Belfast Telegraph

Karen Bradley 'bludgeoning' bill cutting RHI subsidies through commons

Secretary of State Karen Bradley
Secretary of State Karen Bradley

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has been accused of trying to "bludgeon legislation through the House" which makes massive cuts to renewable energy subsidies in the region.

Labour's Tony Lloyd said the Regional Rates and Energy Bill was in many ways "an abuse of the process of this House".

The shadow Northern Ireland secretary said the two parts of the bill had "no connection", and that the contentious changes to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme should have been debated separately and given more scrutiny.

He warned: "There will be casualties of this process".

And he told Ms Bradley: "I hope we won't see again an attempt to bludgeon legislation like this through the House."

Earlier, Ms Bradley had introduced the bill, which would see annual returns for the most common RHI boilers reduced from £13,000 to £2,000 from April 1 this year.

The scheme was closed to new entrants in 2016 after claims the tariffs were overly generous, and the controversy around how it was handled at Stormont led in part to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Ms Bradley defended the cuts, saying: "The point is that unless these steps are taken, the subsidies that were being paid would breach state aid rules and therefore the scheme would be illegal and would be closed down.

"So this is the maximum level at which subsidises can be paid to continue having a legal scheme."

But the move was criticised by a number of MPs, with Lady Sylvia Hermon (North Down) saying people had entered into the RHI scheme "in good faith and feel now that they are being unfairly penalised".

And the DUP's Ian Paisley said the move would "bring all renewable activity effectively to an end for a generation".

The North Antrim MP added: "No-one else is ever going to apply for a renewable scheme or a Government-backed deal in Northern Ireland ever again.

"That's the effect of what the Secretary of State is proposing."

Ms Bradley replied: "I do recognise there are participants in this scheme in Northern Ireland who will feel concerned by these new tariffs."

And she said there was a "buyout scheme" available for boiler owners "who do not believe the subsidies will allow them to continue in business".

But Conservative Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) warned Ms Bradley that the handling of the bill risked MPs failing to challenge advice from civil servants.

He said: "I am concerned because the department that has advised on this, the department for the economy, of course is implicated in the mess in the first place.

"I would be worried if the Secretary of State is being overly reliant on the advice she is receiving from that department and I would in all candour suggest she needs to be extremely careful about that.

"Scrutiny is what we do in this place, challenging advice is what we do in this place, and it worries me that this controversial bill on this most toxic of issues is not undergoing that level of scrutiny."

Referring to the changes in the renewable heat payments, the DUP's Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) branded the scheme a "disgrace", adding there were "big questions to be asked about the scheme altogether, whether it's in Northern Ireland or in any other parts of the UK".

He said: "We'll be supporting this legislation albeit reluctantly, but on the basis that there will be an opportunity for the kinds of questions that have been asked, good questions that have been asked by members across the House today to be looked at in more detail."

He added: "Thank goodness after March 29 we'll not have to worry about state aid rules, we can make our own decisions and that's a good thing and another reason why this House should make sure that we get out (of the EU) on March 29."

Labour's Vernon Coaker (Gedling) said he hoped for a restoration of devolved government but added: "I think what may need to happen is rather than just wishing it, it may be that we try and see whether there's something new that we can say or do which would hasten the restoration of the devolved government in Northern Ireland."

PA

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