Belfast Telegraph

Stormont's financial staff were not qualified to do job, RHI Inquiry told

By Brett Campbell

A former Stormont finance director has told a public inquiry that most staff in government finance divisions lack the qualifications to do the job.

Trevor Cooper, who chaired a committee meeting which resulted in the then Department of Finance and Personnel granting approval for the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme in 2012, made the claim as he appeared before the probe into the botched energy scheme for the third time yesterday.

Inquiry panel members struggled to keep straight faces as they probed how officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) had mistaken RHI spending forecasts for agreed budgets.

The exchange led to chair Sir Patrick Coghlin having to apologise for finding the mismanagement of public money "a source of amusement".

Mr Cooper said he believed that a lack of qualified accountants across all Stormont finance divisions played a role.

"I think there's an issue... where finance teams don't have finance experts in them," he said.

"They are being asked to do a job which is unfair to them."

He also claimed finance officers spent "around 70% of their time" implementing cuts and trying to identify savings.

He accepted mass confusion over a series of email exchanges in 2014 and 2015 led to numerous opportunities being squandered.

Mr Cooper failed to account for why no one ever sought written confirmation of budgets or clarity on regulations despite widespread ignorance of how the Treasury's annually managed expenditure scheme worked in practice.

Dame Una O'Brien said it did not "make a lot of sense" that Mr Cooper, who lacked policy experience, did not attempt to discuss Department of Energy and Climate Change regulations with colleagues within Deti's energy division, who would have been "steeped in detail".

It prompted her to question if there was "a culture of not engaging with junior staff", but Mr Cooper insisted there was not.

He also accepted that there was "total confusion" over what was discussed in budget meetings due to the volume of retrospectively added notes to official minutes.

Concerns grew in spring 2015 when Deti energy officials became alarmed by a surge in RHI applications and began to pose long overdue questions to its finance division. But emails seeking "urgent" clarification were ignored until the latter part of May.

Mr Cooper agreed the slow response was "absolutely not" acceptable and conceded budget fears should have been escalated to the permanent secretary Andrew McCormick, but they weren't.

However he did say that he "verbally" informed his superior, senior finance director Eugene Rooney. Mr Cooper said he "cannot remember" Mr Rooney's reaction, prompting Sir Patrick to note that he believes he would have expressed "at least some mild interest" in the serious budget crisis.

The inquiry continues.

Belfast Telegraph

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