Lords revolt avoided over RHI cuts after Government hint at assistance to boiler owners
A threatened revolt over huge cuts to renewable energy subsidies in Northern Ireland has been avoided after assurances by the UK Government at Westminster.
Ministers have hinted at financial assistance for those who will suffer genuine hardship as a result of reduced payments, although the exact details remain sketchy.
The Government moved to allay peers' concerns in the face of a potential defeat in the House of Lords of the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No 2) Bill.
It contains changes to the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, with annual returns for the most common RHI boilers being reduced from £13,000 to £2,000 from April 1.
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 devolved executive and assembly.
The Government has argued the subsidies need to be cut to comply with state aid rules.
Failure to do so would mean the RHI scheme having to close completely as it would be in breach of EU law.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey called for the changes to not come into force until the Northern Ireland Affairs committee had completed its investigation into the initiative to ensure "fairness".
Lord Empey said the scheme was "ostensibly responsible for the collapse of the devolved institutions" in Northern Ireland.
He said his amendments to the Bill were designed to ensure there was proper scrutiny of the proposals and the new tariffs were not imposed until the committee's report was brought forward.
"The point of all this is that the scheme is so complex that I don't believe Parliament has had an opportunity to assess it," Lord Empey said.
"Our principal anxiety must be to ensure that people don't fall through the cracks and find themselves in a position where they are financially stressed and embarrassed as a result of the change to the tariff."
Tory Lord Cormack, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, backed the move, saying peers had received many communications from people who were at their "wits' end as to how they can survive financially".
People had made an investment "in good faith" and with ministerial assurance, he said.
The RHI scheme, however well intentioned, was not well designed and the results had been "catastrophic", he said.
Tory former lord chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern said when a member of the public made an investment in a government scheme, he or she was entitled to trust the terms on which the scheme was launched.
Those who invested in it relied on the Government's statement of what was involved and were entitled "to be protected by the Government from any failure on the part of the Government to meet the terms on which the scheme was set up", he said.
Democratic Unionist Party peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said: "There are people who are genuinely hurting because of no fault of their own. They should not be left to pay the penalty."
Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Murphy of Torfaen said it was "a sorry business" and "a terrible mess".
He stressed the need for those adversely affected to "be dealt with in a properly decent and humane manner".
Northern Ireland Minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said of the scheme: "At heart it was a noble endeavour but frankly its construction was top to bottom flawed.
"Flawed in almost every possible way. To the extent in which we can almost describe it's construction as a good old fashioned scandal."
The Tory frontbencher told peers: "What I am proposing that we move forward on is that the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland - not upon our instruction but rather because this is a thing they believe to be right course of action - set up a unit inside their department under independent chairmanship.
"And that unit will be responsible for examining each and every case of those individuals who have been in receipt of funds from the RHI initiative and who believe that they have experienced hardship.
"That each element of their case is considered in detail, thoroughly and with their participation to understand exactly what that hardship looks like."
Along with the parliamentary inquiry, it would "help inform" the voluntary buyout option for those who do not want to stay on the scheme.
Promising to put the assurances in writing, Lord Duncan said: "We need to be in a situation where the compensation element of this is adequate and informed by these elements."
He added: "Appropriate funds must be set aside to address these issues."
Responding, Lord Empey warned if the conditions set out were not honoured there would be "a lot of very, very angry parliamentarians".
Pointing out he had served as minister for the predecessors of the Department for the Economy, he said: "So to coin a phrase, I know who they are and I know where they live."
"We are talking about the livelihoods of good, honest, decent people," he added.
The Bill later received an unopposed third reading.