Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme: Public Inquiry

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 17th January 2017.

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Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 10:30 am, 17th January 2017

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the mounting public concern relating to the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme and the serious allegations of incompetence, corruption and abuse; further recognises the damage caused to public confidence in these devolved democratic institutions; calls for the establishment of a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, to be chaired by a judicial figure proposed by the Lord Chief Justice; believes that the First Minister should stand aside pending publication of the final inquiry report; further believes that the terms of reference should include the development and operation of the scheme, any matter in relation to policy, financial, operation and compliance, the role and conduct of relevant persons and organisations, assess if there were breaches of any relevant code, public standards or employment contract, the response to and treatment of persons who raised concerns, if any person with a potential conflict of interest acted to their own benefit or the benefit of others, assess all RHI applications and report on any actions to be taken in respect of suspected fraud, the suspension and recovery of payments and the future operation of the scheme, make such recommendations as the inquiry believes necessary, including in relation to any issue of potential malfeasance in public office or of suspected criminal activity identified; believes that the inquiry should issue a final report within six months of its commencement, with the provision for interim reports at least on a two monthly basis; further calls for all inquiry reports to be published in full upon completion without requiring the agreement of any Executive Minister, the Executive or the Secretary of State, with copies of any report lodged in the Assembly Library; calls for any case of suspected fraud identified to be referred to the PSNI; and further calls on the Minister of Finance and the Minister for the Economy to bring forward a plan to arrest the liability to the public purse.

Members, yesterday, we gathered to discuss some of the proposals for cost recovery in the renewable heat incentive scheme, and, today, this motion attempts to put in place, finally, a public inquiry to establish who has been responsible for this governance disaster, what lessons can be learned and implemented, and to do so in public, free from political interference or cover-up or the perception of cover-up. If these institutions are falling over this issue, at least in part, and people, we are being told, are to have their say, it is our duty to give them the information to have their say as much as possible. Not the spin, just the facts. Who decided to amend the scheme from Britain? Why were warnings ignored? If warnings were made, what were they? What opportunities were and were not taken to fix the problem? Who benefited from it?

I hear Sinn Féin in the media branding this a meaningless discussion today. That party abstained on the topic of a public inquiry earlier this month in Belfast City Hall, and it looks as if it will here as well. Sinn Féin can brand accountability meaningless, but many will interpret it as another way of avoiding the question: what did you know, when did you know it and what did you do about it? Presumably, their voting to water down an investigation into the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) a few months ago was meaningless as well and not just the character of their opposition to accountability that, to them, is just about sound bites and distraction.

Accountability is, of course, a very important principle in public life; it is the norm in politics around the world — everywhere except here. It seems that a Minister will take responsibility for a disaster in his or her Department. As a minimum, this motion required the First Minister to stand aside for the duration for an inquiry, although I accept that that is now a moot point as we are all being stood aside next week for our sins.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Is it not a shame that we have the same outcome, with Arlene Foster no longer the First Minister, but we do not have a public inquiry? What we do now have is unstable institutions. Surely she should have done the right thing and stepped aside.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I could not agree more. A lot of this could have been avoided by showing humility and by living up to the principle of accountability in public life.

I think that the motion is a fairly comprehensive overview of what we are proposing, but I want to speak to a few specific aspects and address some of the criticisms and concerns that people have stated. Another red herring has been raised, particularly by the party that usually sits to my right but which is absent today. Part of their 12 days of Christmas positions on a public inquiry in the last few weeks was that they said that they did not want a public inquiry, and they brought up criticism by the SDLP, by other parties and by human rights groups, of the 2005 Inquiries Act. That criticism is based on the issue of using national security as a blocker to get to truth, which is a convenient mutual veto that the party beside me benefits from as well. If Sinn Féin could explain what aspect of the renewable heat incentive scheme they think will be used to invoke a national security clause in this inquiry, their protestations would have some weight.

Other deflection tactics were used that this could cost millions and take years, as previous inquiries certainly have, but they do not have to take for ever, and many do not. Some of the first inquiries conducted under similar legislation in the Republic were quick, effective and good value for money. I am thinking in particular of the first Haughey inquiry and of the 1999 deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) inquiry into allegations of tax evasion in the banking sector. That concluded after 26 days, on budget and led to prosecutions; it was a triumph for transparency and public accountability. Yes, some of the corruption scandals have dragged on over the years, primarily due to challenges based on the time that had elapsed, the challenges of compelling private individuals and of getting access to private information. That is also a red herring, as this is a relatively fresh scandal, and almost all those involved, be they elected Members or special advisers or civil servants, are still in post or, at the very least, are still in the neighbourhood and can be invited to come along. All the relevant papers will be — or should be — a matter of record in the Department, so we should not see the same legal battles to compel papers.

