RHI Inquiry: Opening statement by Sir Patrick Coghlin at preliminary hearing
The Renewable Heat Incentive has held its preliminary hearing. Below is Sir Patrick Coghlin's opening statement.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. You are all very welcome to this the first public hearing of the Independent Public Inquiry into the Non Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme (‘the Inquiry’). My name is Patrick Coghlin and I retired as a judge of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland in the summer of 2015. At the end of January 2017 I agreed to chair the RHI Inquiry.
I want to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Inquiry, to summarise who we are, what we have done to date, and how we are going to operate in order to complete the task set for us by the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.
This is a public inquiry established under the Inquiries Act 2005. It was set up by a Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, exercising powers under that Act, because of the level of public concern about the operation of, and consequences arising from, the RHI Scheme. As the name “public inquiry” suggests, an inquiry of this nature is carried out in the public interest and on behalf of the public. Accordingly, it is important that the RHI Inquiry endeavours, as far as it is practicable to do so, to keep the public informed as to our work and the progress we are making in our investigations. The recent launch of the Inquiry’s website, and the holding of this Preliminary Hearing, represent part of that endeavour.
Necessary Preparatory work for the Inquiry
We appreciate that the public is keen to have answers in relation to matters about which they are concerned, and that it can often appear that a public inquiry’s progress is slow. However, in order to be effective, the setting up of an inquiry of this type requires a great deal of careful planning and preparation. There are a number of practical matters which must be attended to before the detailed investigative work of the Inquiry can begin; and a great deal of investigative and preparatory work must take place before the public hearings are held at which oral evidence may be given. In effect, the public hearings and the ultimate report, about which most interest is usually generated, are simply the culmination of a continuing process, coming at the end of what is a detailed and extensive evidential investigation. It is only by conducting that detailed preparation and investigation that the Inquiry’s public hearings, to which the public will have access, will be able to be properly focused and of the most evidential value.
For example, the preparations we need to take include the following:
Appointing the Inquiry Panel, the Inquiry legal team, the Inquiry Secretary and administrative staff;
Identifying, equipping and moving into suitable premises, which provide office accommodation and a venue suitable for conducting public hearings;
Developing a framework of Protocols in accordance with which the Inquiry may be fairly and transparently conducted;
Researching and gathering documentary, digital and physical evidence relevant to the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference;
Obtaining witness statements and clarifying the positions of various individuals and organisations as part of the investigative process; and
Only then, arranging for the attendance of witnesses to give oral evidence.
This hearing provides an opportunity to report on the progress to date in relation to many of the above steps.
The Inquiry Panel and Team
I first want to say something about the appointment of the Inquiry Panel and the Inquiry Team.
When I was asked to chair this Inquiry, it was obvious to me that it was essential that we recruited individuals of the highest calibre. I am delighted to be able to say that the Inquiry has succeeded in attracting highly qualified individuals of very considerable experience.
The Inquiry Panel consists at present of myself and Dame Una O’Brien.
Dame Una has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the Civil Service. Most recently, she was the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health in London, a post which she held for some 6 years, having earlier acted as Director General of Strategy at the Department. As Permanent Secretary Dame Una was the Accounting Officer for the overall performance of the health system in England with an annual budget in excess of £115bn. She has also been Deputy Director of the Prime Minister’s Efficiency Unit in the Cabinet Office; and has held executive membership of the Civil Service Board, the Department of Health Board and the NHS Management Board, as well as non-executive membership of the Government Legal Service Board. Dame Una holds Honorary Doctorates at the Universities of Birmingham and Coventry and was also chair of the Charity for Civil Servants with a Benevolent Fund of £36 million.
She was awarded a CB in 2010 and created a Dame for public service, particularly in health, in the Birthday Honours List of 2015.
Dame Una also has previous experience in public inquiries, including acting as Secretary to the Kennedy Inquiry into the NHS and children’s heart surgery in Bristol.
Dame Una’s experience and extensive knowledge of government, accountability, project delivery and the Civil Service will provide enormous assistance and support to the work of the Inquiry.
It will be appreciated that this Inquiry has been instituted as a consequence of the adoption and administration in this jurisdiction of a relatively new form of renewable heating support or incentive scheme; and we have been fortunate to secure the services of Dr. Keith MacLean as an assessor to provide technical advice and guidance.
