Belfast Telegraph

Civil servants involved in botched RHI scheme 'will carry heavy burden'

By Lauren Harte

A group of civil servants involved in establishing and initially running the failed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme will "undoubtedly have to carry a heavy burden for the rest of their days", the inquiry was told yesterday.

Peter Coll QC, representing some officials at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) who set up and oversaw the scheme for three years, told the final day of the RHI Inquiry that "of course they were sorry that the public was not best served".

However, he said the civil servants were "not alone in shouldering this burden" as there were "errors made at every turn" by those providing advice, scrutinising and administering the scheme and in "handling the problems that then manifested".

The barrister said: "One can see errors right throughout until urgent political steps were engaged in addressing problems towards the end. There were missed opportunities to fix the scheme. The failings of the team are only part of the picture."

He said the inquiry has taken a "heavy personal toll" on the civil servants involved, adding: "This is their life's work at stake."

Mr Coll was speaking for five civil servants including Peter Hutchinson, who worked for Deti when the botched green energy scheme was set up in 2011 through to 2014.

The inquiry previously heard that Mr Hutchinson had no previous expertise in energy matters and received no specific training.

The inquiry was also told that Deti had only two dedicated civil servants working on RHI, with Mr Hutchinson left alone to run the "complex and heavily loaded" scheme most of the time.

A similar scheme in England had 77 dedicated staff members.

Jeremy Johnson QC addressed the inquiry on behalf of four other Deti civil servants who took on the running of RHI from 2013.

He said there was "no nine-to-five clock-watching culture" and pointed to the "overwhelming evidence to testify to the non-stop, frenetic working environment", including email inboxes that were "impossible to keep on top of" and emails being sent in the early hours of the morning.

Mr Johnson said this was not what the public would recognise as "stereotypical" of the Civil Service.

He said: "The RHI catastrophe was not caused by a single or small team of officials.

"Ultimately, it was caused by a blinkered and misconceived decision to commit to a deeply flawed scheme without appropriate planning and resources. This was followed by an almost unbelievable series of errors by officials including my clients, politicians and special advisers at every conceivable level."

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling yesterday apologised for the "multiple failings" in its handling of the RHI scheme.

Mr Sterling's barrister David Reid told the inquiry that "communication and collaboration" between officials must be improved.

Mr Reid said action has already been taken, including reviewing the codes and guidance relating to the relationships between ministers, civil servants and special advisers.

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