Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's top civil servant Sterling admits he should have challenged Arlene Foster on RHI viability

By Allan Preston

Northern Ireland's top civil servant has said he is partly to blame for failings in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

David Sterling told a public inquiry yesterday he should have challenged Arlene Foster, the minister in charge of the scheme at the time, on the flawed energy scheme's viability.

He admitted, however, there was no guarantee such a warning would have been listened to.

The botched incentive scheme was intended to encourage businesses to convert to using green energy with subsidies, but a lack of proper cost controls meant some were able to earn money by burning excessive amounts of fuel.

Mr Sterling is now the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service but was head of the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (Deti) when the RHI was introduced.

He said a lack of resources and low staffing levels on the RHI project had been a significant difficulty.

Just two civil servants were assigned to work on the scheme on a full-time basis, neither of which had any energy expertise.

This compared to 77 civil servants, including energy specialists, who were assigned to the RHI scheme in England.

Mr Sterling told the inquiry yesterday: "I don't always want to be saying with the benefit of hindsight but to proceed on this project with such limited resource we, I, should have recognised at the time this was probably an unnecessary risk. I would accept that now."

The panel's senior counsel, David Scoffield QC, said he would put these points to Mrs Foster when she appears before the panel.

During Mr Sterling's evidence yesterday, he went on to explain why Deti had picked the more expensive of two funding models for the RHI.

An ongoing subsidy option was chosen instead of a cheaper upfront grant. Mr Sterling said this was because Deti couldn't afford the upfront admin costs at the time, with that option costing an initial £5m compared to £1.5m for the subsidy option.

"That level of admin cost would not have been available given the budgetary pressures we were under," he said, before saying that Deti "should have paused" to see if the money could be found.

He added that at the time he did not consider civil servants in Deti's energy division to be "excessive risk-takers".

Belfast Telegraph

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