I beg to move
That the draft Renewables Obligation Closure Order (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.
This statutory rule is being made under powers contained in the Energy (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which prescribes that this order must be laid in draft for approval by affirmative resolution of the Assembly.
The Northern Ireland renewables obligation, or NIRO as it is known, has been the main support mechanism for incentivising renewable electricity generation in Northern Ireland since 2005. The NIRO has been instrumental in increasing renewables deployment in Northern Ireland from 3% of renewable electricity consumption in 2005 to just over 25% now. This significantly exceeds the Executive’s ambitious Programme for Government target of having a fifth of our electricity generated from renewables by 2015. I take this opportunity to commend the renewables industry and infrastructure providers for helping us to reach that impressive figure.
I now move to the business at hand. In March last year, we issued a consultation on the proposed closure of the NIRO. That resulted in the partial closure of the NIRO to non-wind technologies in autumn 2015. On 30 September last year, I issued a further consultation on closure for onshore wind projects of all sizes from 1 April 2016. That followed similar announcements in Great Britain. The consultation proposed exceptions to closure in the form of grace periods for projects that were able to meet specific criteria.
Some 477 responses were received from a range of stakeholders, including members of the public, independent generators, developers, trade associations, energy suppliers, and non-governmental organisations. I thank everyone who took the time to respond. A large number of responses objected to the proposed closure, but around 20% were supportive. The majority of objections were from small-scale wind developers. The large-scale sector, whilst unhappy with the proposals, was keen for the legislation to be progressed in order to secure financial closure.
Following the closure of the consultation, and in acknowledgment of the concerns raised, I wrote again in November 2015 to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change seeking further flexibility on the closure of the NIRO to small-scale wind generators. Her response offered no further concessions on eligibility dates or criteria. She reaffirmed her position that, if Northern Ireland diverged from GB policy, she would seek to protect GB consumers by de-socialising the costs of Northern Ireland projects that do not meet the eligibility criteria set out in the consultation document. Indeed, provisions have been included in the Energy Bill to allow for that.
The provisions, if passed, will allow the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to make regulations restricting the tradability of certain Northern Ireland renewables obligation certificates (NIROCs), meaning that GB suppliers cannot use them to meet their renewables obligation. That means that the market for such non-redeemable NIROCs would be limited to Northern Ireland. I understand that DECC intends to apply its provision in the Energy Bill only to NIROCs that do not meet the eligibility criteria set out in my consultation of 30 September 2015. In light of the DECC decision, the views expressed by the Committee and the responses to the consultation, I have decided to take a two-stage approach to closure to onshore wind, separating large- and small-scale onshore wind.
I have decided that the NIRO will close to new large-scale onshore wind-generating stations from 1 April 2016, in line with the 30 September consultation proposals. That means that projects that meet the approved development grace period eligibility criteria of being able to demonstrate that they have an accepted grid connection offer, relevant planning permission and evidence of land rights, as of 30 September 2015 for non-cluster connections and 30 October 2015 for cluster connections, will be able to accredit their stations up to 31 March 2017.
In addition, if those projects meet the eligibility criteria for the radar or grid delay grace period, they can seek accreditation up to 31 March 2018.
A further nine-month investment freezing grace period will be available to projects that can demonstrate that they have been unable to secure financial investment during the period between DECC’s announcement on 18 June 2015 and when the Northern Ireland legislation comes into operation. That grace period is being introduced in Great Britain, and I think it only right that projects here can have similar access. Projects that qualify for just the investment freeze grace period will have until 31 December 2017 to accredit under the NIRO. Projects that also benefit from the radar and grid delay grace period will have until 31 December 2018 to accredit.
I have decided to initiate a further consultation on the closure for small-scale projects. The NIRO will, therefore, remain open for the time being for small-scale projects until further consultation is completed. The consultation will need to be set against the backdrop of the potential effect of the DECC provisions and the implications of restricted NIROCs in the market. It is my intention to issue the consultation as soon as possible.
The proposed closure order will provide the legislative certainty that large-scale onshore wind developers require to secure financial close. Hopefully, that will enable those projects to proceed to deployment, further enhancing our renewables contribution.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister.
When the Renewables Obligation Closure Order first came to the Committee on 30 June last year, it was a closure order for all technologies covered under the NIRO. The Committee was informed that the legislation had to be rushed through to provide certainty to investors in one particular energy-from-waste project. It was clear at that time that the Department had not fully considered the wider consequences of the proposed legislation and, in particular, the impact on consumers.
