Belfast Telegraph

RHI inquiry told that DUP advisors treated officials like opposition

By Allan Preston

A senior civil servant has claimed DUP advisers treated officials like the "opposition" when trying to negotiate cost controls for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Chris Stewart was part of senior management in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) when the failed energy scheme ran into difficulty.

Appearing before a public inquiry yesterday, he claimed the dysfunctional situation had hindered any chance of establishing effective cost controls.

The RHI scheme was set up in 2012 and was supposed to encourage businesses to switch to green energy.

By 2016, however, the scheme became the focus of a public scandal when it was discovered that claimants could burn more fuel than they needed due to the over-generous subsidies on offer.

"Policy (works best) when there's trust and confidence between ministers, officials and special advisers," he said.

"I have to say that in the summer of 2015, it felt at times we were being treated more as the opposition."

Calling it "a pretty profound thing to say," he explained the barriers he faced in discussing cost controls.

"When we had negotiated with the spad (special adviser) what we took to be as the minimum possible action to be taken to reduce costs for use expenditure, I thought we had agreement on that, and then received two counter-proposals, both of which were clearly designed to keep costs and expenditure if not where they were then higher than we had intended.

"That does suggest to me that we weren't on the same team."

The highly experienced civil servant also said that in 2015 he became aware of a strained relationship between the Deti minister at the time, Jonathan Bell, and his DUP spad Timothy Cairns.

This included a heated row in an Indian restaurant in London which picked up again over a working breakfast the next day.

He also claimed that he didn't believe Mr Bell had been consulted about cost control plans for RHI in 2015.

Earlier in his evidence, he said there was a general "lack of visibility" about RHI when he joined the Enterprise Department. Mr Stewart added that low staffing levels and an inadequate handover process to new staff made things worse.

In May 2015, Mr Stewart was first informed that the RHI scheme wasn't sticking to its budget.

At the time there was still a mistaken belief that the Treasury would cover the cost if the scheme ran over budget.

By that December, Mr Stewart said there was "a day of complete dismay" when they discovered that Deti would have to cover the cost.

Before new cost control measures could be introduced, Mr Stewart said some civil servants "very clearly crossed the line" by giving advance notice to applicants in the energy and agriculture sectors.

This led to a massive spike in applications before the cost control changes were made.

He also believed that spads were leaking inside information to those in the energy industry.

Belfast Telegraph

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