Belfast Telegraph

Officials 'too hands-off', RHI Inquiry hears

By Staff Reporter

Finance officials were "too hands-off" when it came to establishing how the budget of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme worked, a public inquiry heard yesterday.

The budget for the scheme, introduced by the Executive in 2012 to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to renewable heating sources, spiralled out of control due to flaws, including the fact that claimants could earn more money the more fuel they burned.

Those who joined were offered financial incentives to purchase new heating systems and the fuel to power them.

Yesterday the inquiry was told that staff had accepted assurances from others when they should have questioned finances more.

They also failed to "join up the dots" due to the lack of a handover process for staff assuming responsibility.

Giving evidence, Department of Finance (DoF) senior official Emer Morelli, who was involved in approvals for the scheme, admitted assurances were taken "at face value".

She accepted that the RHI tariff structure, including guaranteed 20-year payments, "may not have been fully understood".

Chair of the Inquiry Sir Patrick Coghlin said the lack of communication was very regrettable.

In addition, Treasury officials did not make it clear to officials here that funding for RHI could affect departmental budgets, despite the fact that this was communicated to civil servants running an equivalent scheme in Britain. Instead, there were "half-understood emails" exchanged directly between Department of Enterprise officials and people in the Treasury.

Ms Morelli said DoF staff took what they were told by Department of Enterprise officials "at face value", and should have done more to establish the true budgetary position. They were also reassured by EU state aid approval for the scheme, and by correspondence between departments involved in creating the policy.

She said: "We should have been taking assurance from Treasury and I think in the early stages and right into the summer (of 2015) that is an omission on behalf of the department."

Contact regarding RHI occurred between DoF and the Treasury in October 2015, shortly before cost controls were introduced.

Inquiry panel member Dame Una O'Brien said there appeared a lack of "old-fashioned public administration; record-keeping and linking things - the sort of fundamental basis of what normal public administration should be". Ms Morelli agreed, and said that informal phone contact between staff on key decisions like the budget meant officials had to carry out their own "detective work" in an attempt to establish what was happening.

She said officials had not appreciated how "complex and difficult" RHI was from the "get-go" and conceded that they should have challenged what they were told much more robustly.

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