Our proposals also suggest that the judge to lead the inquiry be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. We reject entirely the suggestion that it would be appointed by the Attorney General, who is himself a political appointee of this Executive. It is fair to say that that would not have the arm's-length remove that an inquiry would need. The format for the inquiry, as outlined, will facilitate cost recovery from those claims that are found to be fraudulent and can provide the basis for prosecution if malfeasance in public office is demonstrated or if other wilful fraudulent exploitation of the scheme is found. The inquiry should take no more than six months, which we think is entirely plausible, with updates at two monthly intervals. It should not require approval from any Ministers — hopefully, Ministers in the Assembly, or, potentially, direct rule Ministers. One way or the other, the outcome of this inquiry will not be able to be kicked into the long grass, and the outcomes cannot be suppressed.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I appreciate the Member giving way. What she has actually said in all the points that she has highlighted so far is that the terms of reference under which an inquiry is set up could entirely deal with all the bogus objections that have been raised to it. Also, very specifically, in an inquiry under the Inquiries Act, it would not be for Ministers to withhold information; the information would be released by the judge who chairs the inquiry.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member is entirely correct, and that is what is regrettable. We are now on 17 January, and these proposals have been in existence. We have been discussing these particular proposals for going on a month now, and the mechanisms that we need are in legislation. It was always a fallacy that we would create new legislation. The fact that this House is not going to be here after next week makes very clear that we would not have been able to create new legislation. You are absolutely right that we are ready to proceed on this.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member also agree that, considering we could have been several weeks into a public inquiry to establish the truth, with every day that has gone by, £85,000 of the public's money has been squandered? Does she think that that is an absolute shame?

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do. I agree that the loss of public money is a great shame, and also the fact that people are being pushed into an election to have their say on accountability and corruption without actually being given all of the facts. In this society, we have become used to not getting answers, unfortunately, whether that refers to legacy issues of the past or glossing over the alphabet soup of scandals of this Executive around NAMA, SIF, the renewable heat incentive and many others. We need to change that culture, we need to start getting answers and we need people to understand that this Assembly is more than a racket and a farce.

We regret that an election has been forced before we have had the answers on the issue, but, unless parties choose to stand in the way of this motion, it should lead to an inquiry about who knew what and when and what they did about it. Those who do not fear being asked those questions should have no problem in supporting this motion, supporting the inquiry and restoring some accountability.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP

I rise to speak on the motion and outline my full support for an independent judge-led inquiry. Inquiries can take many forms — statutory, judicial or under the Inquiries Act. However, the forum must include full independence, public confidence and sufficient robustness to get to the truth. This must happen as soon as possible.

There have been many allegations and much politicking on this issue across all parties. First, I want to put it clearly on the record that I welcome the acknowledgement of regret by Arlene Foster, by senior officials in their evidence to the Committee and just yesterday, by the Economy Minister. Make no mistake, I clearly understand — we all clearly understand — the significant concern of the public on this issue. As Chairperson of the Finance Committee, my role is in high-quality and prudent guardianship of public funds. That did not happen in this case; mistakes were made. Good policy development and design is critical to ensuring government policies deliver on their intended outcomes. Likewise, we need effective scrutiny to ensure that, if and when mistakes are made in the design, these are picked up and addressed. We all need to step back on this issue and look at it objectively. Yes, there was a failure in policy design but also a failure of scrutiny. The safeguards that we put in place did not deliver. The original scheme got Executive approval, Committee scrutiny and agreement and Assembly scrutiny and agreement, and all of that failed to pick up this flaw in the initial design stage. We need to know why.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP

I am sorry; I have only five minutes, unfortunately. If we are to move —

[Interruption.]

Everybody will get an opportunity.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP

If we are to move to a truly normalised political landscape here, and I believe that is very much what the people of Northern Ireland want, it will require political maturity. The era of throwing tantrums and the toys out of the pram must be left in the past. Mistakes will happen. Our processes are made up of people, and people are fallible, but we need to work collectively — that is our responsibility — not only to prevent mistakes but to find solutions when mistakes happen. We needed calm heads and clear thoughts. The Assembly became fixated on the stepping-aside issue, and we, in my view, should have focused on two things. First, how did this happen? Secondly, how can it be fixed? That is our duty, and it is a duty on all of us.

