Belfast Telegraph

Senior civil servant says DUP advisers 'kept vital RHI information from him'

By Allan Preston

The top civil servant who was in charge of the Renewable Heat Incentive has told a public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme that DUP advisers kept vital information from him.

Dr Andrew McCormick was the permanent secretary of the Department for Enterprise (Deti) which launched the RHI in 2012.

He faced extensive questioning yesterday about the summer of 2015, when serious concerns emerged about the scheme's cost controls.

During his evidence to the RHI inquiry, he claimed DUP special advisers, or 'spads', Timothy Cairns and Andrew Crawford knew the reality of the risks but deliberately did not inform him.

Dr McCormick also faced uncomfortable questions from the panel about why he and other senior officials failed to pick up on multiple warning signs.

In July 2015, Andrew Crawford wrote to Timothy Cairns to outline the dangers of a spike in RHI applications and the abuse by some poultry producers.

Dr McCormick said this meant they had an obligation to act, calling it "an incredible lost opportunity" as it was "crystal clear" they understood the problem.

Panel member Dame Una O'Brien asked if the special advisers were keeping the information from him.

"Yes, that's what happened," he said.

"It seems very clear to me that it is withholding information that was relevant."

This contradicted previous evidence by Mr Cairns, who said he raised the matter with Chris Stewart, Dr McCormick's deputy at the time.

Mr Stewart said he'd been told of a potential spike in RHI applications and of allegations the scheme was being abused.

Dr McCormick said his officials would have picked up on this if Mr Cairns had been more direct.

Inquiry counsel David Scoffield, however, said it appeared that unless Deti officials were given highly direct evidence "not very much gets done".

Earlier in his evidence, Dr McCormick was asked if he felt let down by his officials.

"I feel we've missed a big opportunity, that seems to imply a collective responsibility on all of us to have fought more, asked more," he said.

"This element feels like a collective failure."

He added: "I should have had a better grip on detail."

Panel member Dr Keith MacLean challenged this, saying "it's not really nitty gritty" but a fundamental principle of the scheme.

Explaining the thinking in Deti at the time, Dr McCormick said officials had been caught up in "a celebration of success" after a huge spike in RHI applications in the summer of 2015.

The apparent success had followed years of frustration over a low uptake, but they failed to realise the scheme was being abused.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin raised the matter of how some industry figures promoting RHI that year using leaflets with the phrases 'cash for ash,' and 'burn to earn'.

Asking how this failed to be reported back to Deti officials, Dr McCormick declined to comment in detail as he said this could jeopardise an ongoing disciplinary process.

During the summer of 2015, the renewable energy firm Solmatix sent a letter to Deti officials.

It warned some "unscrupulous beneficiaries" were taking advantage of the scheme while many within the poultry sector were going further and actively exploiting it.

Dr McCormick said that he wasn't made aware of this, but that it should "absolutely" have been passed to the internal audit as well as to senior managers.

Until relatively recently, he said he thought the only whistleblower was Janette O'Hagan who warned Deti of abuse to the scheme.

"Some knew and didn't tell. Those who knew and tried to tell us deserve credit and shame on us for not having noticed," he said.

Yesterday's evidence also focused on an urgent submission made to the Deti Minister at the time, Jonathan Bell, in July 2015 about the need to address cost controls.

Asked if this was appropriately red-flagged, Dr McCormick said: "No, the word urgent is not sufficient in this context."

He said the submission took nearly two months to turn around, when it would normally have taken Mr Bell a week.

"He could be quick when he wanted to be. At one stage in September 2015 we saw him clear 10 submissions in 10 minutes," he said.

"I'm not sure how much they were read, he was at the other end of a phone. I have my suspicions on that."

Mr Bell had previously said the delay was because he was not made aware of this before going on holiday that summer, or immediately when he returned.

Dr McCormick said Timothy Cairns had shown a reluctance in processing the submission, but admitted there was no reason civil servants didn't raise the matter with Mr Bell directly.

Belfast Telegraph

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