The original proposals, which deviated from GB proposals and allowed for the continuation of the NIRO for all onshore wind projects up to 2017, would, by the Department’s admission, have added up to £16 a year to bills for domestic consumers and up to an average of £30,000 a year to bills for average large-scale electricity consumers. The Department was unable to provide the Committee with any figures for savings or benefits to consumers that could accrue from having the legislation in place or for the cost associated with the administration of the scheme. The Department had conducted no consultation on the impact of the proposals for onshore wind on businesses or domestic consumers here.
The Committee suggested dealing with the two separate issues by way of separate legislation. However, the Department stated that the legislation was about closing the NIRO to everyone rather than a piecemeal approach. For the record, we have three types of approach now — two anyway; potentially three. The following week, on 2 July, Committee members and I met the Minister and asked that he explore the possibility of separating the legislation to give certainty to those who needed it urgently and to give time to consider the costs and benefits of other options for consumers and developers in respect of onshore wind. We were told emphatically that that would not be possible.
On 9 July, the Department came to the Committee again. At that stage, officials informed the Committee that the Department had taken legal advice that outlined the reasons why decoupling the legislation would not — in fact, could not — be feasible. It later transpired that the legal advice was in the form of what was referred to as an informal request for information. I do not know whether that was a packet of cigarettes, a packet of matches or what it was, but it was what we were supposed to rely on.
The Department also informed the Committee on 9 July that there had been a fundamental change on the issue of costs as:
"an unexpected and very significant policy change was announced by DECC", which would mean that projects already in the system would be permitted to connect until March 2018. Under close Committee questioning, the Department had to concede that there was no basis for that statement as no evidence existed in any papers from DECC that that was the case. Eventually, on 8 September, the Department brought proposals to the Committee for the closure of the NIRO to all non-wind projects, thus allowing the certainty needed for those who required it urgently and allowing time for adequate consideration to be given to proposals for the closure of the NIRO to wind projects. That course of action had first been proposed by the Committee in June.
Had the Committee not intervened on 30 June, the Department would have been content to put in place legislation at a total estimated cost of up to £35 million per annum for the next 20 years for all electricity consumers. To put that in context, £35 million represents approximately five times the estimated savings per year to consumers here of having the North/South interconnector in place.
At its meeting last week on 8 March, the Committee heard oral evidence from departmental officials on the current policy proposals in the SL1 for the closure of renewables obligations to new large-scale onshore wind generation and additional large-scale generating facilities adding additional capacity from 1 April 2016. The Minister informed the Committee that the intention was to consult further on closure arrangements for new small-scale onshore wind. The SL1 was approved following a Division in the Committee. The statutory rule was considered by the Committee only this afternoon, just one week after the policy proposal came to the Committee as an SL1. By way of a Division, the Committee agreed to recommend that the Renewables Obligation Closure Order (NI) 2016 be approved by the Assembly.
I will now speak briefly in my capacity as an MLA. I have been about the Assembly since 2003, and I genuinely have never seen such poor, badly informed, badly presented and unreliable evidence as we received on this one. It moved with the wind and with whatever interpretation anyone sought to bring to bear on it. It was by close scrutiny by all members of the Committee, acting as a Committee should act here, that we sought to bring some closure to the issue. We were told on 30 June that legislation had to be rushed. Here we are, after a nine-month kind of gestation period, bringing some of it lastminute.com to the Assembly.
I thank the Member for giving way. Tonight, we are asked to back a split decision in terms of the additional consultation. Does the Member agree that the conditions that the Minister has pointed to — the fact that there is potential for restricted NIROCs and question marks around grid connection confirmation — mean that this is not a consultation? The outcomes are extremely limited.
It is a consultation of sorts. I am not sure what the aim of it is other than to consult and kick the tin down the alleyway; nor am I sure that it delivers any form of certainty. The mandate is ending, and the Minister cannot give assurances to the industry as to what way a Minister, whether him or someone else, can deliver on this or how DECC — it is not entirely without culpability in this — might change its position in the intervening period. We just do not know.
We have been presented with alleged legal advice that altered on a whim and moved with the wind. On the issue of decoupling, you often wonder whether you should seek alternative legal advice elsewhere that has substance and meaning and is legal and reliable for us, as MLAs, to depend on.
Large scale, as we see now, is being dealt with separately in a "lastminute.com" approach. Small scale is being dealt with separately, we hope, following the consultation — we hope. However, there is no certainty whatsoever for small scale about what the outcomes might be, given also, to be fair, the shabby way that DECC has dealt with it. It has been kicked down the alleyway.