After graduating from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh with a first class degree in chemistry and the University Prize for Merit, Dr. MacLean served for 10 years as Policy and Research Director for SSE in Scotland and in London. In that position he had responsibility for research and development, energy and climate change policy, public affairs and stakeholder engagement on major projects and sustainability. He has worked extensively with technology developers and regulators across Europe.
Dr. MacLean is a Member of the Institute of Directors and, as a former SSE Telecoms Managing Director, has very considerable commercial experience, which brings an additional dimension to the Inquiry’s expertise. He acts as an advisor on energy to both the UK and Scottish Governments and has been regularly invited to give evidence to Select Committees. Dr. MacLean has also served for four years as industry Co-Chair of the Energy Research Partnership – a unique public-private organisation that performs research and analysis to help inform the priorities for energy innovation and funding. As a board member of Scottish Renewables he has further experience of, inter alia, the design of policy and legislation with regard to feed-in tariffs, the introduction of banding and reviews and revision of support levels. He is an honorary fellow of Energy Policy at the University of Exeter and he was awarded an OBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List.
Dr. MacLean therefore brings a wealth of expertise in the field of energy policy which will be of immense benefit to the Inquiry in addressing the issues raised by its Terms of Reference in relation to the design and operation of the RHI Scheme in Northern Ireland.
Additionally, as Chairman I have power to appoint additional assessors, as appropriate, and can also obtain any further written and/or oral expert evidence should such assistance be deemed necessary as the investigation proceeds.
The Inquiry’s legal team is headed by David Scoffield QC, who acts as Senior Counsel to the Inquiry, and also comprises Joseph Aiken BL and Donal Lunny BL, Junior Counsel to the Inquiry, together with Patrick Butler BL as Solicitor to the Inquiry. In turn, they are assisted by further legal support staff. Mr Andrew Browne acts as Secretary to the Inquiry and has previous experience of acting in such a role. A range of additional executive, administrative and support staff have also been recruited and started work.
Patrick Butler and Joseph Aiken have each previously been involved in the conduct of a major public inquiry as part of its legal team; while both David Scoffield and Donal Lunny enjoy highly respected and well merited reputations for conducting substantial pieces of complex civil litigation, including in the field of public and administrative law. Further details in respect of the senior members of the Inquiry team may be found on the Inquiry website.
I am confident that, within a short time of its establishment, the Inquiry has engaged and set to task a highly competent team to drive forward its important work.
The Inquiry is also in the process of recruiting further staff at the moment, in order to ensure that it is adequately resourced to deal with its workload, about which I will say something further shortly.
I want to say something now about the premises the Inquiry will be using.
Considerable efforts had to be made to provide the Inquiry with suitable premises for its work and a great deal of progress has been achieved since the Inquiry was established. Finding suitable premises at short notice was always likely to pose a degree of difficulty.
However, the Inquiry has identified, resourced and occupied its office accommodation at Waterfront Plaza in Belfast, from which it is currently conducting its investigative work. Details of the address at which the Inquiry may be contacted can be found on the Inquiry website.
Ideally, the Inquiry’s office accommodation and the oral hearings venue would be situated at the same location. Unfortunately, despite research and a number of inspections of potential venues, that has not proved possible in this instance in the time available. Any potential hearing venue would almost always require both structural and technological alteration to provide the required IT infrastructure for the proper conduct of the hearings, together with providing reasonable access to the proceedings and appropriate facilities for the Inquiry team, witnesses, legal representatives and the public, including the media. As I remain acutely aware, the Inquiry has a public duty to keep the time and cost of any required alterations within reason.
A venue that we believe to reasonably conform to these requirements is the Senate Chamber in Parliament Buildings at Stormont. The necessary adaptation work in the Senate Chamber has been the subject of discussion and agreement with the relevant authorities and is currently under way. The Inquiry’s oral hearings will be held in the Senate Chamber when they begin later this year.
In this context I am aware that the use of the Senate Chamber as the venue for the oral hearings might be perceived by some as being undesirably close to the working environment of individuals and bodies who may come within the purview of the Inquiry’s investigations. On the other hand, others might perceive that the use of this venue underscores the Inquiry’s requirement, and expectation, that it will be afforded access to the heart of government in Northern Ireland in order to discharge the task set for it in its Terms of Reference. Whatever the perception, this venue has been selected from a limited number of realistic options for eminently practical reasons. Key considerations have been the speed at which it can be prepared and made available; the availability of excellent IT and media facilities which are already in place, which it is hoped will significantly add to the accessibility of Inquiry proceedings; and, importantly, a significant saving in public funds in comparison to other potentially available options.