There have been very many nasty allegations thrown around the Chamber over the last number of weeks and months. Let me say this very clearly: I am not corrupt, and I am not arrogant. I honestly believe that my colleagues and the colleagues who serve in the Chamber are not arrogant or corrupt either. I got involved in politics to serve the people, to do my utmost to use all and any ability I have to do what is right, to be an advocate and to deliver for the people of South Belfast and Northern Ireland. I am saddened that the hunt of one person and stepping aside have been used in a way that is now threatening the very institutions. I do not think that is justified, and, in fact, it will serve only to delay the very necessary inquiry even further. I remain, as I know my colleagues in the DUP remain, fully committed to building a better and shared future for all in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I speak as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. It is not usual for the Chair to speak about an inquiry before the Committee has concluded its evidence and reported on its findings and recommendations. In respect of this precedent, I will not comment in any great detail on the Committee's deliberations beyond what has been discussed in evidence sessions and is a matter of public record. However, I felt the need to speak today to highlight the substantial amount of work undertaken already by the Public Accounts Committee in conducting its inquiry to demand answers on what went so badly wrong in the RHI scheme, how it happened and how it should be fixed.

Although I have been Chair of the Public Accounts Committee for only a short time, I am proud to have held the office for eight months and am proud of the Committee's work in that time. I am grateful not only for the support of the members of the Committee in bringing the RHI issue to the fore in what has been a very challenging time but for making my job as Chairperson easier. Sometimes the experience I have had of being a father of two small children has also helped in the Committee.

I also thank the Committee Clerk and staff for their support, but I pay special tribute to the Comptroller and Auditor General and his team who initially brought the issue to the fore. As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I commend the enormous amount of work the Committee has carried out over the last six months in its inquiry into the renewable heat incentive scheme. Over six evidence sessions, some very serious issues on the design, administration and governance of the scheme have arisen.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member agree with me that it is very strange that the Ministers responsible did not bring this issue forward to the Assembly but that it was left to the Auditor General to uncover it?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for causing me to have an extra minute, but, as I said, I will not be commenting outside that at this stage.

The Committee was briefed by the Comptroller and Auditor General on 22 June on the scale of the problem, which resulted in him qualifying his audited opinion for the 2015-16 financial accounts for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on RHI. That was because a substantial part of the expenditure was not approved by DFP, and he was not satisfied that the systems being operated by DETI were adequate to prevent or detect the abuse of the scheme. Members were shocked by the magnitude of the cost of the scheme, which could cost the public purse £1·18 billion over 20 years.

Key issues that the C&AG reported included that the scheme had exceeded the maximum amount that Her Majesty's Treasury was prepared to fund, that the excess funding would now have to be met from the Northern Ireland block grant and that that significant cost would continue until 2036.

The Committee heard from the Department about how it failed to obtain the required approval from DFP for the £11·9 million of expenditure during a seven-month period between 2015 and 2016. In addition to that, the design of the scheme crucially did not introduce tiering of payments as operated in Great Britain, where a reduced rate was applied after the equipment had been operating for 15% of the hours in a year. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report made it clear that tiering, had it been introduced, would have helped to prevent the potential abuse of the scheme and what has become known as the cash for ash scandal, and we possibly would not be here today.

The Committee heard how there had been allegations of abuse by an anonymous whistle-blower, which, while still under investigation, appeared to point to the lack of controls in the scheme that could have prevented the alleged abuses. The Committee also learned how the administration of the scheme was largely left to Ofgem and that the rate of inspection was very low; actually 0·86% of applications — less than 1% of all applications. Recent inspections by Ofgem of areas of high risk appear to confirm that there are indeed serious compliance issues.

The Committee shared its concerns about the design of the non-domestic RHI scheme and the manner in which the Department had operated and monitored it, which had made it completely vulnerable to abuse. The high level of applications received around the time of the spike and concerns raised by the whistle-blower compounded these concerns and still remain unanswered. It was therefore not surprising that the Committee prioritised RHI to the degree that it has. All other priorities have been pushed to one side to get to the bottom of what has gone so badly wrong with the scheme. Members have worked tirelessly to get answers from all the main players in this sorry saga, from the former DETI accounting officer, who has been before the Committee three times; Ofgem; Cambridge Economic Policy Associates, who were the consultants on the scheme; and another former DETI accounting officer/accounting officer for the Department of Finance.