There is no security or certainty for small scale. For that reason, I and the SDLP cannot support this. We recognise the first part that deals with large scale. It does bring certainty to them. It is probably not the sort of certainty that they would want. However, for the investment potential and projections of their business, it gives them the closure that they require for their financiers and investors. It certainly does not provide that to small-scale developers. For that reason, we, in the SDLP, cannot support this SR legislation.
I think that we all recognise that there has been considerable debate and discussion on this issue in the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. There is no doubt that our renewables sector has made significant progress over the last decade. The NIRO has been a key part of ensuring that our healthy levels of renewable energy production have been met. We are aware of the considerable interest in the closure of the NIRO over recent months.
Onshore wind is a very important part of Northern Ireland's energy mix and by far our leading renewable technology. I am pleased that the NIRO provides a 20-year commitment of support so that existing renewable generation will continue to be supported until 2037, which reflects the level of renewable electricity at 25%, a considerable success considering all the circumstances.
It is vital that, in managing a suitable and realistic end for the Northern Ireland renewables obligation, we get a balance between protecting the interests of Northern Ireland consumers, current and planned investments and the associated economic benefits, and contributing to the Executive's targets on renewable energy. The large-scale sector is keen to get certainty around closure and financial certainty to allow for future investment. The small-scale sector, which affects mainly farmers, SMEs and other renewable investors, has expressed concern about the loss of opportunities to develop projects in the planning and development stage; I think that we all recognise that.
The consultation process on the proposed closure of small-scale wind generation is under way. The Minister will do what he can to make small-scale adjustments that are in line with the rest of the UK. Local consumers will continue to benefit from the socialisation of costs across the UK due to the favourable obligation levels that we enjoy compared with our GB counterparts. The Minister and the Department have been faced with a real dilemma on the way forward, with DECC changing its position following the general election. There is no doubt that this created uncertainty across the sector. I believe that this proposed way forward is a realistic way of ensuring that we deliver for our energy consumers and those in the renewables sector.
Finally, I thank everyone for the experience that I have had in my first term in the Assembly. It has certainly been an experience. Some Members are not standing again, including you, Mr Speaker. You have been a fair Speaker. I also pay tribute to our outgoing party leader, Peter Robinson, to Gregory Campbell and to my colleague Stephen Moutray. Best wishes to all for the future. God willing, we will see most of you back in the not-too-distant future.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As this is also my last opportunity to speak in the Assembly, I pay tribute to you for the role that you have played as Speaker over the last number of years.
In the spirit of generosity that is in the institution tonight amongst most Members, I will not dwell on the Department's role and performance in all this. I think our Chair expressed the concerns and frustrations that the Committee had in dealing with it, and I sincerely hope that, along with the handling of the RHI scheme, serious lessons are learnt in the Department on how to handle such schemes and on its relationship with the Committee.
The genesis of this situation, as with the RHI scheme, was a very abrupt change of position in London with no reference to or consultation with, I believe, this institution. I am not sure whether there were any consultations with other devolved institutions. Amber Rudd was told that she had to reduce the subsidy budget from £9·1 billion to £7·5 billion, and suddenly the switch was turned off from these schemes. That was exacerbated by a decision by the electricity companies to place a moratorium on connections to the grids.
All that and the ending of the renewable energy scheme, on top of the closure of the renewable heat incentive scheme, have left a huge degree of uncertainty in the renewable industry. Despite the fact that the Executive are ahead of their targets for renewable energy, I think it has placed a question mark over the industry in the future and will in turn place a question mark over targets to be met in the future.
I heard what the Minister had to say about that at the Committee meeting today. One of the biggest impacts of the handling of this scheme and the previous renewable energy scheme has been the creation of a huge degree of uncertainty within the industry. I would like to see the Minister address that, particularly in the context of the large-scale industry.
As the Chair outlined, we were told all along that one closure had to be put in place to ensure that the grace period would apply to those schemes and that those involved would be able to see out their business. Is there certainty, now that the Department has gone with a two-phased approach, that DECC will accept that position and that the large-scale industry will get the certainty on the grace period it requires?
The small-scale part of the wind industry is genuinely nervous about a consultation. We want a proper and genuine consultation with the small-scale industry not only to see how it can be assisted over this period but to see what lies in the future for it.