The Inquiry has held detailed discussions with the Assembly Commission about its use of the Senate Chamber as a hearings venue, as a consequence of which I am satisfied that the Inquiry’s requirements for independence, and for private and public accommodation and facilities, can and will be met.
The Independence of the Inquiry
I have just mentioned the issue of the Inquiry’s independence and I want to say something more about that at this point.
I have enjoyed the privilege of a career spent in practice as a member of the independent Bar and, subsequently, have served as a member of the independent judiciary of Northern Ireland.
Independence is a key feature of any inquiry established in accordance with the 2005 Act. Section 9 of that Act specifically prohibits the Minister setting up the Inquiry from appointing any person who has a direct interest in the subject matter or who enjoys a close association with any interested party.
Section 21 of the 2005 Act provides me as Chairman with extensive powers to compel the production of evidence and the attendance of witnesses. In a Ministerial Statement made at the time of setting up the Inquiry, the Minister emphasised that the Inquiry will be entirely independent and will operate without any degree of Ministerial influence, interference or control. The Inquiry Panel accepts this commitment at face value and will rely upon it in the course of discharging its functions as it thinks fit, independently, without fear or favour and free from any external pressures. The independence of the Inquiry is central to the public discharge of its duties and I wish to assure the public that the Panel fully appreciates this.
When I agreed to act as Chairman of the Inquiry I was promised complete independence and I shall insist upon it.
The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference
I want to turn now to the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.
The Terms of Reference for the RHI Inquiry have been deposited in the Assembly Library at Stormont. A copy of them has been published on the Inquiry’s website. They were drafted at an early stage when the Inquiry was being set up and, accordingly, have been widely drawn. However, the Preamble to the Terms of Reference expressly notes that they have been made as broad as possible in order to provide myself, as Inquiry Chairman, with latitude in my work.
The Inquiry has a duty to interpret the Terms of Reference and explain its interpretation and approach to them in the interests of fairness, transparency and certainty. It is anticipated that further information about this will be published by the Inquiry in due course, shortly before the commencement of its public evidential hearings, when the Inquiry’s investigations are further advanced. Self-evidently, as the Inquiry progresses, its interpretation of its Terms of Reference may need to be revisited to take account of emergent facts and evidence.
At this stage, it seems likely that the Inquiry will concentrate its attention upon four broad phases:
First, the original design and implementation of the RHI Scheme in Northern Ireland;
Second, the initial operation of the Scheme, including its administration, promotion and supervision;
Third, the circumstances relating to the imposition of costs controls in the Scheme in late 2015; and
Fourth, the circumstances relating to the suspension of the Scheme to new applicants in early 2016.
These phases are plainly not exhaustive. Within each of them, a broad range of issues will arise, some which are common throughout, and others of which are individual. It is obviously impossible in this opening statement to summarise all of the issues which the Inquiry is likely to consider; and I would not attempt to do so. However, it is at least possible to give the public some flavour of a number of the matters the Inquiry will be investigating on its behalf.
For instance, when considering the design and implementation of the RHI Scheme in Northern Ireland, the Inquiry will give consideration to the roles played by individuals or bodies responsible for the way in which the Scheme was set up. This will include consideration of the Scheme’s strategic design, its policy objectives, and the legislative provisions used in the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 (‘the 2012 Regulations’). The Inquiry will examine the rationale for the setting up of the Scheme and the way in which it was adopted in this jurisdiction, including the absence of costs controls deployed in an equivalent Scheme which had been introduced in Great Britain. The Inquiry will also examine the important issues of funding and financial accountability in relation to the Northern Ireland Scheme.
I should make clear that when I speak of individuals or bodies which are responsible, this will include consideration of the role of individuals such as Ministers, civil servants and special advisers; and scrutiny of the role of organisations will extend beyond government departments to other bodies who were involved with the Scheme, to include consultants and advisers, those administering the Scheme and other relevant bodies or organisations. The Inquiry will investigate accountability for any failings which it finds in the Scheme, wherever that accountability may lie.
