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Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017: Motion to Delay

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 5:30 pm, 16th January 2017

The sitting is resumed. The next item of business is a motion to delay the debate on the draft renewable heat incentive regulations.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 16, adjourns the debate on the draft Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 until Monday 23 January 2017.

It hardly needs to be said that this is an incredibly serious issue, given what it has done to us collectively over the last number of weeks and what came to pass almost exactly one hour ago. Let me emphasise that this is not party political; this is about the integrity — Members may snigger, but this is about the integrity — of these institutions.

It is about starting the process — it would be only a very small step on a long journey — of restoring public confidence in devolution.

I will use language that I have thought through carefully. The renewable heat incentive scheme is a debacle. That is not my word but the First Minister's. What the public probably think of these institutions, and of us collectively because of RHI, is probably not fit for parliamentary language. Why delay? Very simple: it is at no cost to the public purse. The £85,000 a day that we are burning off because of the overspend continues, even if these regulations are agreed today or next week, until at least 1 April. That is over £6 million. However, there will be no cost to the public purse if we wait for one week. In waiting for one week, the Minister has opportunities. Specifically, there is an opportunity for the Examiner of Statutory Rules to give a definitive view on what is being proposed. We do not have a definitive view from the Examiner. Reference was made to Standing Order 43. The proper way to do business — the good way and the best-practice way — is to get the view of the Examiner.

The Committee for the Economy would also have the opportunity to consider and scrutinise the legislation. The Minister and permanent secretary were before that Committee this morning. All that the Committee could do was to note the legislation, not approve it. There is no business case for it, and the Minister made clear that he has been working on it for a long time. Another seven days gives him the opportunity to complete it.

Finally, the European unit can give a view on whether it is compliant with European legislation. Let us remember that the regulations make clear that they will take effect from 1 April or when the European Union says that it is happy that they do not contravene state-aid rules.

There are four very solid reasons for why we should delay for a week at no cost to the taxpayer. Given that this is about good governance, the argument is made. Let us adjourn until Monday 23 January.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 6:00 pm, 16th January 2017

The whole House will be aware of the public concern over, interest in and anger about the renewable heat initiative. I certainly support the Minister bringing the regulations before the House, because, along with an independent inquiry, one of the things that the public want to see is cost controls. They want to see the cost of this brought under control. The regulations brought by the Minister will help to do that.

We met as a Committee this morning, and the timings for all of this have not been ideal. We would like to have had more time for the Examiner of Statutory Rules and the Committee to have a look at the legislation so that we can give it some of the extra scrutiny that it needs. That is not always possible, however. When we began our debate this afternoon, we were not aware of how long we had left in this Assembly. That has now been clarified, and we now know that the Assembly will not be dissolved this week but that we will have an opportunity to meet next week. Doing nothing on this is not an option. However, to delay for one week is a reasonable request, and I believe that it will give us time for some of that extra scrutiny that the Member who spoke previously mentioned.

Therefore, we are content to support the adjournment. We want to see the regulations go through and believe that it is right that they should. The Secretary of State has afforded us an extra week, so we believe that we have more room in which to do that. It is important that the regulations be brought back to the Chamber next Monday so that Members can have their say and a vote can take place.

I want to bring up something that was said during the debate by the Member for South Belfast Mr Ó Muilleoir. He talked about other parties' dereliction of duty. I look around the Chamber, just as I sat in Committee, and it seems to me that there is only one party that has abdicated its responsibility, and that is Sinn Féin. It has not been prepared to come to Committee and do the work and scrutiny that should be done on this.

I certainly hope that they will change their mind and play a role in the Assembly. The public are not interested in some of the party political back and forth that has been going on. They want to see a solution to this.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

They want to see costs controlled. I believe that we can do that through these regulations, so let us use the next week to scrutinise that further.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

As the SDLP's economy spokesperson, I welcome the opportunity of the extension. I doubt very much if any Member drove to work today in the hope that we could genuinely plug the hole in what is an £85,000 per day haemorrhage to the public purse. Sadly, even though I arrived here with an open mind and a positive outlook, I watched the day unravel. I listened to the Minister, who presented to us a case. He expressed his regret that there had not been time to get the agreed business case and that we would not be able to follow normal scrutiny process, and he put it to us that the decision would have to be made in the absence of good legal practice. Members of my party, including me, were very uncomfortable with that, weighing up the balance of the loss to the public purse with the request that was put in front of us to carry out a piece of work that would be highly irregular, face legal challenge, no doubt, and maybe cost the public purse beyond anything we could begin to calculate or anticipate.

