Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Hamilton was 'raging' when RHI plan to buy out claimants was leaked to media

THE DUP's Simon Hamilton has told the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry "his heart sank" when officials presented him with "shoddy" plans to cut spending.

In his written evidence, Mr Hamilton clashed with Sinn Fein's former finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir who will appear before the panel this afternoon.

Mr Hamilton said distrust between the two over the RHI fallout was "probably mutual," while Mr O Muilleoir said he was "baffled and frustrated" by his DUP colleague.

His evidence to the inquiry this morning, however, focused on his frustrations with officials.

He told the inquiry panel he was startled on his first day as economy minister when civil servants told him the botched green energy was "very successful".

 Mr Hamilton said he was alerted to the RHI failings at the start of 2016 when frantic attempts were being made to reduce the costs.

Preoccupied with his role as Health minister at the time, he said he can't recall RHI being discussed at Executive meetings but was aware it had exceeded its budget.

Appointed to the department for the economy in May that year,  he found officials to be "bogged down" with matters like answering questions from the audit office.

"People were doing lots of work, there's ample evidence of that, but it wasn't at the heart of the matter to the overspend," he said.

That overspend was threatening to run into hundreds of millions of pounds in public money.

Despite this, he claims he was told by officials in his frist briefing that RHI was "very successful" in terms of the number of applicants and the increased use of renewable heat.

Mr Hamilton had said in his written evidence this showed a "startling lack of awareness" from his officials, who he instructed never to refer to RHI as successful again.

He likened it to a successful operation where the patient still died.

Part of the work to address the scheme's shortcomings was an inspection of biomass boilers used by applicants.

Mr Hamilton said there wasn't enough being done to press ahead with this.

By October 2016, he said he was disappointed by the "shoddy" solutions being presented to him from officials.

He said the plans lacked any options at how to reduce cost.

 A "significantly wrong-headed and also dangerous" proposal to consult on changes with interested parties, such as the Ulster Farmers Union and poultry giant Moy Park, was a major worry, Mr Hamilton said.

He said their input would have hindered any attempt to reduce spending, and told officials they had to start again.

Panel member Dame Una O'Brien told Mr Hamilton he should have pressed officials further.

Mr Hamilton accepted he could have "laid down my authority" more than he did.

Dame Una added later: "When things go wrong at that level I would expect someone to take a grip".

Another panel member, Dr Keith MacLean, asked if it was wise to expect solutions from civil servants who failed to spot the problems first time around.

The same officials had also alerted the agri-food business in the summer of 2015 that the subsidies would be cut, leading to a rush of new applications that saw the cost of RHI balloon.

Mr Hamilton admitted his "heart sank a little" in October 2016 when he saw the same officials who had "gone off the rails" a year before.

In December 2016, a plan to deal with the RHI overspend was put forward.

Senior Inquiry counsel David Scoffield asked if the real focus only started after a BBC Spotlight investigation was aired.

"It's not fair to suggest there was nothing going on. There was a lot of work going on, whether that was good enough there was an effort being made," Mr Hamilton said.

"The Spotlight programme didn't have anything particularly new in it, but it did bring a greater focus."

Mr Hamilton said his department was left to solve the problem, but the pressure could have been eased with cooperation from the Stormont Executive as a whole.

"If there was a big, big lesson about this that's something we ought to have done," he said.

As a result he said his department didn't get a "kick in the backside" from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness who were First and deputy First Minister at the time.

In December 2016, the preferred option set out by top civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick was to buy out claimants to help them recoup some of the cost and still give them a 12% rate of return.

At a cost of around £50m, Mr Hamilton said he was concerned this would still be a hard sell to the public.

Mr Hamilton said he was then "raging" after the plan was leaked to the media.

"My thought about why it was Sinn Fein at the time," he said.

"They said they wanted to work with us to find a solution but things were falling apart.

"There was a fear and suspicion on my part they leaked it. There were examples of briefings to the media that gave an (incorrect) flavour of meetings.

"Sinn Fein wanted to be seen as the saviour of the whole situation, but if not the DUP were to blame.

"They were blaming the Department for the Economy including myself....It wasn't in our interest to do so.

"It is entirely conceivable they didn't do it," he said, adding that the mutual belief the other party was to blame led to the deterioration of relations.

In January 2017, Mr Hamilton said the DUP was determined to publish the name of RHI claimants as it had been a "constant thorn in our sides".

The panel moved on to question Mr Hamilton about further leaks, this time about RHI emails detailing contact between Deti officials and the wider industry.

This was done to back up a claim by the DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford that he wasn't responsible for a spike in applications.

Mr Hamilton's own adviser, John Robinson, was responsible for leaking the "explosive" emails.

The former minister admitted it was not his "proudest moment" but told Mr Robinson he believed it would be "useful" in the public domain.

Turning his attention back to Sinn Fein, Mr Hamilton accused them of playing a political game in January 2017.

Plans to cut RHI spending were put to Mairtin O Muilleoir, who was finance minister at the time.

Mr O Muilleoir refused to sign off on the plans which he called "piecemeal" and characterised by "at least incompetence and possibly corruption".

Mr Hamilton said Sinn Fein were holding out for political advantage, instead of fairly considering the plan.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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