Belfast Telegraph

Ministers may act to avert RHI hardship as Lords threaten revolt

Urged delay: Lord Empey
Urged delay: Lord Empey

By Nick Lester

A threatened Lords revolt over huge cuts to renewable energy subsidies in Northern Ireland has been avoided after assurances from the Government.

Ministers have hinted at financial aid for those who will suffer genuine hardship as a result of reduced payments, although 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 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".

Northern Ireland Minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said the scheme had been "flawed in almost every possible way, to the extent in which we can almost describe its construction as a good old fashioned scandal".

The Tory frontbencher told peers that he wanted the Department for the Economy to set up an internal unit under independent chairmanship which would examine individual claims of hardship by RHI participants.

"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 in 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."

The Bill later received an unopposed third reading.

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