Belfast Telegraph

Stormont department unqualified to operate RHI project, probe told

By Allan Preston

A finance official has said her department at Stormont wasn't qualified to run the Renewable Heat Incentive.

On Day 20 of the inquiry into why the green energy scheme failed, retired civil servant Bernie Brankin said she didn't realise how badly mismanaged the project's finances were until 2015.

The RHI scheme, launched in 2012, had been intended to encourage business owners to switch to green energy, but a lack of cost controls meant some exploited it by burning excessive amounts of fuel.

With the overspend predicted to run up to £700m over 20 years, the public fallout caused the collapse of Stormont.

Ms Brankin had worked for DETI's financial division between 2011 and 2015.

Problems with RHI's potential overspend began to emerge in 2015 and the PwC consultancy firm was hired to carry out an internal investigation.

Ms Brankin told it at the time that DETI wasn't qualified to carry out schemes like RHI.

"Yes, that's my view and it is still my view," she told the inquiry.

Questions were also raised about a 2011 email sent to DETI from the Treasury about how the RHI scheme in Britain was operated.

The email explained that if the department in charge of RHI overspent, it would face a 5% penalty and the Treasury would not foot the bill.

Concerned that the same cost controls were not being replicated in Northern Ireland, Ms Brankin passed on her concerns in an email to Alison Clydesdale from DETI's energy division.

The inquiry also heard yesterday from Mike Brennan, the head of the Department of Finance's central expenditure division at the time.

Mr Brennan admitted he wasn't aware of the gravity of the overspend problems until 2015 and said that a lack of clear direction on overspend from the Treasury led to officials drawing "inferences and conclusions" which led to a "cocktail for a perfect storm".

News also emerged yesterday of a second whistleblower from the private sector who warned DETI officials that the scheme was being exploited.

Documents on the RHI Inquiry website show the renewable energy company Solmatrix contacted DETI to warn of "unscrupulous beneficiaries".

Previously it was believed only businesswoman Janette O'Hagan had brought these concerns to DETI civil servants.

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