When considering the subsequent circumstances in which the Scheme was administered, promoted, supervised and monitored, this will include close consideration of the actions (or inaction) and advice of individuals and bodies concerned in or responsible for these functions. The Inquiry will also carefully consider the structures created, and the systems employed, in order to ensure the satisfactory and economically efficient performance of the Scheme within the budget available. We shall look carefully at the degree of success in detecting and correcting defects, in improving shortcomings and at the responses to persons expressing concern. The Inquiry will direct particular attention to the promotion and publicity afforded to the Scheme at various times, together with the degree of efficiency and cooperation established between those concerned with regard to the detection of, and reaction to, applications apparently inconsistent with the original model. This will include careful consideration of the increases or ‘spikes’ in demand which subsequently developed and which have been the subject of considerable public commentary.
The Inquiry will also consider the circumstances in which decisions were taken to impose cost controls, to amend the Regulations and, ultimately, to suspend the Scheme. Here the focus will be upon individuals and bodies involved in, or responsible for, the decisions to impose cost controls upon the subsidies provided by the Scheme. Such involvement may arise from having made a relevant decision in this regard; or having provided advice or encouragement, commentary, research or a rationalisation for any such decision. Investigation of this area will include close consideration of the management and consequences of any delay in introducing any corrective measures or between the public announcement of such steps and putting the decisions into effect. This element of the Inquiry will require us to consider the relationships and communications, if any, between persons and bodies responsible for the Scheme and then current beneficiaries of the Scheme, potential applicants, suppliers and installers of relevant plant and equipment and any other relevant third parties during this period.
It is perhaps important to clarify that the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference do not require it, nor would it be appropriate for it, to seek to investigate individual applications for accreditation or payment under the Scheme in every case where there may be some suggestion of abuse of the Scheme. It may well be inevitable that the Inquiry will have to consider the circumstances of some individual applications to the Scheme in discharging the task set for it in its Terms of Reference; but it is not the purpose or function of this Inquiry to routinely investigate individual applications to the Scheme. As has been previously publicised, the Department for the Economy is currently arranging a full audit and inspection process in relation to claims under the Scheme, which the Inquiry is required by its Terms of Reference to take into account, where appropriate. The Inquiry’s focus will be on the setting up and administration of the Scheme itself, and the actions of those responsible for making decisions in relation to it, rather than an assessment of each of the over 2,000 individual Scheme applications.
We will, however, shortly be writing to all of those who have installations accredited under the Scheme in order to seek their assistance with the provision of any information or documentation which may be relevant to the matters which the Inquiry is charged to investigate.
Gathering of Evidence for the Inquiry
I now want to say something about the Inquiry’s evidence gathering processes. It should be evident, from even the brief summary provided above of the matters which the Inquiry is charged to investigate, that the Inquiry will have to consider a very significant amount of evidence arising over a period of several years, from the inception of the Scheme in 2011-2012 up to the present time.
The Inquiry has already engaged extensively in the preparatory gathering of documentary evidence, and initial consideration of that evidence. This process will assist in determining the identity of witnesses from whom the Inquiry needs to hear and will inform the content of witness statement requests from the Inquiry.
When beginning this process the Inquiry had to bear in mind the need to respect the independence of both the Inquiry and the electoral process leading up to the election on 2 March 2017, given the circumstances of political controversy in which the Inquiry was set up. As a result, that initial period of time was primarily used for interviewing and selecting the Inquiry Panel and supporting team, designing and drafting various Protocols that will help shape our work, and identifying and inspecting potential accommodation for the office and hearing venues.
As matters stand today, the Inquiry legal team has already held a considerable number of scoping meetings with bodies likely to be centrally involved in the Inquiry’s work, including, amongst others, the Department for the Economy, the Department of Finance, Ofgem and the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland. These meetings allow the Inquiry to understand, in the most efficient way possible, the extent of material with which the Inquiry is likely to be dealing, which in turn informs the timetable to which it may be possible for the Inquiry to work.
