Belfast Telegraph

Public spending watchdog lambasts incompetency of Civil Service at RHI Inquiry

By Allan Preston

The head of Northern Ireland's public spending watchdog has blasted the Civil Service for a culture of shortcuts and a failure to manage taxpayers' money.

Giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry yesterday, Kieran Donnelly, comptroller and auditor general of the Audit Office, said he believed the scandal had exposed an urgent need for reform.

The inquiry panel also heard scathing criticism from another auditor, Michael Woods, who headed the team that investigated the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), which set up RHI.

He said civil servants in charge lacked a basic understanding of how to manage public money, and that officials broke the rules by keeping him in the dark about warnings from a whistleblower.

Mr Donnelly told the inquiry panel it was "clear to me that value for money isn't front and centre in the minds of just too many civil servants".

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin suggested changes could include education in commercial matters for civil servants and more expert supervision for high-risk schemes like RHI.

Mr Donnelly told him this would require a "very special type of leadership" and a "massive change in behaviours".

He added that complex areas of work like RHI needed specialists, even if this meant paying more to bring them in from the private sector.

A lack of note-taking has been a recurring theme throughout the inquiry.

In previous sessions civil servants said notes weren't taken of key meetings for fear the details would be leaked to the Press.

Mr Donnelly said keeping a public record should be a basic function of the Civil Service.

"I do get very annoyed and I'll make a big deal of it," he said of occasions when he discovered meetings about key government decisions were unrecorded.

He said there was also a culture of cutting corners to meet targets.

With RHI, the target was met to increase the use of renewable heat, but he said the flawed method led to a "perverse consequence" of putting more carbon in the atmosphere.

When Mr Donnelly learned the scheme was being abused, with farmers heating empty sheds to earn more money, he initially thought it was a fraud case.

It was only then that he realised how loose the RHI regulations were.

"A lot of what was going on might've been compliant with the letter of the scheme, but was driving a coach and horses through the purpose and spirit of the scheme," he said.

Appearing earlier before the panel, Mr Woods said Deti officials had failed to tell him "there was a fire" over cost controls with the botched green energy scheme.

RHI was set up in November 2012, with Mr Woods joining Deti's audit team in August 2014.

At the time he said there was no audit strategy for RHI.

Sir Patrick (right) asked if there was nothing to alert the audit team to the "risky, volatile, unpredictable" scheme.

Mr Woods replied: "That is my understanding."

The limited information they did receive in 2015, he said, was not enough to alert them "there was a fire".

He said officials also broke the department's anti-fraud policy by failing to tell them about allegations from a whistleblower.

Jeanette O'Hagan had repeatedly told Deti officials between August 2013 and March 2015 that RHI was being abused.

Mr Woods said the failure to share this with him showed a lack of "openness, objectivity, honesty and leadership".

He added that Deti officials had been so "fixated" on trying to secure extra funding for RHI at the time they did not address the flaws.

He said the notion that spending more public money was not the best option "didn't seem to really be at the forefront of people's thoughts".

Initiating an audit, Mr Woods said it was "pretty obvious" there were no proper risk controls and there was no simple way to suspend or cancel the scheme.

"To say I was frustrated during that audit would be an understatement," he added.

He said he drew a blank from officials over basic questions, such as how RHI was value for money. "They didn't seem to understand where I was coming from," he said.

The inquiry continues.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph