Belfast Telegraph

RHI inquiry: Civil Service ‘culture of laziness’ slammed

By Brett Campbell

A culture of laziness may exist in the Civil Service, where officials accepted false data as fact, the public inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive has heard.

Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) finance director Trevor Cooper was told he failed to do enough when RHI managers presented a report with multiple inaccuracies to Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) chiefs in 2015.

Despite noting a "fair bit of naivete" and its non-factual basis, Mr Cooper failed to take any significant action.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin told him he had an onus to "correct the record" but didn't.

In a damning indictment of the department, inquiry lawyer Joseph Aiken said inaccurate information became the "accepted language" and was presented as "fact" to the "gatekeepers" of public money.

At one point staff even discussed how to disguise the fact that a 2014 review had not been carried out as required.

The revelations led to Mr Cooper claiming that "casualness" and "laziness" could be a "cultural" problem in the Civil Service, where too many staff consider proper processes as "unnecessary" and "too bureaucratic".

Inquiry panel member Dr Keith MacLean said there were multiple examples of documents which have been changed by Deti officials in an attempt to "put fig leaves" on serious blunders by making papers "say what they want it to say".

"Everybody seems to be as complicit in this as everybody else," he added. "It's hard to take any document at face value."

He said it did not create a "clear picture" for decision-makers, including ex-Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell.

Mr Cooper insisted he voiced concerns over the removal of a key warning about spending from a document prepared for him in July 2015 to his boss Eugene Rooney, but said he did not feel he was listened to.

Sir Patrick said the panel will have to make "general" recommendations which apply to the Civil Service as a whole before he criticised Mr Cooper, who headed up a committee which approved the scheme in 2011, for failing to properly scrutinise one employee's claim that money could be stopped if the project ran over budget.

The finance director admitted members just accepted Deti official Peter Hutchinson's word that cost control mechanisms existed and payments could be stopped mid-year.

The failure to obtain clarity, as directly instructed by DFP, meant the need for primary legislation to curb spending came as a "bolt from the blue" to Mr Cooper and his colleagues four years later.

Sir Patrick said he would have realised controls did not exist if he had simply checked the regulations.

Defending why his team only realised DFP finance approval had expired in March 2015 - three months after the lapse - Mr Cooper claimed it was not that unusual as up to four Deti projects spend public money without proper authority every year.

Mr Aiken warned him that the panel may "struggle" to comprehend why civil servants didn't reassess the scheme once errors began to surface.

Belfast Telegraph

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