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Department is demanding 'RHI claimants do their work for them' on botched boiler scheme

 

By Jonny Bell

Stormont officials have been accused of asking claimants in a botched energy scheme to do their work for them as they prepare to reveal more details about who received Renewable Heat Incentive grants.

Some boiler owners have pleaded with the department to not release their names over fears for their safety.

Department for the Economy officials have written to each grant recipient that they intend to name asking them to disclose how much money was received from the controversial scheme that led to the collapse of the Stormont Executive in January.

In letters to individuals, the department asked if its figures match owners' payments, wanting a response by Wednesday.

"If you do not contact the department by this date, it will be assumed that the information held is accurate and published," the letter states.

One boiler owner claimed the department then wrote to him to request he state "specifically" how his figures were wrong, or they will be published anyway.

Industry sources have said this amounts to doing the civil servants' jobs for them by putting the onus on the owner to check their work. In the first list of RHI claimants, the department made a series of errors, including overstating the amount one business claimed by more than 10 times the amount that it did. It took the department two weeks to correct that error.

Another letter, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, states that if the "overgenerous payments" of the original scheme were to have continued, it "would have significantly reduced the level of funding for hospitals, schools and the economic development" of Northern Ireland.

This has been branded "propaganda" by those in the industry.

"The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was designed to achieve environmental objectives including a reduction in carbon emissions," the department's official states in his letter. It was not intended that the scheme would result in increased economic activity, or that RHI payments would be used to subsidise the wider business interests of installation owners."

The Belfast Telegraph understands some individuals facing the prospect of having their names released have pleaded with the department to withhold information.

But the department has told them it noted the objections but the public interest "outweighs legitimate interests you may have".

Sources have told the Belfast Telegraph many owners have found the department's figure does not match their own records and will consider legal action if it is published in error.

The RHI scheme was intended to encourage people and businesses to switch to sustainable heating systems.

But it emerged that a lack of controls meant boiler owners could make a profit from burning wood pellets. It's projected that the overspend in what became known as the 'cash for ash' scandal could amount to £500m.

A High Court judge has ruled individuals could be named provided the department considered their objections beforehand.

The RHI claimants are heading to court on Wednesday to fight to have their payments for the next 20 years maintained at the level set at inception.

The Renewable Heat Association NI - which represents boiler owners - said it was "deeply concerned" over the department's request that individuals validate its work, and "worrying" its figures could be wrong.

It said the consequences of getting the financial detail wrong "will be severe and damaging" for the department.

The Department for the Economy said that given the changing nature and size of the list it was giving applicants an opportunity to check the details were correct.

It said it was working in line with the court's ruling and had "carefully considered all representations that have been made by individuals".

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