Belfast Telegraph

RHI: There was failure to understand scheme and cost controls, says Andrew McCormick

By Suzanne Breen

A top civil servant has admitted that "the baton was dropped" over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Dr Andrew McCormick - the former permanent secretary at the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) - yesterday told the public inquiry into the cash-for-ash scandal that crucial information was not shared between civil servants working on the scheme.

He pointed to a high turnover of staff at DETI which later became the Department for the Economy.

Giving evidence to the RHI inquiry, Dr McCormick admitted there was a lack of understanding surrounding the scheme and the cost controls associated with it.

The senior civil servant said there was no energy expert with detailed knowledge of the RHI scheme when he joined DETI in the summer of 2014.

Dr McCormick said that important information was not shared between the civil servants who were working on the scheme.

As officials moved to other parts of the civil service, knowledge of RHI's operation was lost.

"The baton was dropped and that's a matter of great regret from a civil service point of view," he said. "Part of what had got lost in the transition was the awareness of the novelty, scale, sensitivity of the scheme."

Three key members of staff who had responsibility for the scheme left DETI within the space of a few months around 2014-2015, Dr McCormick said.

He could not recall another time during his career when such a wholesale change happened. He said it was unsatisfactory that the civil service had no system in place for addressing the situation.

Dr McCormick said he had too much "confidence in continuity" when he took over the department.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said: "When you use the phrase 'confidence in continuity', continuity is the one thing that has never been present from the start."

Counsel for the inquiry, David Scoffield QC, asked Dr McCormick about previous witness evidence concerning the lack of a formal system to ensure knowledge about projects was shared whenever staff left the department.

"Who is responsible for that?" he asked.

Dr McCormick replied that it was "the system" but continued: "We are the system - we can't blame the system.

"The system is what we, the leadership, make of it.

"So the responsibility for this lies with me personally in relation to the oversight of the department.

"There are enough indications in what we now know that there should have been action taken on some of the warnings."

RHI inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien asked Dr McCormick how he tried to strengthen the department's accountability systems when he joined. He admitted that he probably didn't "stress test" the system enough.

In terms of where RHI went wrong, the senior civil servant pointed to initial design failures "which look like human error" and the failure to act on direct warnings.

Had a few things been done differently, it would have made a huge difference, he said.

Sir Patrick said there had been an absence of any type of project management system.

"Even I as a poorly informed lawyer see the need for controls and warnings and they were there from the word go," he said.

Only two officials drew up the RHI scheme and operated it during the first 18 months, compared to a team of 77 civil servants working on a very similar scheme in Britain.

Asked about possibly inadequate resources to do the job, Dr McCormick said it was "impossible" to defend resourcing levels.

The senior civil servant was quizzed about why the RHI scheme wasn't reviewed after its first two years of operation as finance officials at Stormont had planned.

He said there could have been a lack of understanding by civil servants about the need for the review. None of the civil servants most closely involved in RHI had worked in a finance role, he added.

But Sir Patrick said you didn't have to be an accountant to realise such responsibilities.

"I agree. It isn't rocket science," Dr McCormick said.

Referring to evidence he has given to the Public Accounts Committee about the RHI scheme, Dr McCormick said: "We have to hold our hands up to many mistakes at official level in relation to the way the scheme was constructed all flowing from the auditor general's report. That is the main thrust of my evidence."

The senior civil servant was questioned by the inquiry panel on whether he had enough technical knowledge and he said he came from a generalist background.

"Our balance has been too much in favour of generalism and not enough in terms of depth of expertise," he said.

The RHI scheme was mentioned in his first day brief as he took up post but there was no detailed debate on the issue.

The scheme was not brought to his attention until almost a year later in May 2015.

Belfast Telegraph

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