The 2005 Act provides the Inquiry with statutory powers to compel, amongst other things, the production of documents and witness statements. The Inquiry’s Procedural Protocol confirms that the Inquiry has determined that, generally, the most expeditious way for the Inquiry to proceed is by using its powers of compulsion in respect of all those who the Inquiry considers may have relevant evidence. The Inquiry has to date served around 125 such notices on individuals and organisations compelling both the production of relevant documents and the provision of information that may assist in identifying further relevant documentation which may exist. This is obviously a very considerable number of statutory notices but it demonstrates the Inquiry’s determination to ensure that it gathers all relevant documentary evidence. Further such notices will continue to be issued in due course.
However, such notices requiring the provision of documentation seek disclosure of material which was generated over a period of some seven years. They can vary considerably in terms of the amount of material to which they may relate. In some cases, a single notice may give rise to a requirement to provide the Inquiry with many thousands of documents, including vast amounts of electronic communications. Consequently, applications for extensions of time for compliance with the terms of the notice may be, and in many instances already have been, required in order to provide the relevant organisation with a reasonable opportunity to produce what the Inquiry requires from it. This process is likely to be ongoing for several months; but already the Inquiry has been provided with very many thousands of pages of documents which have to be considered and evaluated. Indeed, the Inquiry anticipates that the documentary evidence which it gathers will run to many hundreds of thousands of pages, if not more. The gathering of documentary evidence is one of the first, but most important, stages of an Inquiry’s work.
The Inquiry has also begun to serve statutory notices on individuals and organisations requiring them to provide witness statements to the Inquiry, addressing issues that the Inquiry wishes to explore with them. It is the case that, as the Inquiry analyses the documentation it receives on foot of previous notices, then further witness statement requests will be served on individuals and organisations in order to clarify their positions and permit them to respond to the case others are making. The Inquiry is satisfied that this, often two-stage, process is the most efficient way to obtain the relevant evidence it requires. It is only when this exercise has been satisfactorily completed that it will be possible to identify those witnesses from whom it will be necessary for the Inquiry to hear oral evidence during the later oral hearings phase of our investigations.
It is particularly important that those who receive statutory notices from the Inquiry make the fullest possible disclosure of relevant documentation and information. It is of course also open to any member of the public, the media or any other group or organisation who feels that they may have information or documents relevant to the matters under investigation by the Inquiry to come forward voluntarily. Contact details can be found on the Inquiry website for this purpose.
I hope that what I have explained so far may provide some understanding of the complexity of the task facing the Inquiry. The Inquiry has to balance the need for expedition with both its obligation to be fair to those who may be criticised by it and the obvious requirement to ensure that it proceeds upon a sound factual basis.
The Inquiry’s Procedure
I want to say something more about the nature of this Inquiry and the procedures it intends to adopt.
It is very important that the public and the media should understand that the function of this Inquiry is that of investigatory fact-finding and not that of an adversarial trial in respect of any individual, body or organisation. Findings made by the Inquiry will not have the legal effect of convicting any individual of a crime or enabling it to award compensation. Indeed, section 2 of the 2005 Act specifically provides that an Inquiry of this nature “... is not to rule on, and has no power to determine, any person’s civil or criminal liability”.
However, as section 2 of the Act goes on to make clear, that prohibition does not – and will not – inhibit the Inquiry in the discharge of its functions simply because of a likelihood of liability being inferred from facts that it determines or recommendations that it makes.
This Inquiry will be conducted in accordance with the provisions of the 2005 Act. Unlike the position in other jurisdictions in Great Britain, there is no legislation in Northern Ireland establishing statutory rules for the conduct of the Inquiry. However, that fact is not an impediment to this Inquiry because section 17 of the 2005 Act provides that “the procedure and conduct of an inquiry are to be such as the chairman of the inquiry may direct”; as well as making clear that, in making any decision as to procedure or conduct, the chairman must act “with fairness and with regard also to the need to avoid any unnecessary cost”. To that end the Inquiry has produced a number of Protocols relating to procedure, costs and the public disclosure of documents. Copies of these Protocols are published on the Inquiry’s website. In due course, as the work of the Inquiry progresses, these documents may require amendment and further protocols and/or statements of key issues may need to be prepared. The ultimate aim of these procedures is to ensure a fair and properly understood procedure before the Inquiry, but with the necessary procedural flexibility which has been tailored to suit the circumstances of this particular Inquiry.
Participation before the Inquiry
I want to say something now about participation before the Inquiry.