Things have moved quickly here today, as you will appreciate. I listened then to the Finance Minister give a very moving speech, although I am rather cynical that it was on the sniff of an election, about how he has great concerns about the public purse, as do I. He has great concerns, and he used the opportunity to list things that were of precious importance to him — things that did not appear in the draft Programme for Government. He made clear to the House that he believed the right and proper thing to have done would have been to stop the loss of that money to the public purse. Herein, we are agreed. We all agree that the further haemorrhaging of this money from public finances should be stopped in any way possible. I therefore put it back to the Finance Minister: be true to your word. Show the House that you were genuine in your words. Along with the Economy Minister, show your constituents and the people of Northern Ireland that you are genuinely minded to save the public purse the money that is being lost. Anybody who was genuine in their position would use this week wisely. They would put public interest before any party political interests that are already evident in the House.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I will be relatively brief, as I made a number of points in relation to this potential direction of travel in my remarks in the main debate. We are operating in the dark, essentially, in relation to the viability of this approach being the best way forward. A delay of a week provides the opportunity — I stress that it is no more than an opportunity — to cast at least a little light on a range of important issues. I welcome the fact that DUP Members are willing to go along with a week's delay. In the context of deep public concern and lack of confidence, that is at least a very small gesture in the right direction, but welcome nonetheless in that process. It is incumbent, however, that the week is used effectively. I am sure all Members of the Economy Committee will be very keen to make themselves available to engage with the relevant stakeholders and again, once more, with the Department. I certainly hope that the Minister and his senior officials will make themselves available to engage further with the Committee, if we have the opportunity of that further week. The week should be used extremely wisely.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Speaking as the Deputy Chair of the Economy Committee, in the continued absence of Sinn Féin, I welcome the opportunity for the Economy Committee to provide more detailed scrutiny of this statutory rule. It would give us great opportunity to get the Minister and the permanent secretary back, to take the detail of the business plan, which we have not had a look at yet, and to have the draft PwC report presented to us so that we are able to provide some detailed scrutiny. We may be able to call directly on key stakeholders like RHA NI, the Ulster Farmers' Union and other groups. It will also allow very clearly, as my party leader pointed out, for the Examiner of Statutory Rules to take the opportunity to report to us, having had appropriate time to be able to consider the rule.

I suspect that we will also consider the issues around the economic impact, take views on the understanding of what the European dimension is and what it is likely to be, and apply, even at this short final stage, more effective scrutiny for the Assembly and, more importantly, for the people of Northern Ireland. I support the motion.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

As things stand, the Green Party is unable to support the proposals brought forward by the Minister for the Economy, so we welcome the opportunity of an adjournment so that we can glean more information on them. The Minister has asked us to gamble on his proposal — gamble that it will save us more money in money not lost to the RHI scheme and save us more money than it will cost in potential legal cases, and I think that that potential is great. I have to say that, right now, the Green Party is not minded to gamble on a DUP Minister's assurances at this time.

The Minister appears to be trying to dig the DUP out of a hole of its own making. He has stated clearly that these proposals would have to face the scrutiny of the EU, and I think that he does so knowing that they will not pass muster. I think he does so in the hope that he will be seen to put forward a proposal to deal with this debacle that the DUP has created and that the EU will shoot it down, because he knows that it is unworkable. He has record on this; he previously sought to blame the EU for his failed attempt to woo United Airlines with public money to get it to stay in Northern Ireland. He said that the EU blocked it, but United Airlines came out and said that, in fact, it chose to leave.

The Green Party proposes instead a windfall tax and asks the Minister to take the extended time that he has been given to explore the option of 100% tax on excessive profits as a result of RHI. Under our proposals, claimants would only receive a maximum of the cost of wood pellets, thereby removing the incentive to heat empty sheds and burn heat needlessly and to ensure that there was no cash for ash. It would be fair, legal and protect public money. I support the motion to adjourn today's debate so that such a proposal can be considered.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

There is nothing to be lost and potentially something to be gained by an adjournment. This matter has been bounced upon the Assembly with incredible speed and without any of the routine or attempted scrutiny that would normally be expected by our Standing Orders and by due process. There never was a need to rush it, because the Minister has known since the day he came into office that there was a major issue here, as did his predecessors for months before that. Yet if there had not been the BBC 'Spotlight' programme, and if we were not facing into an election, I suspect that we would not have this proposal at all, because there was a laissez-faire attitude of, "Let's brush it under the carpet" until it became uncontainable in consequence of the 'Spotlight' programme.