The third point on the renewables industry is that, while both schemes will be brought to a close in the near future, there is, as I said, a great degree of nervousness, uncertainty and worry about investments that have been made, about skills that have been acquired for the schemes going forward and about what it all means for the future of the industry. The Minister, I think, and I am sure most members of the Committee, would feel that the industry has been very successful as it has developed. We live in a part of the world where there is great potential for renewables and where there is already too heavy a reliance on fossil fuels in the production of energy. Surely such an industry has to be supported.
I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate the expertise that the Member has gathered on the Committee over the last number of months since he came back. I welcome that. As with everything, all incentivisation comes at a cost. One thing I am not hearing from the opposite Benches tonight is a balance. Whilst I am not against incentivisation — I am certainly happy about the closure for large scale because we need to bank the 650MW of energy for security of supply — whatever happens for small scale in the future will have to be balanced by the cost to the bill payers, especially our industries and the bills they pay. It will have to be balanced to make sure it is affordable.
That is something that the Minister strove to do over the last number of months. He has been left in a very difficult position by Amber Rudd and the decision by the Conservatives to end the schemes early. It has been a massive and very difficult issue, and we have been able to deal with it tonight.
I agree with the Member that there is a need to make sure that any schemes that go forward from now are sustainable. People within the industry argue that the heat initiative scheme was not sustainable and that it has left the Executive with a substantial cost to come out of the Budget annually for the next 20 years.
We need to make sure.
The larger-scale industries are confident that, in a number of years, they will be self-sustaining. That allows a new Executive in a new mandate with a new Programme for Government to have a fresh look at the targets that they need to set and initiatives that they will take to support the industry in meeting those targets. I do not have any difficulty with that when it comes to getting the balance right, but the industry needs to be supported and sustained. We need to meet those targets, and we are in a good place to do that.
I know that the Minister said in Committee this morning that he was meeting representatives of small-scale wind industries today. It would be helpful if he could update the House this evening on how that meeting went, because, as I say, there is genuine nervousness out there that the consultation will not be as genuine as it should be. We want to make sure that people have the opportunity to state their case clearly and to see whether some satisfaction can be provided for them. Going forward, it is the end of this mandate, and we are into a new mandate. The Executive need to return to this. We need to ensure that the industry does not shut down, because it would be much harder to get it started again. Strong signals of our intent for the future need to be sent now.
When the Minister spoke with the Committee this morning, he talked about our having reached the limits of affordability in our support for the renewable industry. Of course, affordability is a choice. The Executive collectively have a choice between spending all the block grant on renewables, which I do not think anyone would call for or support, and, at the other extreme, giving no further support to renewables, which I certainly cannot support. Unfortunately, that seems to be the vision that the Minister is presenting to us now and, earlier, to the Committee. Between the two extremes, however, there are many options.
We talk about affordability, and Mr Frew rightly made the point about the need to strike a balance between supporting renewables and keeping energy prices at a sustainable level for business and domestic consumers. That is the right approach to take. However, we have to ask what the cost is of not supporting renewables. What is the cost of giving no incentivisation to a sector that, in Northern Ireland, across all forms of renewables, supports in the region of 10,000 jobs? What is the cost of no support? We have heard little about that from the Minister or in the debate so far. We must explore some of the alternatives. I accept that the decisions being made by DECC and Amber Rudd are ridiculous decisions. They are short-sighted and are based on almost a prejudice rather than on any sound evidence of what is good for the economy or, indeed, good for the UK in meeting our responsibilities under the Climate Change Act 2008. However, we have to take responsibility in Northern Ireland: energy is devolved. While we have to respond to decisions made by DECC, we cannot simply throw our hands up and say, "Well, they have decided they are going to cease supporting wind. Therefore, we must do the same". It makes the warm words of support for renewables from this Minister, his predecessor and, indeed, the wider Executive look empty.
The UK initially fully funded the renewable heat incentive, until we messed that one up, and, for renewable electricity, Great Britain carried the vast bulk of the cost of support. We said, "We support renewables. How important they are"; indeed, the Minister even told the Committee today that we must end our reliance on fossil fuels. Where is the commitment to end the reliance on fossil fuels when we are told, "Well, if you want to support the renewables industry you must pay for it. You must carry the cost immediately"? We are told, "It is unaffordable, and it's not something that we are going to choose". I repeat: it is a choice.
I thank the Member for giving way. I think I am hearing him suggest that he would support a Northern Ireland ROC scheme. First, the apparatus is not there to actually sustain that, but, if it was, does the Member realise that it would cost Northern Ireland bill payers maybe £770 million over the next 20 years, which would all come from our businesses and bill payers?
