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Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 4:30 pm, 16th January 2017

I rise to respond to the Minister for the Economy's proposed statutory rule. First, I would like to state that today, with me acting as Chairman, the Committee for the Economy looked at the regulations but decided to note them because of the lack of information that had been presented to it. However, I welcome the attendance of the Minister and the permanent secretary at the meeting this morning.

The legislation is aimed at reducing the considerable burden created by the ex-First Minister and the Minister's Department on the Northern Ireland taxpayer. Just to reiterate, that burden has cost £85,000 a day today and every day since its institution. It is also noteworthy that, despite the ex-First Minister being made aware of the failings of the scheme in 2014 and the Departments that she had held responsibility for having singularly failed to taper, cap or in any way amend this potential £0·6 billion maladministration, only now, in this last available afternoon — "Stand fast" any opportunity to examine this into next week — has any serious attempt been made to extricate us all from this debacle, a debacle for which responsibility lies wholly with her and her party.

The question of proper accountability and responsibility lies wholly with the properly constituted, time-bounded public inquiry under the Inquiries Act. That is not today's subject. Rather, we are discussing the fast-track — I hate to use the word, but it is appropriate — sticking plaster SR that the Minister has brought to the Assembly this afternoon.

Regardless of the views that might be expressed today, it is clear that an attempt must be made to resolve the financial and reputational implications of the RHI scheme, but only — I mean "only" — if the scheme proposed has any chance of success. The Minister has set forth his proposals, but, as we are all, unfortunately, aware, he, his Department and the ex-First Minister have demonstrated time and time again that the Departments are not fit for purpose when it comes to the overspends on the social investment fund (SIF) or RHI, never mind the detail or the jot and tittle. The ability of Ministers and SpAds to budget or even to read a balance sheet would be of considerable use.

At this point, I ask the Minister to make a categorical apology to the previous Chair of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, Patsy McGlone, and to the members of that Committee who have been very unfairly maligned by him, the ex-First Minister and members of his party who implied that the previous Committee did not effectively scrutinise the original Bill. Some Members and Ministers may consider that a party political point, but I categorically assure him that it is not. It is about the effective scrutiny of legislation, a scrutiny that we cannot carry out if we have insufficient information. The Minister talks of lessons learned, but, in reality, we should talk about lessons identified because, clearly, nothing has been learned.

Returning to the specifics, I say, as Acting Chair of the Economy Committee, that, after the Sinn Féin representatives disgracefully absented themselves from the proper holding of Ministers to account, we are in a position today in which we need to be able to discuss the significant issues. No matter how belatedly, I was able to discuss some of the RHI issues with the Minister on Saturday, for which I thank him. Along with the permanent secretary, I was also able to talk to Mr Michael Doran, who represents RHANI. As we have heard from the Minister, it would be useful for Members to listen to some of the opposing views, as represented by Mr Doran.

RHANI strongly opposes the proposed legislation and believes that an effective audit followed by rigorous implementation of the rules would be a better approach. It clearly believes, on the basis of precedent and senior legal counsel's opinion, that it has a strong case in law and, on implementation of the regulations, will seek an urgent judicial review. RHANI is grateful to the Minister and the Department that, after it threatened an injunction against the Department, the Department decided on Friday not to publish the names of the recipients. Looking forward, RHANI believes that preventing the construction of two planned 800-megawatt CHP plants, which look to somewhere over £160 million in potential payments, would make a considerable difference to the overall bill.

RHANI also believes that the economic impact on small and medium businesses, especially those in the agribusiness sector, will be that they face bankruptcy, having, in many cases, taken out loans averaging around £0·5 million without adequate compensation, especially as those companies sought the loans from banks at the behest of Departments, which emphasised time and again Arlene Foster's commitment to the scheme in letters that she had written to the banks. Today, as Acting Chair, I also informed the Economy Committee that, if we had had sufficient time, I would have liked to call Michael Doran to the Committee so that we could have some more information.

In Committee today, it was clear that the Minister had no clearly agreed business plan. I was going to call for the Finance Minister to outline today his views on the business plan going forward, and maybe he will give us some of his perspectives later in the debate. I do not believe that we have an agreed business plan, and that is a considerable concern.

Unfortunately, and again without any detail from the Minister for the Economy, we have no baseline information. I know he made considerable reference to facts and figures recently that obviously may have come from the draft PwC report. We have not been able to see the draft PwC report, so we cannot see any effective baseline or make any judgement on some of the decisions he is going to make today.

In normal circumstances, some leeway would be given to an effective Minister and Department. However, I think we all agree that, clearly, neither the Department nor the Minister have proved to be fit for purpose, and the laggardly way in which they have acted throughout this mandate, with freedom of information requests unanswered, 120-odd days to answer questions and the almost dearth of any papers, information or discussion with the Department or Minister, means that, through the Minister's action, there is only a very limited amount of goodwill or confidence in his statements.

That said, in the midst of the crisis, the Minister and the permanent secretary appeared before the Committee today. For that, despite all that has gone before, we are grateful. It was interesting that, when pressed, the Minister made clear, as did the permanent secretary, that he was confident of having a business plan approved and they were both confident in their legal advice.

I then asked, and I will now ask again, bearing in mind the considerable public anger at their collective failure, whether they would take full responsibility for this SR and whether, if it was successfully legally challenged and the impact would lead to even more loss to the public purse and our reputation, they would both, forthwith, stand down from public office. The response in the Committee is widely available on social media and in Hansard, but again I say to the Minister that, having given the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland his assurance that the scheme is fiscally and legally sound, in the event of a successful legal challenge, he should tender his resignation from public office immediately. I think any further obfuscation will tell all the people of Northern Ireland just how much confidence the Minister has in his own decision-making process.

Other notes of interest during the Committee meeting today were the several points that are worthy of wider dissemination before the facts around the RHI scheme are submerged under the combined DUP disinformation campaign and further exacerbated by the propaganda of Sinn Féin. We welcome an assurance from the Minister that an independent audit of the Northern Ireland renewable schemes will be carried out, and we think, quite rightly, that this is supposed to be clean energy scheme — a scheme that is clean not only in the sense of renewable energy but clean from corruption, malfeasance and incompetence. We look forward to an early statement and an early independent audit of the state of the Northern Ireland renewables industry because I think all of us will require some confidence going forward that this is, in fact, fit for purpose.

The Minister also stated — I thank you for restating it today — that the scheme was badly flawed from the beginning. Whilst during the Committee meeting he was at pains to defend the ex-First Minister, it is clear that the intent of the scheme was to provide an incentive of around 12% for biomass boilers. Instead, the scheme claimants made returns of 20%, 30%, 50% or even more. That was allowed to go on despite whistle-blowers and so-called supervision from his Department. I note he has made comments about the reduction in the level of subsidy we are going to see going forward. It would be useful to see what percentage figure his Department is looking at and whether it is, in fact, 12% or more.

The Minister also indicated clearly —