RHI inquiry hears Moy Park given advance notice of cost control changes
Moy Park - one of the main beneficiaries of the renewable heat incentive - was informed about changes to cost controls by Stormont officials 12 days before it was officially announced, an inquiry into the botched green energy scheme has heard.
Stuart Wightman, a former official at the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), who was responsible for running RHI during its final weeks, told the inquiry he directed a colleague to inform leading poultry producer Moy Park and other interested parties as a "courtesy".
Moy Park was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the overly-generous scheme, which paid out more in grants than it cost to run.
Mr Wightman also alerted boiler companies and the Ulster Farmers' Union about the delay in cost controls before DUP minister, Jonathan Bell, had even been asked to approve the proposal.
The inquiry heard that those individuals received advance notice to sign up for the lucrative 20-year scheme, even though civil servants knew of the significant overspend, with Mr Wightman admitting officials should have waited for the ministerial announcement.
Biomass company Alternative Heat was another to receive information and the inquiry heard how managing director Connel McMullan told his staff to circulate it to other "trade contacts".
Mr Wightman said at the time his team was "fielding multiple calls on the future of the scheme" and that providing the information was an attempt to "stop the phone ringing for a while".
The inquiry also focused on a submission to Mr Bell from Mr Wightman on July 8, 2015, aimed at informing the incoming Deti minister of problems with RHI.
The inquiry heard how Mr Wightman's original version was amended and downplayed by senior officials.
An early version of the submission had included the projected cost of the scheme, with expenditure set out as twice the available budget. The inquiry was told that payments for 2015-16 were forecast at £23m, but the available budget was only £11.6m.
"We're £12m short and we don't know what effect that's going to have on our budget - that's the message that's not being found," said inquiry counsel Joseph Aiken.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked whether the language in the submission finally received by Mr Bell had been changed to 'cover-up' the true cost of the scheme, asking: "Did someone suggest that we can't possibly reveal how bad it has got?"
Mr Wightman said he believed there was still some uncertainty about the budget at that stage but officials hoped extra Treasury cash would cover the shortfall.
Mr Aiken said had the submission been more "up front and frank", then delays in implementing the cost controls it contained might have been overcome.
It was also revealed that less than two days after the decision on controls had been taken, and before it was formalised, a biomass installer company appeared to have knowledge of it with a representative of Hegan Biomass asking a Deti official if the rumour of a November date for controls was true.
Counsel Mr Aiken said one possibility was that the department was "leaking like a sieve".
The number of boilers accredited to the scheme doubled in October and November 2015.
Senior representatives of Northern Ireland's leading poultry business will give evidence to the inquiry next Friday.
Janet McCollum, former chief executive of Moy Park, and David Mark, currently head of customer support, will appear.