I thank the Member for his intervention. What I sought from the Minister in Committee today and what I seek now is at least an exploration of the options, and I have not even heard a commitment. Maybe, in his winding speech, we will get that commitment. There are options. There is contract for difference (CFD), and, certainly, when I speak to the industry, it is not saying that, if Northern Ireland were included in CFD, projects would be unaffordable here and they would not bid in. That is not what I hear: the industry is saying that it wants CFD in Northern Ireland and wants to bid for projects through that scheme.
I suppose that, for the smaller renewables sector, we have a stay of execution proposed here today for small-scale wind. We could look at whether that is sustainable in the medium-to-long term rather than in the short term, which seems to be what is being indicated. Could we have some form of small feed-in tariff (FIT) scheme? We cannot get access to the GB small FIT scheme, but can we explore something similar? The whole argument about the approach being taken today is that small-scale generation will not add significant costs to bills if we support it. Is that an option? Is there an all-Ireland approach, given that we are in a single electricity market with the Republic of Ireland? Is there some form of all-Ireland subsidy that could be negotiated? While that would take some time, it would, at least, offer the opportunity of a way forward.
I am not saying that we should continue with what we have been doing and just pay for all of it ourselves; I am saying that I accept that what is being presented today might be the least worst option in terms of the position that DECC has put us in, but, at least, let us now say that we cannot rely on DECC — its vision is unsustainable in every sense. We need our own direction for Northern Ireland. Energy policy is devolved. We will take responsibility for it, and we will find a way forward for the renewables industry to thrive here.
There is real opportunity in renewables, and I do not want to see it being wasted. It has come so far, but the approach seems to be that we have done enough and that is good enough. We have a target. We set a target for 40% renewable electricity by 2020, and we should be absolutely proud of how far we have come. Stopping here would be a mistake.
I know that the Minister is under a legal obligation in terms of the gas industry, despite saying that we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels. I know that he is under an obligation to promote the gas industry. To this day, the gas industry, despite being a mature industry, has never been subsidy-free. It receives subsidies when it wants to expand the grid infrastructure, including the £32·5 million direct government subsidy for the Gas to the West project. The boiler replacement scheme is another subsidy, and, indeed, the Ballylumford gas power station received a subsidy through consumer bills that put 1% on bills. Gas has never been subsidy-free. We always hear about the cost of renewables, but nobody talks about the cost of gas to bill payers or through direct subsidy. I will not even start on nuclear; the subsidies there are phenomenal.
The renewables sector is unique. Representatives of the solar and wind industries came to the Committee and said, "We are plotting a path to a subsidy-free future for renewables". Both industries have used 2021 as a target. We have been gradually reducing the subsidy for renewable energy in stages for those technologies as they mature. Even they are setting an end point. Stopping when we can see the horizon seems to me short-sighted.
The Member's point on short-sightedness is good, but he misses the elephant in the room with regard to what we pay in subsidies. Even though that is mighty, it is the actual cost of energy, not the subsidy, that could be the problem that needs to be tackled. I agree with what he said about looking at all the options. Another option is to not necessarily subsidise generation but to look at how we can subsidise the use of the energy generated by containing energy so that we can use it at more effective times. I am certainly not saying that we should throw millions at that, but it is another option that we should look at in the whole scheme of things.
I thank the Member for his intervention. It is good to have this conversation. We used to have these discussions in Committee, but, unfortunately, he was moved from the Committee. I cannot think why that could have been. He makes a good point: demand-side management, energy storage — there are so many pieces to the picture. However, renewables are definitely one part. Indeed, we talk about the cost of energy, but I come back to the cost of not supporting renewables: what will the cost be if we continue to rely on fossil fuels? As supply goes down and demand goes up, we know that the price goes only one way. We need to end our reliance on fossil fuels, but, Mr Speaker, I probably need to end this speech, which was supposed to be a short one.
We need a way forward beyond what we decide today. As I said, this may be the best that we will get in the circumstances, but what we need is what comes next. That is what I want the Department, the Minister, in his limited time left in position, and the new Minister, whoever comes into office, to focus on. It is unacceptable that we stop here.
This has been quite a negative speech for my final contribution of the Assembly term. I hope that it is more of a "See you later" than a farewell, but the electorate will decide that. I came in as such a positive young man five years ago: look at what you have done to me.