Witnesses who are required to give evidence during the public hearings may fall into different categories. The Procedural Protocol confirms that, as Chairman, I have the power to designate an individual or body as a ‘core participant’, provided they consent to being so designated. I have a discretion as to whether to so designate an individual witness but in exercising that discretion I shall consider, bearing in mind the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference, in particular:
whether the witness played, or may have played, a direct and significant role in relation to the matters to which the Inquiry relates;
whether the witness has a significant interest in an important aspect of the matters to which the Inquiry relates; and/or
whether the person may be subject to explicit or significant criticism during the Inquiry proceedings or in the report.
In addition to those whom I determine should be core participants before this Inquiry, applications to be so designated may also be made by or on behalf of individuals or organisations by writing to the Solicitor for the Inquiry, clearly specifying the grounds upon which the designation is sought. However, I must emphasise that my power to designate is discretionary and not one which I am bound to exercise in favour of a witness even if he or she falls within one or more of the categories set out at (a) – (c) above.
Once so designated, core participants will be entitled to certain participatory rights. These include the right to apply to the Chairman for appropriate legal representation and, if granted, to have the lawyer concerned designated as the core participant’s recognised legal representative. A core participant, together with any designated legal representative, will be entitled to be present at public hearings on days considered by the Chair to be relevant to them. They can also seek leave to ask questions of a witness, though it is the Inquiry’s intention that all questioning, save in exceptional circumstances, will be conducted by Counsel to the Inquiry. I will say a little more about that shortly. Further details of the status and role of a core participant may be found in the Inquiry’s Procedural Protocol published on the Inquiry’s website.
At present, on the basis of the evidence available to date and subject to any future applications, my intention is to designate the following departments and organisations as core participants on the basis that, between them, they appear to have been generally involved across, or to have some knowledge of, all of the matters to be investigated by the Inquiry in accordance with the Terms of Reference throughout the currency of the Scheme, namely:
- The Department for the Economy (formerly the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment);
- The Department of Finance (formerly the Department of Finance and Personnel); and
- The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (more commonly understood and referred to in this context as ‘Ofgem’).
The Inquiry is already in communication with those three organisations about their participation before the Inquiry.
As I have already alluded to, individual witnesses appearing before the Inquiry in relation to certain aspects of its investigation, but whom it would not be appropriate to designate as core participants in relation to the proceedings of the Inquiry as a whole, may also apply for certain enhanced participatory rights. These enhanced rights could include the right to have a lawyer designated as that witness’s legal representative and to attend hearings on relevant days in that capacity; in addition to the right all witnesses will have of access to material which the Inquiry considers relevant to the issues they need to address. This enhanced status might well be appropriate for individuals who may be likely to face criticism from the Inquiry by reason of significant actions or omissions but whose contribution or responsibility, albeit important, was not continuous throughout the life of the RHI Scheme, unlike that of the bodies mentioned earlier.
During the oral hearings all witnesses will be questioned on oath or affirmation; but they should feel free to give their evidence in a candid and constructive manner bearing in mind that, in so doing, they will be assisting in a fact-finding exercise and not taking sides in an adversarial conflict. The Inquiry will strive to ensure that there is compliance with the overriding obligation to ensure the witnesses giving oral evidence are treated fairly in the circumstances.
As I mentioned previously, the present expectation is that only Counsel to the Inquiry and members of the Panel or its assessors will question witnesses giving oral evidence to the Inquiry. That is an approach which has proved highly effective in previous public inquiries conducted in this jurisdiction and elsewhere. Any core participant or recognised legal representative may submit to Counsel to the Inquiry questions, or lines of questioning, which they wish to be asked of a witness and it is within the discretion of Counsel to the Inquiry as to whether and, if so, how any such questions or lines of questions are put to the witness. Applications may be made to the Chairman for leave to question directly a witness but it is anticipated that such applications are likely to be rare and exceptional and they will require to be properly grounded.
Penultimately, I want to address the issue of timetabling, which I know may be of interest to many gathered here today.
The Inquiry appreciates the need for expedition and, in this case, the public interest in progress is reinforced by the general interest in the efficient functioning of devolved government, the need for confidence in the political process and, where appropriate, accountability.
However, expedition must be considered in the context of the need to ensure that the Inquiry is conducted with rigour, that it is as fully appraised as practicable of all relevant facts, and that it reaches properly grounded findings. I have already explained something of the size of the task which the Inquiry faces in terms of gathering and assimilating documentary and other evidence.