The key issues raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General have been explored in great detail by the PAC, including the role of Ofgem on the quality and lack of inspections, the poor design of the scheme and the many errors associated with it, which are well-documented in Hansard as part of the proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee's inquiry. The Committee has pursued the inquiry as a top priority and continues to put pressure on the Department to provide answers as a matter of urgency in the interests of transparency, good governance and accountability.

While, in some quarters, the media seem to be taking all the credit for bringing the issue to the fore, it has been the sheer diligence, dogged determination and commitment of the Public Accounts Committee that have spearheaded action to address the main failings of the scheme. During its inquiry, the Public Accounts Committee has put pressure on the Department to take action urgently and address the problem of cost controls. It has pushed for 100% inspection, demanded —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member must draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

— transparency regarding the list of applicants and seeks answers to the alleged abuses of the scheme.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I rise obviously to speak in favour of the motion and, just picking up from the last speaker, to recognise the ongoing role of the Public Accounts Committee in working on behalf of the House to provide accountability on this matter.

For some people, this seems to be evolving into a blame game between the DUP and Sinn Féin before an election on who walked out of the Executive first, how much RHI was responsible for it or whether it was the default on various equality agendas. The bottom line here is that this will be about whether people can have good government in Northern Ireland. Around the world, people expect and, indeed, deserve to have good government. What this means is that there are strong policy outcomes, people are working to deliver on society's needs and there is proper accountability and transparency in government.

Instead, we have a litany of failures by the current Executive on the use of resources, accountability and transparency. There are numerous examples of that. Obviously, with RHI, the costs are enormous. At the same time, we have issues around things like the cost of division, where there is an ongoing cost to the public purse of many hundreds of millions of pounds every year and, if we are using the word "corrupt", the social investment fund, which is a corruption in public policymaking and the use of resources.

RHI has struck a chord with people because they understand the waste of resources. It really relates to their daily lives and struggles and how people are seen to be taking advantage of what has been an overly generous scheme. They can understand what can be described, at best, as being clear incompetence in government. Of course, there may be, and there are suspicions that it is, more than that.

Obviously, there are two parallel discussions that we have to have: one is about mitigation and the other is about accountability. Both need to be addressed. Anyone who says, "Let's park the accountability, we are focusing on mitigation" or people who say, "Let's do the accountability and not address the mitigation" are not doing their job. The two are parallel tracks that go hand in hand.

There are three main questions about accountability that we have to address: the first is the design of the scheme; the second is the way in which whistle-blowers were handled; and the third is the speed — or the lack of speed, I should stress — with which remedial action was taken over the past 12 to 18 months — indeed, even going back further — to ensure that an overly generous scheme is shut down.

There are suspicions that the attitude from government was that, given that this was being paid for by AME money — or so people thought — we did not really have to bother with all of this. But it is taxpayers' money as well, just as much as the block grant is taxpayers' money. In that regard, I am disappointed with the passive approach that has been taken by the UK Treasury and the Secretary of State in their seeing this as purely a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a matter for every single taxpayer in the United Kingdom.

It is important to stress that the request for Arlene Foster to step aside was only one part of this, but it is not an unreasonable request. In any other walk of life, someone who comes under a sustained range of allegations — I stress the word "allegations" — would be expected to go off on what we often call "gardening leave".

Clearly, we are moving more towards a consensus on a public inquiry. The DUP has now come to that late, and anyone who suggests that the DUP has always been in favour of a public inquiry has not been following what has been said. Indeed, we are getting into a slightly Orwellian post-truth politics, where people are making this up as they go along, but the record clearly shows where they have been on this. Even in the past few days, we have seen the DUP leader stressing that a public inquiry will be announced imminently. The clock is ticking, and we have still not heard anything in that regard. I am not entirely sure, though, how a Back-Bench Member of the Assembly dictates to Ministers.

There are a few other concerns that we need to recognise. One of them is the potential politicisation of the Civil Service. I say that with a degree of reservation, but I am slightly concerned whenever we see civil servants' names being quoted as part of political debates and documents being selectively briefed to the media, including references to civil servants, to back up political points. It is something that may come back to haunt us, and it is important across these islands that we preserve the impartiality of the Civil Service irrespective of who is in charge.

