Belfast Telegraph

Value for money at centre of RHI assessment, claims finance official

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Value for money was at the heart of assessing the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, a public inquiry has been told.

Defending the approval of a business case for the botched green energy scheme, Rachel McAfee said she was satisfied with the level of scrutiny provided.

Ms McAfee, an economist at the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) economic approval branch, said: "I think that the level of scrutiny I would have given it would have been reasonable, fair and just."

She was questioned for more than two hours by counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC during an evidence session at Stormont.

"In terms of assessing the business case we are looking for value for money but it is based on the evidence presented at the time," added Ms McAfee.

The RHI scheme was designed to encourage green energy use by giving businesses a financial incentive to switch.

But the flawed scheme meant users could actually benefit from needlessly burning energy.

It has been estimated that the scheme could have ran up an overspend of £700m.

Ms McAfee explained that despite staff shortages, she spent several days examining a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) request for £25m submitted in 2012.

She accepted the accuracy of budget assumptions and took "comfort" from the fact there would be a scheduled review after four years, the inquiry heard.

"In terms of my role and my scrutiny, when a business case would come to DoF or DFP as it was, I would have given a detailed scrutiny," Ms McAfee said.

"Clearly not as detailed as what would go on in a department that would be very close to the detail, but that's why I would seek the assurance from the department. DFP, or DoF as it is now, is very much the last point of scrutiny when it comes to looking at business cases."

Meanwhile, it also emerged Treasury officials could be asked to explain why they did not tell civil servants here about restrictions to RHI funding. Although they cannot be compelled to participate, they may be asked to attend to say what, if any, help was provided to those designing the energy scheme.

The call comes after a letter sent to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which ran an equivalent initiative in Great Britain, in 2010 highlighted that any overspend would impact on the departmental budget, and another DECC document told of "critically damaging" consequences of not imposing cost controls.

Similar warnings were left out of communications with the Northern Ireland departments, the inquiry heard.

Joseph Aiken, junior counsel, said the omission may not have been intentional. "It may be something that just slipped through the net," he said.

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