RHI: Stormont officials kept scrutiny committee in dark, says MLA
An MLA has claimed that Stormont officials kept poultry producer Moy Park well informed about RHI, while the watchdog committee scrutinising the botched green energy scheme was left in the dark.
Patsy McGlone, former chairman of the Assembly's Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) Committee, made the remarks while giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry.
The committee was tasked with examining proposed legislation for the scheme and Mr McGlone was yesterday quizzed by the panel over whether members should have scrutinised matters more closely.
The inquiry has previously heard how Moy Park was kept well informed at various points in 2015 about the progress of the planned changes to RHI that would make it less lucrative.
It has also heard evidence that the poultry industry was the root cause of a surge in applications to the scheme in 2015, when plans were made to bring it under control.
Officials wanted to introduce tariffs in October of 2015 to reduce the level of overly generous subsidies claimants could earn.
However, a further four-week delay allowed a massive spike in applications to the scheme.
Mr McGlone told the inquiry that RHI was presented to his Stormont committee as the "all-singing, all-dancing, new green energy future".
He added: "It appears that others outside the Assembly were much better informed than elected officials, as the inquiry has since found out.
"Perhaps we should have had our meetings at Moy Park."
Counsel to the inquiry, David Scoffield QC, said that while reviews of the scheme were scheduled, the committee had no real briefing of what that exactly meant.
He pointed out that at one stage there was no engagement between the committee and department for nine months.
RHI was to be reviewed in early 2014 when critical flaws would have been flagged and an opportunity made available to assess whether it was offering value for money. However, this never happened.
Mr McGlone claimed that the energy scheme was "repeatedly presented as successful" and no flags were being raised.
He said the committee relied on the department providing the necessary information and that planned oral briefings did not happen.
He said: "It would have been very unusual if the department had continued to promote a scheme that was flawed in any way.
"There was nothing in our briefings to say that there was anything odd with the scheme.
"We clearly know now that there was a whole lot going wrong but that didn't emerge until later on."
The Mid Ulster MLA added: "You are utterly reliant on people being open and professional and giving you the necessary information to make fully informed decisions.
"If people either deliberately or otherwise withhold information, you're left in a position of making a decision that's not properly informed."
Mr McGlone said there was "no sense of urgency" when the department was presenting proposals for subsidies to be cut in the autumn of 2015.
He added that he didn't discover the full scale of the overspend until mid-2016, at which point he said he was "absolutely shocked and astounded".
He said that at that point in time department officials were "trying to hold their finger in the dam and not telling the statutory oversight committee about the scale of problem".
"If the department had come to us with evidence there wouldn't have been a problem with the committee absorbing the details and offering a solution," he said.
Mr Scoffield pointed out that by the time former Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell wrote to the committee in February 2016 about the closure of the scheme, the "situation was shambolic".
He asked Mr McGlone what hindered the committee from getting to grip with issues.
Mr McGlone pointed out that the "free flow of comprehensive, open and proper information" was fundamental to the committee's work.
He added that in hindsight the committee could have done more if evidence had been presented in "a full, proper and professional way".