I need a bit of renewal myself, as Mr McGlone points out. I remain an optimist. I believe that there are solutions to the problems that we are discussing today. I have not heard them from the Minister or the Department in recent weeks and months, but I believe that a new Assembly and Executive can and should find those solutions.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leatsa, a Cheann Comhairle, as an dóigh ar chaith tú le cúrsaí anseo. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt duit agus gach beannacht a ghuidhe duit as an dóigh chothrom a raibh tú ag déileáil le gach duine.
I wish you well, Mr Speaker, as you move on. Some of us may not be back on 12 May, but I believe that you will be here to chair the first meeting of the new mandate. I thank you for your fairness and the courtesies that you have shown. You had a bit of a reputation, Mr Speaker, for being tough on the Sinn Féin Benches. I have survived, at least until tonight, so I will be on my best behaviour.
I have two quick points. First, you can be sure, Mr Agnew, that support for renewables will continue in the new mandate, whether I am here or not. The big parties — in fact, all parties — are, I think, united in their belief that there needs to be continued support. Let us approach the consultation seriously and look at the options ahead, including, since it is an all-island electricity market, the all-island refit. From my conversations with colleagues, everyone is up for ensuring that we continue to hit the ambitious renewables targets that we have set ourselves.
Secondly, I mentioned to the Minister today that the NIE and SONI moratorium had held up a lot of connections to the grid. Some are intimately connected to job creation and investment, including the Dale Farm solar energy plant in Cookstown. It would be useful if the Minister used his good offices to talk to NIE to see whether, even in the midst of a consultation, there is a way in which we could help some of the key projects that are stuck in the logjam but could have a real impact on jobs and investment. I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to do that today, but I hope that he will come back on that.
I finish by thanking the Committee, its staff and the Clerks for all the help that they have given us. The Chair has shown exemplary leadership. Today, there was a little incident at home, but I believe that Mrs McGlone is as tough as her son and that everything is well there. There is no avoiding the fact that, over the last nine months, the discussion on the issue has been really disappointing, in that the Chair was not treated with courtesy and respect and was not given the information that he asked for over many months. While we will disagree on the vote later, we have a clear approach, and I hope that that continues.
Finally, I thank the Minister. Not all of the cards fell his way in recent months. Not only were there terrible job losses across the North but the goalposts were moved by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in London, and we are paying the price for that. I hope that we will pick up the pieces, move forward confidently, continue our support for renewables and, as we enter consultation with the small-scale providers, come up with a scheme that satisfies them and their customers.
Mr Speaker, in case I forget, I wish you every success. I believe that you will be back here on 9 May, but we will certainly miss you on the election trail in South Antrim. I wish you personally every success.
I came into the Chamber on 28 June. I was honoured to replace Danny Kinahan and delighted to be given the challenge of sitting on the ETI Committee. I take this opportunity to thank the Chairman for the welcome and support that he gave me as a new member who probably did not appreciate the work and the scrutiny role of the Committee; indeed, I extend those thanks to all members of the Committee.
At my very first Committee meeting on, I think, 29 June, the issue of renewables and the NIRO was brought up. In a way, I feel sorry for the Minister. He has always been very friendly to me, and he has probably been let down by Amber Rudd moving the goalposts in Westminster and by the communication of different information. In June, the Minister made commitments based on the relevant information. However, what we have now is a renewables shambles. I believe that DETI officials make up the rules on their way over here: "What will we tell these boys today?". We hear differing stories and differing information. When we question them, we do not get a straight answer. I come from the world of business, and, if I were to transfer some of these experiences to my former family business, I would be bankrupt in three months. It would not be tolerated in the private sector. Decisions need to be made and honoured.
We have failed the renewables sector. A matter of weeks ago, we failed them on renewable heat incentives. We failed them when we gave commitments. In November, we failed them when we gave an understanding — I will not put it more strongly than that, although some might say that we "suggested" it — that the scheme would stay open to 31 March. We are failing them again tonight with the closure of the scheme to large-scale projects. There is to be some type of phoney consultation on small-scale inshore wind projects. It will be interesting to learn what we will consult about.
I am sure that the officials will make it up as they go along, because they have been making it up since June.
I am sorry that I was an optimist. I am not an expert in renewables. Some people understand it, such as my colleague Paul. He has left the Committee, but I used to enjoy asking Paul, "What's this all about?", but he has moved on. Maybe I do not understand it fully yet, but I know this: we have failed. The Northern Ireland Executive have failed and will dress it up with all the achievements and targets that they have hit, but we have failed. For almost eight or nine months, I have sat in a Committee, and it has been like 'Jackanory'. I share Members' frustration. I missed the Chairman tonight, but I am sure that he aired his frustration, which I share. I want to be here, to be optimistic, to deliver and to offer vision for the local economy. I believe that the Minister does as well, but we have failed, no matter how we dress it up.
