Belfast Telegraph

Lords to be given more time to consider controversial RHI legislation

RHI caused huge fallout in 2017 when it emerged the scheme paid out more in subsidies than the cost of fuel
RHI caused huge fallout in 2017 when it emerged the scheme paid out more in subsidies than the cost of fuel

By Nick Lester, Press Association Political Staff

The UK Government has backed down over fast-tracking controversial Northern Ireland legislation that makes huge cuts to renewable energy subsidies.

It had originally planned to force the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No 2) Bill through the House of Lords in a single day as it needed to be on the statute book by the end of the month.

However, in the face of concerns raised over scrutiny, more time is to be made available for "further discussion and reflection".

Peers heard ahead of the second reading of the bill on Thursday that a number of amendments had been put forward, which will now be considered next Tuesday.

Changes to the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme would mean 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.

Government chief whip in the Lords, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, said although the bill was urgent "we will ensure that proper time is made available for the consideration of any amendments".

Opening the second reading debate, Northern Ireland Minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said: "Without legislation there would be no legal basis to maintain the payments to participants in this scheme."

Acknowledging the rates were "significantly lower" than previous tariffs, he added: "The European Commission is clear.

"The tariff rate cannot deliver a return higher than 12% per annum.

"These tariffs and indeed this scheme are not without controversy."

Democratic Unionist Party peer Lord Browne of Belmont said: "I do not know anyone that can say this scheme has in any way been a success.

"In fact, the way in which it was set up and ultimately abused by some was disgraceful."

He pointed out many people had "genuinely entered into the scheme in good faith".

Fellow DUP peer Lord Hay of Ballyore said the scheme was "flawed from day one".

He added: "It is a tragedy, unfortunately there will be a number of people out of pocket in all of this."

Peers also considered legislation to rubber-stamp spending in Northern Ireland, given the continued absence of a Stormont executive.

Lord Duncan said: "When I last brought forward a budget bill for Northern Ireland I stated that it would be the last time that I would do so.

"Events have made a liar of me and for that I apologise.

"In the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, the UK Government has a responsibility to ensure good governance and to safeguard public services and public finances."

The Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No 2) Bill, which has already been through the Commons, will return to the Lords next Tuesday for detailed scrutiny.

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