Belfast Telegraph

Spike in RHI applications came after officials shared 'inside information'

By Brett Campbell

The RHI scheme could have been suspended before a huge spike in applications that occurred in 2015 as a direct result of Deti officials sharing "insider information", a public inquiry has been told.

The inquiry yesterday heard how 16 of the 18 planned amendments which had been publicly consulted upon in 2013 were stripped out in May 2015 to address cost concerns.

Deti's former RHI scheme manager Stuart Wightman continued his fourth day of giving evidence yesterday.

Inquiry counsel Joseph Aiken expressed concern that there were "no records" of the decision-making process, which was carried out without informing then minister Jonathan Bell.

The action to insert cost controls into the scheme came after the department's finance officials warned the RHI team to stop spending.

"We still thought the scheme was worthwhile," Mr Wightman said.

"The idea of permanently closing the scheme was never on the table."

Mr Wightman said the senior team were focused on addressing irregular spending, which he described as an "earthquake" within the department.

But Mr Aiken said it was only one of a "litany of problems" that emerged at the time and did not get the required attention from senior officials.

"There were other earthquakes," Mr Wightman replied.

Mr Wightman said he was never part of any process informing Mr Bell of serious budget problems but said it could have been raised by someone at a higher level.

Mr Aiken said poor communication meant Mr Bell did not have the chance to "come back and say 'let's just shut this down'".

Responding to Dame Una O'Brien's observation of a "striking" lack of contact with the minister, Mr Wightman insisted there was no attempt by officials "to make things look rosy".

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin asked if the decision to drop the vast majority of planned changes to the scheme was a "panicked reaction" due to "sudden embarrassment" over the apparent overspend.

"Panic is not an inaccurate word, it certainly describes how I was feeling in that period," Mr Wightman replied. But he insisted officials did "present the facts" to the minister.

Mr Wightman agreed with Mr Aiken's observation that no public consultation was required to close the scheme until April 2016.

Instead, the Assembly would only have to pass a minor amendment to legislation allowing a "de facto suspension".

"It just wasn't thought about," Mr Wightman said.

In June 2015 Deti civil servant Seamus Hughes met Terence McCracken of the renewable energy firm Innasol to discuss the scheme.

"We were a bit too open," Mr Wightman admitted.

Mr Aiken said the manner in which information was relayed and soaked up allowed Innasol to identify "a short-term opportunity for volume" until November 2015.

Over-sharing of imminent changes also resulted in Dennison Commercials having 11 biomass boilers installed within 19 days, despite Deti's belief that the process would take three months.

It emerged that in late June 2015, Mr Wightman had shared details of the detrimental consequences of planned changes with Fergal Hegarty of the renewable energy firm Alternative Heat - Mr Hegarty had then informed Dennison Commercials.

Sir Patrick expressed concern that a Government body "rapidly running out of money" would engage in such discussions.

"There is a sense of naivety looking back," Mr Wightman said.

He accepted that sharing "insider information" spread within the renewables industry and contributed to the huge spike of applications in September of 2015.

The inquiry will sit again on June 18, when Mr Wightman will return.

Belfast Telegraph

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