Stormont department knew of RHI list errors for two weeks before issuing correction and admits there could be more
It's a cock-up as department not capable of conspiracy, says Naomi Long
The Stormont department responsible for issuing the list of businesses claiming from the botched Renewable Heating Incentive scheme has admitted knowing of significant errors in the publication for two weeks before issuing a correction and an apology.
The Department for the Economy issued an extensive list of those businesses claiming from the scheme on March 16.
Since then a number of errors were found. One company was said to have nine boilers when it only had four, another was said to have claimed £63,000 when it only received £228 while another was said to have claimed £228,000 when it received £20,000.
Businesses have had to use solicitors to force the department to make the changes to the list and on Friday it apologised to one for its error.
The Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland, which represents some RHI boiler owners, said the errors were of "major cause for concern and they risk causing harm and distress to the companies and individuals involved".
The Belfast Telegraph asked why, when the department knew of the error on March 16, the correction was not published sooner.
A spokeswoman for the department said it has worked quickly to identify errors and suggested their could be more to follow.
“The department became aware of the error on the March 16 and immediately contacted the company to clarify their details. The department has been working to ensure a satisfactory remedy for the company and to publish an errata list which encompasses any changes required at this stage. The list, by its nature, will change over time. The department plans to update it on a regular basis.”
Speaking on the BBC Stephen Nolan show, Naomi Long said the "cock-up" was more evidence there was no conspiracy behind the organisation of the RHI scheme as "the department was not capable of a conspiracy".
The Alliance leader said: "This is very concerning and asks serious questions of the record keeping in the department. This was a very sensitive scheme and they would have known that the details would have been pored over by the Press and the public.
"It shows a complete lack of sensitivity in publishing the list, basic checks appear not to have been done and it does not look good for levels of accuracy in the department.
"The list should have been withdrawn when it was realised there were significant errors."
Mrs Long said that the blunder shows that it was correct to have a public inquiry into the scheme.
"Publication of the list was important - the public interest trumped the concerns of the businesses wanting their details held. But we were clear, it was the scheme that was at fault, the vast majority of those claiming were most likely doing so legitimately but erroneous information on this list creates the impression of wrongdoing.
"This is a serious issue. Records are crucial in terms of the inquiry that is going on. It was on the basis of the department's own calculations that it was noticed there was going to be an overspend.
"The record checking and fact checking has been atrocious and it is unbelievable they have not taken extra care in putting this list together. And they are not even pretending that all errors have been detected - that's quite a remarkable comment from the department.
"They should be able to account for that in detail and this suggests they are not keeping good records or they are no being thorough enough.
Mrs Long added: "We never wanted a witch hunt
"Ultimately this scheme has undermined public confidence. We have not sought to personalise this, there has been an endemic failure and this is additional evidence it is the case.
"People thought there must be a conspiracy in the setting up of the RHI scheme, this is further evidence of a cock-up as it shows that the department is not capable of organising a conspiracy."
Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir added: "The revelation that the Department of the Economy has made yet another error in relation to the botched RHI scheme will come as no surprise.
"This is yet another example of the incompetence which has surrounded this scheme from its inception when cost controls were ripped out of it.
"This latest example of incompetence also underscores the need for the public inquiry under former Judge Coghlin to get to the full truth behind the whole RHI scandal."
The RHI scheme was found to be seriously flawed by auditors. A lack of caps on payments meant that as the price for the wood pellet fuel dropped, businesses were able to make huge profits.
For every £1 a business spent, they received £1.60 from the scheme. One business was found to be using a boiler in a huge shed with the windows open in order to maximise profits. Payments are still being made and a legal battle is underway to ensure they continue for the 20-year life of the scheme.
The Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland also fought to keep the list from being made public in a court battle it ultimately lost.
Arlene Foster, who was enterprise minister when the scheme was set up has pledged to reduce the projected £490million overspend to zero. The scandal ultimately brought down the Northern Ireland government.
A list of those individuals which claimed £5,000 or more is still to be published. In line with the court ruling Stormont officials have written to them asking for them to outline reasons why their names should not be included. When they process is complete the list will be published. It is hoped it will be closer to Easter before it is available.
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