‘Unfortunate’ that RHI flaw was missed
The senior civil servant who oversaw the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has said it was "more than unfortunate" that she failed to spot the fundamental flaw in the botched scheme that brought down Stormont.
Fiona Hepper was head of the renewable energy team at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was set up.
She told the inquiry that her team relied on work by consultancy firm Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA), which was responsible for carrying out an economic appraisal and setting the scheme's tariff. CEPA carried out an assessment on a grants-based scheme for installing biomass boilers and a subsidy scheme similar to the RHI initiative in Britain.
This report recommended subsidy tariffs - which were higher than the cost of biomass fuel. This mismatch in costs appeared to ultimately be the flaw in the scheme as it gave people a financial incentive to burn fuel.
CEPA claimed in a final draft report that DETI had indicated the local RHI was the department's preferred choice.
This was denied by Ms Hepper, who said that she was "surprised" when she read that statement, and that at no point was CEPA told of a preferred method.
She explained that work on the scheme was carried out by two staff members, one of them part-time. Ms Hepper told the inquiry they did their best to scrutinise the findings of the economic appraisal, although they didn't spot the major flaw.
"It's more than unfortunate that we did not pick up the error that they made," she said.
Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin expressed concern over a submission that was discussed between Ms Hepper and then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster in 2011. He said a lot appeared to have gone on in the meeting that wasn't included in her submission, making it difficult for the panel to address whether "fair and full information" was given to the minister.
Senior counsel David Scoffield put it to Ms Hepper that CEPA's advice wasn't "accurately reflected in the submission".
However, she told the inquiry that it was explained to the minister during their meeting.