Also, the nature of how government is operated is not something that I or my colleague David Ford would recognise as how we did things, with special advisers playing games behind the scenes —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

— and, indeed, special advisers being named. Everything a special adviser does is in the name of a Minister. It is important that that is fully understood and that we have proper collaboration, as we practised in government, between a Minister's advisers and civil servants.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I rise to speak on this item of business that has been brought before the House as an MLA and also a member of the PAC. The Public Accounts Committee has had a rigorous programme of work, and we have gone through a number of months of concentrating on that work and have engaged with a number of those involved in the scheme. All members — I stress all members — of the various parties fully participated in discussion at PAC.

Before the renewable heat incentive scheme was introduced, there were many calls to move away from an over-reliance on imported fossil fuels. There is no doubt that mistakes and errors have been made within the RHI scheme, and that has been acknowledged by Arlene Foster our former First Minister time and time again — she reiterated that in the House on 19 December 2016 — and by our Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton, on a number of occasions. Indeed, Arlene Foster has indicated that she is happy to attend the Public Accounts Committee. She is fully supportive of any inquiry or investigation and happy to appear before it.

Our focus has rightly been on resolving the RHI issue and getting to the bottom of what really happened.

Yesterday, the Minister for the Economy brought his mitigation plans to the Economy Committee and the House. I believe that those plans will be a crucial first step in reducing the burden on our Budget and improving the level of control in the RHI scheme. The lack of control measures and the flaws in its design have been acknowledged, and, indeed, I know, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, that at a recent meeting we heard from the permanent secretary, who stated:

"The intention was good, but the execution and design were seriously wrong."

As has already been mentioned, the consultants whom DETI engaged to design the scheme admitted at the Committee that degression, which would have controlled payments on demand, was missed. They freely admitted that at the Committee.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

No, thanks. There were clear risks from the start in having two bodies involved in managing the scheme. DETI was responsible for the policy framework, and Ofgem was responsible for managing the applications and installations, including compliance. Ofgem, which was working on the ground, did not even have a representative based in Northern Ireland. The other major discrepancy was that there was no pre-approval for applications to the scheme. Audits on the ground were very poor. Only a small sample was carried out, and they were not risk-based. There was poor communication and follow-up on the issues raised during the audits. The scheme presented a clear risk by way of ownership and responsibility. Departmental officials admitted poor management of the scheme, and there was no proper management in place. Project management, which would have involved a process of authorisation, qualification and review were all not adequately in place.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

No, thanks. There was no evidence of a management review by DETI. There was no clear establishment of a risk register that would have identified the major financial risk of overspend in the project. The business case, which was referred to the Department of Finance on 9 March 2012, stated that Ofgem would provide regular management reports that would enable the uptake to be carefully monitored and forecast expenditure to DETI. Again, there is no evidence of that ever taking place in the Department.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

It is important that we get to the bottom of the problem and that corrective actions are put in place to stop a recurrence. The lessons learned from the project should be applied to all Departments.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and to speak to the motion. All Members are aware of the serious public interest, concern and, indeed, anger that have come to the fore over the issue. People are deeply troubled by what is going on, and they want to see action taken.

There are two things that, I believe, the public want to see, and they are addressed in the motion. The first and most pressing is that people want to make sure that the costs that we could incur in Northern Ireland are brought under control. That is, first and foremost, the most important thing that the public want. They have been angered by this — not by the fact that there is a scheme in place but, most of all, by the fraud or allegations of fraud, abuse and waste. That is very troubling for many people. It is important that those costs are brought under control. The motion calls on the Minister of Finance and the Minister for the Economy to bring forward a plan to arrest the liability to the public purse. We, obviously, had that debate yesterday.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Yes, I will give way to the Member.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has indicated his concern about potential fraud in the scheme, and that has been his focus. Does he share my concern that the Auditor General has highlighted that, legally, individuals who burned the wood pellets for 24 hours a day could make a return of 82% or 83% per annum, which is a ridiculous amount of profit? Does he share my concern that the scheme was set up with the potential to make that sort of profit?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is exactly the point that I was making: there is public concern out there over the fact that people were getting so much money not because they were generating heat for legitimate purposes but because they were burning in order to make money. That is the whole point; that is where the public anger is coming from. It is important that we see —

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I will not give way at this moment. That is why it is important that we have the cost controls in place. We will get that done first.

