Belfast Telegraph

RHI: Civil servant denies trying to hide truth of scheme costs

Advice: Jonathan Bell
Advice: Jonathan Bell

By Staff Reporter

A top civil servant yesterday denied watering down a warning to a Stormont minister about a looming multi-million pound overspend on the bungled Renewable Heat Incentive.

The botched green energy scheme set up in 2012, which allowed participants to profit by burning more biomass than they needed to, could end up costing the UK taxpayer almost half-a-billion pounds.

John Mills, the head of Stormont's Energy Division, admitted to a public inquiry he had changed a 'stark' warning about likely overspend costs in advice being sent to then Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell.

However, he denied his changes were a bid to hide the truth about the runaway costs of RHI.

"There was absolutely no intention to conceal or to make the picture rosier for the minister," the official told the RHI Inquiry, which is chaired by former Appeal Court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.

This is not Mr Mills' first appearance at the hearing.

Earlier this year he told the probe that in his view the NI Civil Service did not have the capacity to manage a scheme as complex as RHI.

"There was no 'off switch' in the RHI scheme," he said in his witness statement.

"If I could change one thing about the RHI it would be not to do a separate Northern Ireland scheme."

Yesterday's session of the inquiry also heard how the electronic records system at the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) was difficult to use and did not always keep together all documents relevant to a specific issue.

Mr Mills told the panel that the Deti's TRIM system was great "if you know what you are looking for".

Sir Patrick expressed concern that a department that was in charge of trade and commerce appeared not to have an information and document management system which could be relied upon.

"If that's right, it's a terrible indictment of the department's administrative system," he said.

The RHI scheme was set up to encourage businesses to shift to renewable energy sources by offering a proportion of the costs to run eco-friendly boilers. But in Northern Ireland the subsidy tariffs were set too high and without a cap, so it paid out more than the price of the fuel.

The botched scheme sparked a political row that resulted in the collapse of Stormont in January last year.

The inquiry panel was set up to establish the facts and to investigate why the costs spiralled. Next week it will examine senior figures from leading poultry processing firm Moy Park about its role in RHI.

The poultry giant's former chief executive Janet McCollum - who has just been made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for her services to economic development - will be among them.

Belfast Telegraph


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