My Lords, very much along the lines of the previous speakers who have addressed this issue, I will start with a word or two about rates. The inequity is that domestic rates have yet again risen by 4.8%, whereas commercial rates have risen by 1.8%. While we continue to pay Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly for being idle as far as their public impact is concerned, the ordinary ratepayers—not least those on minimum wage—are being exploited by our so-called streamlined local government. We reduced 26 local councils to 11 in order to save money but, as my colleagues have already pointed out, local councillors are barely known; they are detached, and their decisions are made in enclosed committees and are merely accepted as faits accomplis in full council meetings.
When I was a councillor during direct rule, things were different. We had Secretaries of State—experienced politicians, such as the late Jim Prior, Peter Mandelson and Tom King, to name but three—who knew their councillors and worked through them, and who, bluntly, took no nonsense. I thought I was in a minority, but I am relieved to find that I am not, when I say: let us stop this current pandering to Sinn Féin and let us reintroduce active direct rule with the likes of those three I have just mentioned—there were others—for periods of 12 months, with an obligation on Assembly Members to give four months’ indication if and when they are prepared to assume the responsibilities for which they sought election. That means that if, on
A second point that has not been made tonight is on the issue of accountability, concern and caring about our nation—that, sadly, has been missing, at least in that part of our nation to which I belong and from where I come. Why have I not yet received straight answers to my Written Parliamentary Questions of June, September and December 2017 about the scandalous proxy voting scandal that saw the number of applications for proxy votes rise from just over 2,000 in 2010 to almost 12,000 in 2017—a 555% increase? It was a ploy that succeeded in Sinn Féin unseating all the SDLP sitting Members—Durkan, McDonald and Ritchie—with respective proxy vote increases of 806%, 677% and 434%, and in Ulster Unionist Member Tom Elliott losing in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Bluntly, it is fairly obvious—I do not include the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, in this—that, in general, the Government did not give a tinker’s curse. They dismissed the outcome to some vague and never followed-up exclusive responsibility that was passed to the Chief Electoral Officer and the PSNI, without, as far as I am aware—no one has ever bothered to update me on this—a single successful prosecution; that is, if any even occurred. How could they when few were pursued and those whose votes were violated were informed that they—elderly ladies—would be obliged to appear in court to give evidence against Sinn Féin? Most would still see that in historical terms as the Provisional IRA camp. No doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, will endeavour to enlighten our Chamber—if not today, by next week.
Of course, the most hurtful element within the debate this evening is that of the renewable heat initiative. That brings me to the infamous RHI con game being played against bona fide farmers who were induced to invest huge sums of mainly borrowed money. I will not enlarge on what my colleagues, the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Kilclooney, and others have so graphically explained, except to point out that I was shocked to find Northern Ireland Members in the other place being so utterly mealy-mouthed in their acquiescence to this proposed legislation a week ago.
I will, however, put on record the letter written to the banks by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, when she encouraged and endorsed the very scheme that the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is blithely dismantling. I will also acquaint your Lordships with one brief letter of the dozens I have received from despairing farmers who literally fear for their and their family’s futures.
First, the Minister wrote to the banks in these terms and I think it is important that this goes on the record so that next week we will know exactly what promises were made—promises now being broken. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wrote:
“I would also like to draw your attention to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which my Department launched in November 2012. This scheme supports the installation of renewable heat technologies in businesses throughout Northern Ireland. Under the RHI, eligible and accredited technologies can expect to receive quarterly payments for the lifetime of the technology (to a maximum of 20 years). The level of payment will be dependent on the heat output of the installation and the eligible tariff for the specific technology. The tariffs have been calculated to cover the cost difference between traditional fossil fuel heating systems and a renewable heat alternative. The tariffs account for the variances in both capital and operating costs, as well as seeking to address non-financial ‘hassle’ costs. In addition, a rate of return is also included on the net capital expenditure to ensure the renewable energy technology is attractive to investors. The rate of return has been set at 12% for all technologies incentivised under the NI RHI (barring solar thermal which has a rate of return of 6%). These rates of return reflect, amongst other things, the potential financing costs of the investment. Tariffs are ‘grandfathered’, providing certainty for investors by setting a guaranteed support level for projects for their lifetime in a scheme, regardless of future reviews. However they will be amended on a yearly basis, for existing installers and new schemes, to reflect the rate of inflation. DETI believes that the RHI is a real opportunity for consumers and investors to install new renewable heating systems and enjoy lower energy costs and ongoing incentive payments. Traditionally the operating costs of renewable systems have been less than conventional oil systems however the capital costs have been somewhat prohibitive. The RHI aims to bridge that gap and provide a return on investment.
It is intended that the NIRO and the RHI will help to incentivise the market to achieve the ambitious renewable targets mentioned above. However, I am aware that in many cases the uptake of the schemes is dependent on potential installations being able to access the appropriate finance to cover the initial capital outlay. I am therefore writing to encourage you to look favourably on approaches from businesses that are seeking finance to install renewable technologies. The government support, on offer through the incentive schemes, is reliable, long term and offers a good return on investment. If you would find it useful, DETI officials would be happy to arrange a seminar for financial institutions, to explain further the current and proposed financial mechanisms.
Your support in working towards a more secure and sustainable energy future would be much appreciated”.
That was signed by the Minister.
In contrast to that, I will conclude by mentioning one letter that I received from a farmer who I know and trust—a middle-aged man with a young son who hopes to succeed him on the farm. He wrote:
“It was this time last year I emailed you regarding last year’s cuts. I know you did your best to try and stop it. I believe the latest bill is going before the House of Lords on Tuesday. This one must be stopped. It will be nothing but mental cruelty to hundreds of participants and their families. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the first cuts in 2017. I also have had to get the help of Rural Support. My costs (bank repayments, servicing and extra electricity) not including wood pellets are approx. £65,000 per year, and now I will receive approx £8,000”— he has four burners. He continues:
“Could you please lobby other members of the House of Lords on our behalf as I am not great at using the computer”.
He borrowed £205,000 over a five-year period. Noble Lords can work it out; he is paying about £47,000 or £48,000 per year to repay that. He has been hoodwinked.
I will stop there but will add only that as a Parliament, we cannot do other than meet our moral obligations to RHI investors.