Belfast Telegraph

RHI inquiry could cost £1.7m more - report highlights 'red risk' alongside Brexit

By Jonathan Bell

The RHI inquiry could cost £1.7million more than was first estimated, it emerged yesterday.

The Department of Finance said that £3.1m has already been spent on the investigation into the botched renewable energy scheme.

Officials had originally estimated that the total bill would be £5m, but the figure has now been revised to £6.1m to £6.7m.

The department said that costs had increased because "the volume of evidence required by the inquiry has resulted in the oral hearings continuing to the autumn of 2018".

A spokesperson added: "Inquiry costs are reviewed on a regular basis by both the inquiry and the department."

The mounting costs have now resulted in the inquiry being identified as a major risk to government finances, alongside Brexit.

The Department of Finance's annual report and accounts list the bill as one of four serious "red risks" faced by the department in terms of unknown future expenditure.

The others are Brexit, reform of property management and the delivery of a shared services project through human resources.

The RHI scheme - set up by the then enterprise minister Arlene Foster - was found to have been seriously flawed.

The lack of caps on tariffs meant subsidies exceeded the cost of the fuel, creating a "burn to earn" incentive.

At one stage the department estimated the potential overspend to be £700m, but cost measures have been put in place to reduce that figure and Stormont officials maintain future expenditure will be within budget.

The scandal was one of the factors in the collapse of the Stormont Executive last year.

The RHI inquiry was established by outgoing finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir and it was suggested an interim report could be produced within six months.

However, in setting out the process, inquiry head Sir Patrick Coghlin ruled out any swift resolution to the proceedings given the "mammoth task to review and assimilate" the hundreds of thousands of documents and the investigative work required.

The inquiry had its first preliminary hearing in April 2017 and is currently on a summer break.

The Department of Finance's annual report states that it has developed an internal action plan to address the "preliminary lessons learned from the RHI Inquiry". The report also notes how the department's objectives for the year were hampered by the absence of a minister.

Preparations for the devolution of corporation tax, completing a major business case for the delivery of a wide-ranging staff management project, and data protection regulation updates were all impacted.

"Despite the difficulties faced, the department continued to deliver the majority of the business plan targets while maintaining service delivery in challenging times," wrote Private Secretary Sue Gray in the report's introduction.

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