The other issue that we need to address is how this happened in the first place and how we got to this point. How could it have been prevented? What measures could have been put in place sooner? Who knew what, when and why? We have no problem bringing all of that to the fore and making sure that that information is in the public domain so that the people can see the process for themselves and we can learn lessons from it. That is very important. If those two steps are taken, it will go a long way towards restoring some of the public confidence that has been damaged.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Very briefly, yes.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Does the Member appreciate that there is a bit of irony in the fact that the only party now saying that they do not want an inquiry under the Inquiries Act is the party that supposedly left the Government over this issue?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Absolutely. The Member must have very good eyesight; maybe he was reading my notes. That is exactly the point that I was coming to.

If these are the issues that the people want to see addressed — cost controls and investigation or inquiry into these matters — then we have been very forthright in saying that we want to see them happen. Indeed, at the Executive meeting on 14 December, it was agreed with Sinn Féin that all the facts would be brought to the fore and that cost-cutting controls would be agreed, but they have walked away from all of that. I think that everybody in the Chamber now knows that Sinn Féin has not taken the action that it has taken over the last number of weeks because of some concerns over a public inquiry or over cost control measures relating to RHI; they have taken the action that they have taken because they want to bring down Stormont, because they are getting so much grief and such a hard time from their heartlands — perhaps, I should call them their "former heartlands". The grief that is coming to them is the reason why they have taken the action. Let us be honest — everybody in here knows this, and everybody watching must know this — if they really were concerned about the issues, they would have been here yesterday and would have been here today to look at these matters. That is the truth of the matter.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Of course I will give way to Mr Dickson. Quickly, so that I can get Robin in.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I will be quick; thank you very much. It appears from Mr Lyons's comments that all of the blame lies with Sinn Féin. Does he accept that there is any blame to be apportioned to his party and the actions of his ministerial colleagues and friends, who have failed to answer the questions that the public want answered, have refused to stand aside and have refused to give any answers? I am not an apologist for Sinn Féin, but is it any wonder that they and the rest of us are totally sceptical of what you are —

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am not blaming Sinn Féin; I am saying that they are the ones walking away. This is not about RHI any more; they have walked away for other reasons. That is the point that I make. I want to have the public inquiry so that the people can see for themselves, but, of course, —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

It is difficult for us to support the motion when it calls for the First Minister to step aside. That is not what should have happened.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker

[Interruption.]

and thank you, pantomime crowd, for that introduction. This is an extremely serious issue, the seriousness of which should not be underestimated or wished away.

It is our responsibility as elected representatives to ensure the best outcomes for the people who send us here.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Member just said that is something that people must not underestimate. Does he accept that his party has underestimated the public anger about it over the past month? The frustration today is that the parties here are calling for and endorsing a public inquiry. If his party had acted much sooner, at the beginning of December, acknowledged and recognised the problems and, at that stage, put a public inquiry in place, we would not be in this mess.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I take your point. I do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation at all. I do not underestimate the anger that is out there about the issue at all, because I speak to my constituents, and I know that people are very angry and want answers.

There have been various reactions to the situation as it has developed, as my friend Gordon Lyons from East Antrim referenced. The other partner in Government, Sinn Féin, asked for an inquiry, and we acceded to that because we wanted the truth to be established. I still want the truth to be established, and I still want there to be a full, open public inquiry into all these matters, because it does no good to any of us for the reputation of politics to be maligned. Sinn Féin offered us terms for an inquiry — those were agreed. It asked for a public inquiry — that was agreed. The sole sticking point, from Sinn Féin's perspective, is that it demanded on a plate the head of the First Minister. From our perspective, that was unacceptable not only because the people of Northern Ireland, not seven months ago, elected her to the office but because, in the run-in to the debate on 19 December, it had become very apparent that those making the call for the First Minister to step aside were not doing so from a position of impartiality or from of a position of saying, "Oh, it is just like in the Civil Service when you are sent on gardening leave"; it is quite clear that those demanding that the First Minister step aside were doing so because —

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Briefly, Andy, but let me finish my point.

They were doing so largely because they were motivated by a desire to score a political point and claim a political scalp. <BR/>I am happy to give way to Mr Allen.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Does the Member share the concerns of his party colleague Mr Dunne, who raised DETI and Ofgem's dual responsibility for the RHI policy? Does he share my concerns that, if the policy had been right in the first place, it is likely that we would not be in this scenario?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I absolutely agree that the management and oversight of the scheme were fundamentally flawed. It is important that, in a public inquiry, we establish the facts around that.

