Belfast Telegraph

RHI inquiry hearings delayed - extra staff brought in to review 880,000 documents

The start of public hearings for the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry has been pushed back a month after almost 900,000 documents of evidence were submitted.

Chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin announced that oral hearings as part of the public inquiry which was due to begin next month - will now start on Tuesday November 7.

He said the "mammoth" task of reviewing the huge number of pages of evidence meant the hearings had to be delayed but extra staff had been brought in to cope with the workload.

They will be held in the Senate Chamber of Parliament Buildings in Belfast.

DUP leader and former first minister Arlene Foster, whose role in the scheme was at the heart of the political row that triggered the collapse of power sharing at Stormont, is not anticipated to give evidence until the new year.

Sinn Fein has repeatedly indicated its unwillingness to return to any coalition government with Mrs Foster as first minister until her actions related to the RHI are examined by the inquiry.

She has insisted she acted correctly throughout.

Sir Patrick outlined the revised timetable at the latest preliminary hearing of the inquiry at Stormont.

He revealed that so far more than 880,000 pages of documentary material had been processed by the inquiry’s legal team.

The Inquiry is determined to act fairly towards those with whom it interacts

Sir Patrick had said in June that he hoped to start the sittings in early October but given the "mammoth task to review and assimilate this documentation" it was not possible.

Extra staff have been recruited in order to carry out the work ahead of the hearings and even when they start, he said a "considerable amount of investigative work remains to be done".

Sir Patrick said: “The Inquiry is making extremely strong progress in working its way through the documents which have been provided to it, and collecting evidence relevant to these matters which it must consider; but the size of this task, given the breadth of the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference, should not be underestimated.”

He said since the last preliminary hearing, 23 organisations or individuals had been granted enhanced participatory rights, which will also enable them to be legally represented.

They include the consultants who advised on the scheme, civil servants who played significant roles in the creation or running of the scheme, the two ministers responsible for the Department of Enterprise during the key periods the Inquiry is considering, and a number of special advisors.

Sir Patrick said: “As I have consistently made clear, the Inquiry is determined to act fairly towards those with whom it interacts, and to adopt flexible procedures to ensure that this is so. The granting of enhanced participatory rights is one facet of these commitments.”

He added: “By and large, the Inquiry has been impressed by, and grateful for, the cooperation which it has received from those who have been approached by it.

“We acknowledge the efforts being made by those concerned in order to allow the Inquiry to proceed with its work, and we are hopeful for, and expect, the same efficient cooperation all round as we progress to the public hearings phase of our work. All those concerned have a duty to the public to ensure that the Inquiry can conduct its work efficiently, effectively and expeditiously.”

BACKGROUND

Established in November 2012, the RHI scheme was an attempt to increase consumption of heat from renewable sources. It was found to have paid more to boiler owners than the cost of the fuel. Auditors said there may have been potential fraud in order for some owners to profit from the scheme.

It landed the Executive with an estimated £490m overspend over the 20 year duration of the scheme. However, the Department of Economy later admitted that figure was exaggerated by at least £160m.

The scandal ultimately led to the downfall of the Executive and the current political deadlock. An inquiry has been established in order to examine the detail of the scheme and how it was allowed to get so out of control.

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