Belfast Telegraph

DUP rejects claims it delayed closure of botched RHI heating scheme in Northern Ireland

The DUP has rejected claims it pushed for a delay in the Renewable Heating Incentive to close the loophole which allowed uncapped payments from the scheme.

It comes after claims were made pressure was applied from those within the party and the Office of First and deputy First Minister to prevent the scheme - in its original format - from closing.

Between the time civil servants advised the scheme should close to its eventual restriction, there was a spike in applications. That has been estimated to cost the public purse over £400m.

First Minister Arlene Foster has said officials are working to try to reduce that figure.

The DUP said the delays in getting the scheme closed was down to obtaining the necessary financial and legal approvals. It stressed that no one in OFMDFM sought to delay closure of the scheme.

The scheme was eventually capped in November 2015 before it was later scrapped in February 2016.

More: RHI furore: 'Political pressure' on civil servants delayed closure of botched £400m heating scheme in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed

A DUP statement said: "The decision to control costs through the introduction of tiering was taken by the responsible Minister, the Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment [Jonathan Bell] on 2 September 2015.

"That decision was to take effect from 4 November 2015. No DUP Special Advisor or any other individuals from the then Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister sought to prevent the ‘closure of the original scheme’.

"For the avoidance of any doubt, no one at the then OFMDFM sought to delay the closure of the scheme."

More: Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded

The DUP statement continued: "Indeed, the date from which the scheme was to be amended and terms of any such amendment of the scheme were a matter for the responsible Minister. In the event the scheme did not close until 18 November due a delay in securing financial and legal approvals.

"In relation to the subsequent closure of the scheme in February 2016 following representations, including those from other political parties, the Minister for the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment decided to extend the tiered scheme for a further two weeks.

"This decision was publicised and explained at the time as were the criticism of the Minister for the original proposed timing of the closure.

"As the Enterprise Minister made clear at the time the First Minister and deputy First Minister supported this decision in light of the concerns expressed at the time and the fact that cost controls had already been introduced from November 2015. Civil Servants expressed no objection to the two week extension in light of the legal dangers of the lack of adequate notification period.

"It should of course be noted that despite the extension of the scheme for a further two weeks the opposition parties nonetheless still voted against the closure."

The party also described reports its rolling ministerial resignations helped increase the financial burden on the taxpayer as "erroneous".

"The decision to introduce cost controls to the non domestic scheme from 4 November 2015 was taken by the DETI Minister on 2 September 2015. This was first dealt with by the ETI committee on 8 September 2015. It was then put back from 4 to 17 November due a delay in securing legal and financial approvals."

Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded

November 2012 - Arlene Foster, then Enterprise Minister, announces the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme for businesses.

October 2013 - A whistleblower emails Mrs Foster to express concerns over the scheme.

Autumn 2013 - The woman is referred by Mrs Foster to officials from her Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and she urges them to address the problems.

May 2014 - The whistleblower emails again, after the civil servants appear to do nothing. She explicitly outlines how the scheme was being abused, was paying out exorbitant sums of money, and could not be ignored any longer.

December 2014 - The scheme is extended to domestic customers by Mrs Foster.

November 2015 - With the realisation the funding available for applicants is uncapped, Stormont tightens the rules.

But a massive late surge of 900 applications is received before changes can be made.

January 2016 - Another whistleblower civil servant tells the Executive the scheme is being abused.

February 6 - New Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell makes a shock announcement that the RHI scheme to be scrapped.

February 9 - Michael Doran of Action Renewables warns it will force renewables from "boom to bust."

June - Auditors begin investigating concerns.

July 5 - A damning Audit Office report states a farmer will make £1m of government money just for heating an empty shed. It reveals that more than £1 billion of public money will be paid to Northern Ireland-based businesses by 2036 after they installed new appliances under the RHI scheme.

October - Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) call the mishandling of the RHI scheme "one of the biggest scandals" since devolution. SDLP Assembly member Daniel McCrossan tells officials from government utility regulator OFGEM, which administered the scheme: "It was very clear the department was asleep at the wheel but I am horrified that you too were asleep at the wheel in relation to this."

November - The Public Accounts Committee is told that a £405m hole will have to be plugged over the 20-year lifetime of the RHI.

Dr Andrew McCormick, permanent secretary for the Economy Department, says he can't think of any government scheme being worse value for money.

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