I agree with what Dr Farry said about the need for a two-pillar approach going forward. One is mitigation: it is essential that the money that has been staked on the scheme be clawed back as much as possible. It is absolutely essential for that to happen, because it is committed expenditure that could be spent on other more valuable, more useful things.

It ill behoves a party that cannot even bring itself to be in the Chamber — it defends its abstentionist policy at Westminster and now abstains from Stormont as well — and which, through its behaviour over welfare reform, cost the people of Northern Ireland £174 million in real money over a period of two years — not committed expenditure, but real money — to lecture any of the others.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I have only a minute and a half left.

One of the issues raised by others about the package that has been outlined by the Minister relates to the breaking of contracts. This has been portrayed as a contract being broken.

That is, potentially, a simplistic assessment. What we are dealing with here is the granting of aid under a statutory scheme, which is not the same thing as a contract. I am hopeful that those issues can be overcome.

As for accountability, it is absolutely vital that all the information — every email, every letter, every exchange — is brought into the public domain for everyone to see and to make a balanced assessment about who was responsible for what and how we got to this juncture. Thus far, that has not been the case, and we have had a drip feed of information from various sources. That is not conducive to the public good, nor is it conducive to informing people of what is and was actually going on.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 11:15 am, 17th January 2017

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. From my perspective, I want all this to be brought into the public domain and sorted, because it is in none of our interests —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

— that the reputation of politics should be blackened.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Speaking on behalf of the SDLP, I want to make it clear that the motion represents the clarity of thinking that has been missing from the DUP/Sinn Féin Executive to date. Nobody doubts that major mistakes have happened, and there are even suggestions of fraudulent activity, which were discussed at yesterday's meeting of the Economy Committee. Access to information has been deliberately denied to people in the House and to the general public; in fact, I submitted a question to the Minister some weeks ago asking for a breakdown of RHI recipients by district electoral area. I did so because I recognised that there were many legitimate applicants to the scheme who are in receipt of money in a very legitimate way. We need to be sensitive to those people, and we are not hanging anybody out to dry. Likewise, we were not after a head on a plate.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for giving way.

[Interruption.]

Obviously, the DUP is scared of what I was going to say. With regard specifically to legitimate applicants and legitimate users, what has not been mentioned, especially on this side of the House, is one of the major concerns that have been brought forward: the 886 applications that were made in a six-week period in October and November. That is an average of 147 installations a week. What was different about this scheme was that the burners had to be in place before an application could be made.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you. I fully agree and accept that point.

Information has been deliberately withheld from us and others in the House. I have to find things out via the media. It is certainly not the case that the Opposition have not been asking the questions; we have done so at every opportunity.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will not give way because my time is limited.

We have been asking the questions, and the answers have not been forthcoming. Why is that? What was there to hide?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. I have no intention of giving way for the remainder of my speech.

There is little point in me speaking today on the dysfunction of the outgoing DUP/Sinn Féin Executive. Clearly, that is now a matter of public record, and the public are very wise to that. It is a legacy of their own making. My only regret is the damage that it has done to the institutions in Northern Ireland whilst they were having their choreographed love-in. Conveniently, then, when the time suited them, others left the Chamber, calling for an election and beating their chests before they ever thought it important to stop the haemorrhaging of public finances or to lay bare to the public the facts about the scheme. Why have they done that? That is a serious question, and there is nobody here today to answer it.

I regret that that is the space that we have all landed ourselves in. Basically, anybody at the outset of this Government may well have asked this question: how long can this Government survive without a moderate voice or without some clear thinking from the moderate parties? Now we have our answer.

Today, however, the SDLP continue to step up where others have failed. We present to you a motion that is in the public interest. It talks to what should happen: proper governance. This is how it looks. This is what should have happened when others had the gift. While it is laudable that you say, "Yes, we wanted an inquiry; yes, we are up for an inquiry", you had the gift of creating such an inquiry, and you did not do it. You had your partners in government, and the relationship was so cosy. I could quote many things that would be cringeworthy at this stage. What is the point? Let us look at the public interest here.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sorry; I will finish on this because I am conscious of time.

The motion speaks to the public interest. It is not about politicking or playing one off against the other; it is about taking a responsible action that has been missing. I call on every politician in Northern Ireland who has a right to do so to put the public interest before their party interests and present themselves in the Lobby in support of the motion if they are genuine in their calls to see this fiasco brought to a swift end and the money directed to our hospitals, education and other places where it is so badly needed.

