'cash for ash' scheme could still be approved at the original cap-free rate.
In revelations that will shock the public after almost two months of political turmoil and the collapse of Stormont, energy watchdog Ofgem has revealed it is still assessing 59 applications made under the original terms of the scheme.
If approved, Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) claimants who applied before November 19, 2015, when restrictions were imposed, will receive payouts at the uncapped rate that led to a potential £490m overspend.
Of the 59 applications still going through the approval process, 42 were made during the now well-known spike period between October and mid-November 2015. The remaining 17 were made between November 26, 2013 and September 30, 2015.
All of the successful applicants from the 59 registered before November 19, 2015 will receive payments at the more generous rate enjoyed by existing RHI claimants over the next 20 years - unless ministers are able to pull off a retrospective change in the rules to help pare down payments.
At this stage, before the applications are signed off, Ofgem is unable to provide a value for each application.
According to the energy regulator, the Department for the Economy is aware of the situation. Ofgem said: "We are in regular dialogue with the Department for the Economy. We share data with them on a weekly basis in relation to all aspects of the scheme."
In total, Ofgem is still dealing with 127 RHI applicants from Northern Ireland, but 68 of those were made between November 2015, when tariff structures were capped and tiered, and February 2016, when the scheme was suspended.
South Antrim Ulster Unionist Assembly candidate Steve Aiken said he was stunned by the latest twist in the RHI debacle.
"I'm genuinely shocked by this," he added. "After all the controversy, all the outrage, people are still having their applications looked at in the original terms.
"If Simon Hamilton wasn't already hanging his head in shame, he should be now.
"It's absurd to think that no one could have changed this outcome. It's almost a year now since the scheme was suspended, yet we have nearly 60 applications that could be signed off using what we now know to be the extremely flawed original terms.
"Ministers have shown complete and utter incompetence during this whole process, and it's going on and on, seemingly with no end.
"How can it be, with what we now know, that applications are still going through? It is truly astonishing."
After questions to the Assembly by outgoing MLA Harold McKee, the Ulster Unionists revealed that 170 applications were still awaiting approval in November, although it was not known at that point any would be signed off under the original tariffs.
"It is still stunning, even after all these weeks of revelations about RHI, that 59 of these undecided applications relate to the period where there were no cost controls in place and an overgenerous tariff," said Mr Aiken.
"It is amazing that Simon Hamilton has been willing to break contracts and confidentiality clauses, but somehow failed to notice the fact that 59 applications at the uncapped rate are still being processed. This is beyond belief."
There is no specific target date for all applications to be dealt with by Ofgem. It said: "Applicants are accredited to the scheme only when we are satisfied they meet all eligibility requirements."
The news is the latest detail to emerge about the botched scheme, with reports yesterday revealing dozens of RHI recipients were running their boilers 24 hours a day every week.
A shocking one in 10 burners is operating between 145 and 168 hours a week, adding up to six or seven days without interruption.
The Department for the Economy also confirmed just 23 RHI boilers were inspected before 2016. A full programme of inspections is due to start in April or May, according to civil servant Andrew McCormick's evidence to the Public Accounts Committee last month.
This newspaper revealed last week that three cases of fraud, valued at £48,000, £350,000 and £2.5m, relating to the RHI scheme were currently under investigation by the energy watchdog.
In total, the scheme received 2,128 applications and 1,965 have already been approved. A handful have been withdrawn or rejected.
Mr Aiken said: "RHI payouts have already cost the public approximately £68m so far, with this expected to rise to over £1.1bn unless a permanent, legally sound mitigation plan is implemented by the Department for the Economy."