What we were to debate today should have been tackled months ago but now it is rushed at the very last minute. It is right and appropriate that, if there is another week, it is taken so that some semblance of scrutiny can be given to it and we can address it on a more proper footing than hitherto. I support the motion.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP 6:15 pm, 16th January 2017

Given that this incurs no cost to the public purse and allows us to see whether what is occurring is legal — there are, rightly, many concerns around Northern Ireland — it is only right that we take the time to get this right rather than rush it.

Many people have asked me why, in 20 years of elected politics, I spoke for the first time in the fashion that I did. I would like it read into the record of the House that I spoke for the first time in the fashion that I did because journalists were able to conclusively prove to me that they had contacted the Democratic Unionist Party's press office day after day after day and were being fed back misinformation that Jonathan Bell was unavailable.

I also want a very major concern read into the record of the House that an instruction went out from DUP special advisers John Robinson, currently special adviser to the Economy Minister, and Andrew Crawford, the current special adviser to Michelle McIlveen, to try not to get Arlene called to the Public Accounts Committee, but:

"under no circumstances allow Jonathan Bell to be called".

These matters need to be deeply investigated —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Mr Bell, we are moving outside the scope of the renewable heat incentive.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

With an adjournment of a week, I am saying that these matters can be investigated in this week alongside the very first piece of information given to me in a ministerial office by the DUP party officer who was appointed as a special adviser, Timothy Cairns, which was that I would not be allowed to reduce the tariff on the scheme because Timothy Johnston, the special adviser to the then First Minister, and John Robinson, at that time the DUP director of communications and now the special adviser to the Economy Minister, had such extensive interests in the poultry industry that it was not allowed to be on my ministerial agenda. I have the information, Mr Speaker, and I have kept the records in many formats. This party has suspended me for telling the truth while I gave the First Minister, the deputy leader and the chairman of the party all the information —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Mr Bell, we are way outside the scope of the motion.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

— about people who are sitting beside them and behind them and much more serious offences.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Mr Speaker, will you just confirm that Sinn Féin is not speaking on the motion?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

There is no indication from Sinn Féin that it wishes to speak on the motion.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

It would have been useful to hear from Sinn Féin. I also note the absence of the Economy Minister. I thank Mr Lyons, Ms Bradley, Mr Farry, Mr Aiken —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Will the Member give way? I just want to clarify the situation. We have been very consistent on accountability and transparency and on stopping the flow of public money into this scheme. People have been very patient. You have asked for a tactic in order to look at further scrutiny. That is our position. I thought, even going by some of your own comments earlier, that we were speaking ad nauseam so, hopefully, that has clarified it again.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Thank you very much.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Right. I thank Mr Lyons, Ms Bradley, Mr Farry, Mr Aiken, Mr Agnew, Mr Allister and Mr Bell for their comments, and I thank Sinn Féin for the clarification.

If we had done it today, we would have had 74 days until we could bring in these cost controls. It goes down to 67 days although, again, I stress that that is dependent on the European authorities saying that it is compliant with state aid; that must remain an open question.

Finally, once again, over the next seven days, we can hear from the Examiner of Statutory Rules, and the Committee can look again and, as Mr Aiken says, take on board the PwC report. We can have a business case from Mr Hamilton, and we can hear from the EU unit on its presumably preliminary discussions with the European Commission.

If we were an irresponsible Opposition, we would not have tabled this motion. We would have said, "Let the Executive play fast and loose with the public purse. Who cares about £85,000 a day?" If we had been an irresponsible Opposition, we would have wanted to hear a lot more than the two minutes and 32 seconds that we have just heard from Jonathan Bell MLA — he has whetted my appetite for the debate when it resumes next Monday — but no. On this day, as the Executive parties bring the mandate crashing to its knees four and a half years early, you have a responsible Opposition holding the Executive to account.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 16 adjourns the debate on the draft Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 until Monday 23 January 2017.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask Members to take their ease for a moment.

The House took its ease from 6.21 pm to 6.25 pm.