Belfast Telegraph

Top civil servant: fear of leaks meant crucial RHI meetings not recorded

 

By Allan Preston

Stormont meetings about the Renewable Heat Incentive weren't recorded for fear they would end up in the papers, a top civil servant has said.

Dr Andrew McCormick was in charge of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) when it launched the failed green energy scheme in 2012.

In a second day of questioning, he told the RHI Inquiry there was a culture of "very limited record keeping" in the Civil Service when problems emerged in the summer of 2015.

This included one crucial meeting about delaying the introduction of cost controls for RHI.

Dr McCormick said Stormont officials were worried "if you write something down it'll probably appear in the newspapers".

His written evidence added that any document, no matter how private, could be leaked and the situation was made worse by the tensions between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Inquiry panel member Dame Una O'Brien said this meant that those left to implement decisions were forced to guess what policy-makers were thinking.

There was disbelief among the inquiry panel when Dr McCormick added it was common for ministers at the time to tweet from the Executive room, which should have been a private space for government work.

Inquiry chair Sir Patick Coghlin said the public would find this shocking, and asked if it breached the ministerial code of conduct.

Dr McCormick said there were rules on this, but it was politically difficult to enforce.

Sir Patrick said: "There cannot be, from a public point of view, a positive perception of the political process if that occurs."

Dr McCormick said devolution had been running for a decade at Stormont, but this was still a relatively short amount of time for the parties to find "a mature way of working".

In the summer of 2015 it became clear to Deti officials the RHI budget was spiralling out of control.

Plans were introduced to cut the inflated subsidies by October 2015, but Dr McCormick said DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns pushed to delay this by a month.

He admitted that Deti officials only put up "very slight" resistance at the time.

When cost controls were introduced in November, a spike in new applications went "beyond Deti's control".

Jonathan Bell, the DUP minister in charge at the time, claimed he wasn't informed about the increased uptake.

Dr McCormick said Mr Bell did have some awareness, but said Deti officials "could have and should have" given him more detail at the time.

Before November it had been more lucrative to install multiple smaller 99kw boilers.

Inquiry counsel David Scoffield said applicants quickly realised afterwards that installing larger 199kw boilers was the new way to get the maximum tariff.

Dr McCormick admitted that Deti had again failed to understand how the market would respond. "The word 'streetwise' comes to mind - we weren't streetwise," he said.

Mr Scoffield put it to Dr McCormick that by February 2016 there was a "false sense of security" that the new regulations of November 2015 had done a good job.

"Yes, I think that's true," Dr McCormick said. Even though less heat was being produced overall, it was still costing as much per unit to the taxpayer. Dr McCormick agreed this ultimately had a limited effect on budget control.

During his evidence Dr McCormick also told the panel of great "anxiety" in Deti after Arlene Foster requested delaying an Assembly debate on passing the new cost controls for a week. He said the delay could have cost an extra £2.6m annually for 20 years.

Mr Cairns had also told him at the time that not enough businesses in Fermanagh, part of Mrs Foster's constituency, had been able to apply. Dr McCormick agreed he should have scrutinised this more closely.

The inquiry continues.

Belfast Telegraph

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