I almost regret standing, a Cheann Comhairle, but I could not stop myself. Would you say that the decision of Concentrix to build new premises on the Lagan at Maysfield is a failure? Would you say that Allstate's decision to build new premises on the Lagan is a failure? Would you say that the innovation lab of Google and PWC's headquarters on the Lagan are a failure? Has there been any ray of light over the last few months? Of course, all those projects have been supported by the Executive.
I thank the Member, my colleague on the Committee, for his intervention. You are quite right: strategically, we have failed, but the Ulster businessman has delivered, as you highlighted. The Ulster businessman has continued to deliver.
I will finish now. It has been an experience. I wish the renewables sector every success. I hope, genuinely, that whoever is here in the next mandate — I may or may not be here — will not abandon the sector. At this minute in time, there is a lot of frustration, and there is a lot of support, which is needed, to continue our investment in renewables and to move away, as others have said, from fossil fuels and dependence upon them.
Mr Speaker, I have wished you every success. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to make what may be my final contribution in this mandate.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. This is the last time that I will address the House in this mandate. I wish you every success in the future. I thank you for your role as Speaker and wish you God's richest blessings in whatever you do in the future.
I thank all those who contributed to today's debate. Some have generated heat, and some have generated light, but it has been an interesting debate as we made our way through what is a very complex process. I thank all those who have made renewable energy in Northern Ireland such an astounding success. That has been delivered by people in business, industry, households and workplaces who have a vision for what Northern Ireland renewables can be and who have delivered against that vision. I am very proud to stand here at the end of the mandate to declare that the official Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency figures show that a quarter of our electricity consumption is from renewable electricity.
I think that the Chair might have missed out some of the positive points in his speech, but one that should have been included is that almost 17,000 stations have been accredited since 2005. That has led us to exceed our Programme for Government target of 20% renewable electricity by 2015. I happen to be on the Executive. The five parties collectively came to the agreement after discussions. What the Executive agreed to go forward with after listening to all the parties' contributions was that we should hit a 20% target. Having so successfully exceeded that, I want to thank everybody out there who made that possible. We do get a good deal from the Northern Ireland renewables obligation.
I would like to thank Patsy McGlone, the Chair of the Committee. I have paid tribute previously in the House, maybe not on tonight's performance but certainly on others, where he and the Committee have enabled legislation to go through the House in a way that has been constructive, efficient and in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. If the House or devolved government is to mean anything, it is that we have to deliver more to the people who give us the privilege to come here. Thanks to the Chair and Committee.
I will look to some of the issues that have been raised. I believe that the proposed order will provide the legislative certainty that large-scale onshore wind developers require in order for them to have financial closure. I appreciate the comments that Mr Cochrane-Watson made in relation to the changing position from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Let me be absolutely clear that, where changes are made by Westminster, I will always examine those changes and, if the facts change, my position will change if there is a better position for all the people of Northern Ireland. As Minister, I do not get the privilege of being only for one sectoral group or from one position. As Minister, I have to act in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland; what I refer to as the paramount interest of all the people of Northern Ireland. When DECC changed its position, as Mr Cochrane-Watson outlined — as did Mr Gordon Dunne — I am proud to say that I also changed mine. My position will always change when the facts change. When the facts change to afford me to deliver something that is better than what was there before for all the people of Northern Ireland, I think that it is only responsible that I would follow in that vein.
I have had a number of meetings. Mr Murphy referred to them in a very constructive contribution. I have, again, spoken to small scale. Others can dismiss the consultation as they see fit. As my father-in-law, Terry, would say, "You are entitled to your opinion no matter how wrong you are". It is a genuine consultation. It is a genuine attempt by this Minister to see what we can do for small scale. That is why I have chosen the route that I have gone down: I believe that it is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
As Mr Dunne, in a very constructive contribution, outlined, we will seek to look to where adjustments can be made that are commensurate with the GB status, because I have to protect the Northern Ireland bill payer. I have to look towards our manufacturing industry and business. Commensurate with what we can do within the parameters of GB, where there are adjustments and I can be helpful, I will seek to make those adjustments. When we go to consultation, it is a genuine, honest consultation to try to take forward what we can do, albeit within the limits that I have laid out, for small scale. It is for a new Minister and Department to take forward that consultation.