To date there has been a degree of speculation as to the likely length and timetabling of the Inquiry in various forms of media, which seems to have emanated from a variety of sources. I make no criticism of the media in that regard and the Inquiry fully accepts that the roots of such commentary lie in public concern about the processes of government and the obvious public interest in the work of the Inquiry. There have been a number of prior references to the Inquiry as being “scheduled to last for six months”. However, no time limit has been set for the Inquiry. In fact, paragraph 17 of the Terms of Reference simply provides that “The Inquiry will seek to work expeditiously and complete its report within a reasonable timeframe”. I consider that this is the appropriate approach for an Inquiry of this type.
It is undoubtedly in the public interest that the Inquiry proceeds expeditiously, avoiding the unnecessary exploration of irrelevant or marginal issues, but expedition, in itself, will not be permitted to bear adversely on the thorough and effective discharge of the RHI Inquiry’s investigatory function.
My earlier remarks should give you an idea of how important it is to ensure that the investigatory process is as comprehensive as practicable. I doubt very much whether the public concern which gave rise to the establishment of this Inquiry would be allayed by a process which was subsequently revealed to have proceeded upon an inaccurate basis of fact largely because the thoroughness of the investigation had been sacrificed in the interest of a speedy conclusion. At this early stage it remains the case that it is simply not possible, or useful, to attempt to place any accurate timescale on the length of time which the Inquiry will take to complete its work. As matters become more clear, the Inquiry will, of course, seek to update the public accordingly.
The final matter which I want to address is the issue of public access to the Inquiry’s oral hearings later this year which will bring the Inquiry towards the completion of its work.
An inquiry has an obligation to make its work known and the oral hearings are an important part of that process because the public can attend and hear the Inquiry questioning those individuals who are in a position to give relevant evidence about the matters we are investigating.
This Inquiry recognises the important part that those oral hearings will play towards the end of its work. It is in those hearings that the public will see key individuals face focused questions from the Inquiry about what occurred in respect of the RHI Scheme. For that reason the Inquiry is making arrangements to seek to ensure that the public have the maximum access possible to those oral hearings.
Firstly, members of the public will be able to attend Parliament Buildings and be present in the public gallery of the Senate Chamber when oral evidence is being given to the Inquiry. Should it be necessary, we will endeavour to provide overflow seating elsewhere in the building.
In the Senate Chamber itself, not only will it be possible for members of the public to view the witnesses being questioned, but those members of the public present should also be able to see the relevant documentary material, about which the witness is being questioned, being displayed on television screens provided in the public gallery. In this way it is hoped that they will be able to follow the detail of the evidence which the Inquiry is considering.
Measures will also be in place to assist those with difficulties, such as hearing problems, and Inquiry staff will be on hand to help members of the public who attend.
In addition, members of the public who are not able to attend the oral hearings in person will be able to watch the hearings on the day online. This facility will be able to be accessed on a computer, tablet or smart phone by going to the Inquiry’s website at www.rhiinquiry.org while the Inquiry is at hearing and clicking on the link to the streaming of the proceedings.
Further, the morning after the relevant day’s oral hearings will also see a transcript of the proceedings of the previous day’s oral hearing uploaded to the Inquiry’s website. This can again be accessed by clicking on the relevant link found at www.rhiinquiry.org. As well as the uploaded transcript, members of the public will also be able to access copies of the documents which were considered by the Inquiry during that oral hearing.
The Inquiry will issue details of hearings in due course, which we presently intend will commence in early autumn this year. In the meantime, we will take reasonable steps to ensure that the public is kept up to date as to the progress of its investigation. The Inquiry’s central focus at this stage is simply to get on with its work.
Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the first preliminary hearing of the RHI Inquiry. It may well be that we will wish to have a further preliminary hearing, probably in June, as further progress is made. At that time, we hope to be in a position to provide further detail about the Inquiry timetable, including for oral hearings in particular. The holding of such a further preliminary hearing will be announced in the same manner as this hearing was.
I want to close this hearing by again assuring members of the public in Northern Ireland that this Inquiry will fearlessly examine the evidence relating to the RHI Scheme; and that it will do so without interference from any quarter in order to establish the facts about the Scheme and those connected to it.