Belfast Telegraph

Management of complicated RHI left to low-level staff, inquiry told

By Eamon Sweeney

Finding an accurate definition of the funding that applies to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is like "hunting for a Yeti", according to a junior counsel for the inquiry into the botched energy scheme.

Joseph Aiken said: "Sometimes you think you see it through the trees and when you get there it is not to be found."

The RHI scheme that contributed to the downfall of Stormont was designed to encourage green energy use by giving businesses a financial incentive to switch to using renewable energy sources.

However, the scheme was badly flawed and gave greatly inflated subsidies, meaning scheme users could actually benefit from needlessly burning energy.

It has been estimated that the scheme ran up an overspend of £700m.

Mr Aiken yesterday suggested that some involved in the RHI scheme process may not have completely grasped the nature of its two funding sources.

He said one strand of finance comes through departmental expenditure limits and the other is annually managed expenditure (AME).

It was best to imagine, he said, that they come in two different boxes, but that the Treasury advises that the AME box "should always come with a label bearing the warning: 'Fragile - handle with care'."

Mr Aiken said "views about AME seem to range from seeing it as free money from London to recognising it as taxpayers' money in exactly the same way" as any other funds found with the block grant.

Yesterday also heard the first oral evidence from a former senior civil servant who worked in the energy division at the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

Alison Clydesdale was involved in the initial work on the RHI scheme.

She left DETI in 2011 before the RHI scheme was implemented here, but returned in 2016 when DETI had been renamed the Department for the Economy.

She said that she was "surprised" when she learned that cost controls had not been placed on the scheme at the outset, and that it had been allowed to go ahead without them.

Earlier, Ms Clydesdale said that there "never seemed to be enough people to do the work" in the DETI energy division to run the RHI scheme.

While the workload increased no new staff were provided, she said.

After raising these concerns with her superiors, Ms Clydesdale said a specific branch for renewable energy was created in 2011.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said that given the "highly technical" nature of the scheme and that it was one of the first of its kind in Europe, he had to wonder why responsibility for it was given to a handful of DETI staff.

Ms Clydesdale said it was for that reason that consultants had to be called upon and acknowledged that DETI staff did not have the expertise to challenge the conclusions provided by them.

In her witness statement, Ms Clydesdale said she first became aware of the projected huge overspend in RHI when she reviewed the 2012 business case last year.

It was then that it became clear that the subsidy paid out for being part of the RHI scheme outweighed the cost of the fuel in the boilers installed as part of the scheme.

She also said in her witness statement that there are two illustrative tables on pages next to each other in the draft report that showed that economic flaw.

Sir Patrick Coghlin then pointed out that Ms Clydesdale does not have a qualification in either economics or accountancy and said: "Can you think of any reason why a person with such qualifications, looking at the business case, would not have seen that?" he asked.

Ms Clydesdale replied: "No, I can't."

Following her evidence to the inquiry about how the RHI scheme was set up, Sir Patrick said: "I see no senior hand involved at all.

"I see it being left to people who were doing their best at a lower level, with a lack of information and a lack of continuity."

He asked Ms Clydesdale: "Is that unfair?"

She responded: "No, that's not unfair."

The inquiry continues today.

Belfast Telegraph

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