I will say the finest word of thanks to those who have been advising me. Members are not privy to the dedicated hours of advice that I received from my officials. That goes from the permanent secretary down to every man and woman who advised me in DETI. We are privileged to have them. They have worked above and beyond the call of duty. They have gone out with me on early mornings to London to be with DECC and have been with me late into the evenings. At every stage, I have been privileged to see a group of officials act at every time in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland to scrutinise what are some very difficult positions, highly complex legalities and to try to ascertain — they have ascertained — through a very complex set of circumstances a path for Northern Ireland that I believe represents the best interests of Northern Ireland. I put on record, as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, my thanks for their intelligence, forensic insights and the objectivity of their advice. When we deliver on this process, I believe they can take considerable credit not only for the success of Northern Ireland exceeding the target that we all set out but for the success of Northern Ireland in doing the best and in the paramount interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
I will turn to some of the comments that were made. There has been a difficult process. I think that DECC has made that process difficult. I also think that changing positions, having to deal with verbal consultations and then written consultations has been a very cumbersome and very burdensome process for everybody involved. We have sought at every stage, where we could get the certainty people were asking for and required, to provide that certainty.
Many people will look towards the process and the difficulties that there are. I challenge them to look at the target that was set, to look at the excess of the target that we have made and to look with all of us who, God willing, are seeking to be returned to the House, to the future to see what we can do.
I believe in the renewables industry. I believe that we have certain natural gifts in Northern Ireland, including wind, that we can develop, but we have to do it within a context that is affordable for the householder and for business. To anybody who says, "There is an unlimited pot. You can do what you want with it. Put whatever burden you want on business. You can put up the £50·00 on a household bill for every bill payer in Northern Ireland", I say that you cannot. You must be responsible. Everything must be set in context. I believe that this is the most responsible way forward.
We leave a position where targets in renewable heat and renewables have been exceeded. We leave a Northern Ireland with some 5·9% unemployment, which is well below the average of the European Union and below that in Ireland. We leave a Northern Ireland today that is attracting more foreign direct investment than any other part of the United Kingdom, and we leave a Northern Ireland that has 80% of that foreign direct investment coming in and subsequently reinvesting. We leave a Northern Ireland that, on the basis of our costs, is the most competitive in the UK, with 84% average and some 48% or 49% of the costs of London. We leave a Northern Ireland where companies like Allstate have come, which was referred to by Mr Ó Muilleoir. It employs thousands of our people in Northern Ireland, and it will say on the record, "We came, Jonathan, for your costs, but we stayed for your people because the men and women of Northern Ireland are some of the most loyal people, and there is such a small attrition rate that they are highly attractive and highly sought after".
I agree with Mr Cochrane-Watson that it is the working people of Northern Ireland — I might differ and say that it is the working men and the working women — who have made Northern Ireland such a huge success and who can take credit for the fact that we have a very competitive rate of unemployment, more foreign direct investment and a record number of jobs achieved by a highly successful Northern Ireland and for the fact that we go in with the prospect of offering business for the future, from 1 April 2018, the most competitive rate of corporation tax in western Europe.
Mr Speaker, I have thanked you, and I seek your indulgence to thank one other Member whom I have been privileged to know from my Strangford constituency. That is Kieran McCarthy, who will also be retiring from the House. In all the years I have known Kieran — I have known him for well over a decade — I have found him to be a gentleman of the highest Christian principles and integrity. He has been one of the hardest workers that I have been privileged to meet. He has been genuine in everything that he has sought to do. We have disagreed on many occasions, but I respect the fact that we have always disagreed on points of principle and differences in politics, and that his aim has always been to deliver, not just for our constituents in Strangford but for all the people of Northern Ireland. I wish Kieran God's richest blessings into the future. When people say to me, "There are no Christian gentlemen in politics," I tend to answer with two words: Kieran McCarthy.
On the day that is in it, I also say that, although I have recorded many of the successes, it has been a tragic day for Northern Ireland. Tonight, a father has been taken from his children. That is a person who put on the uniform of the Prison Service and served everybody in Northern Ireland without fear or favour. We must remember that, when people put on those uniforms, they serve all of us, and we are deeply indebted to their bravery and their heroism. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, and also with the Justice Minister and everybody in our justice system and Police Service who seek to bring the murdering cowards responsible to the courts in Northern Ireland.
I believe that the proposed order will provide the legislative certainty that large-scale onshore wind developers require to secure that financial close, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the draft Renewables Obligation Closure Order (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.