Words are hollow when an opportunity is presented to you and you do not take it. If you suggest you want to re-present yourself to be a Member of this House, you must search your soul now and ask, "What am I doing? What am I doing before I walk out those doors to make sure the public interest is being served?". There are many doing absolutely nothing, only electioneering, spinning and trying to create something of an illusion that they are fit for government, but the political Febreze —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

— that has been spread throughout the Building has somehow blurred people's vision of what has actually happened.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will indeed. I repeat my call and ask all responsible politicians to make their way through the Lobbies and put their vote where their comments have been to date.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I rise to talk about this issue, as we have done on many occasions over the last number of months. I have watched this with quite a lot of interest. Something I am passionate about is energy policy — throughout the world, not just here in Northern Ireland — so I have watched with intrigue and interest. I have also been distraught at the white noise, sensationalism and bloodletting that have been created because all of that has ensured that we will not get this resolved in a timely fashion.

What has been going on since it was discovered that there was an issue with RHI? There have been independent inspections. Up to now, there have been about 300, I think. The Ministers have had a detailed assessment of legal advice on what they can do to fix it. We have also had an ongoing Public Accounts Committee investigation, which the Chair has eloquently spoken about — not about the investigation but about his understanding of the issue. We had the Audit Office report before that, so it is unfair and untrue to suggest that politicians or Ministers were not doing something about the issue. If some Members realised it only in late autumn, that says more about them than anyone else. It is vital that we put in place measures to manage the unintended pressure that the scheme is creating and will continue to create, if it is not fixed.

Many who legitimately entered the scheme in good faith may well now be caught up in a media storm. Businesses that rely on their good name, good faith, reputation and credibility could now be caught up in a sensationalist media storm over the head of this and all the hyperbole that has been created. Let us try to get something done in a timely fashion. That is what the Minister brought forward yesterday.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

I thank the Member for giving way. I take his point entirely. I am sure that he will not dispute that people who are conducting their business legitimately have absolutely nothing to fear from a public inquiry.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his contribution, but it is not —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. The Member is right that people have nothing to fear from a legitimate public inquiry, but legitimate businesses conducting themselves in a legitimate way have plenty to fear when their name is being dragged across the airwaves.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

That is the point that I was going to make; thank you for making it. It is not the public inquiry that anyone fears. It is the sensationalism of some sections of our media on this issue that can be very damaging. We have already had one good business, which happens to sell a trademark car, dragged through the mud unfairly. That will continue in a drip-feed fashion.

There has to be responsibility in the House for mistakes that are made, but look at what has happened —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

No, I am going to run out of time. I am really sorry. I would have if I had more time.

Look at what has happened over the last couple of months. There has been a drip feed of sensationalism by our media, and some of our politicians in this very House have been caught up in a blood fest and a feeding frenzy, wanting someone's head on a platter. We are here —

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

No, I cannot; I am sorry.

We are here to serve our people and, when mistakes happen, to fix them. Members called on Arlene Foster to come to the Chamber to explain. She came to the Chamber to explain, and you walked out. You walked out, and you hurt the credibility of this place even further. You called for Arlene to go to the PAC. Unprecedentedly, Arlene Foster agreed, but the goalposts were moved yet again. Sinn Féin was receiving pressure from its nationalist competitors. It got itself on a hook and could not get itself off the hook. Sinn Féin is very mindful. It comes in here very confident, but it is going through something of a crisis. There is a bit of a meltdown, and it goes right into the very heartlands. It is scared because, for the first time, it has a socialist left flank, and it does not know how to deal with it. It is looking at a new SDLP leader, and it does not really know how to deal with it. Let us face it and say it as it is.

Sinn Féin's actions have created the inability of the House to finish a Public Accounts Committee inquiry. It cannot be finished, because of the Sinn Féin resignation. Let me just say at the end that we must put this in context. This is a projected spend of £480 million over 20 years; a projected spend that could be fixed. What about all the politicking on welfare reform last year that cost our people £173 million? It was the SDLP and Sinn Féin that created that. What about the very fact that, when you resign —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

— you cannot have a Budget? In July, that will cost this country £600 million in one year — £600 million in one year.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

The gravity of the situation that Northern Ireland faces today cannot be overestimated. Terminally ill children are being sent home from hospital or offered a hospital far away from their homes. We have a ward in the Ulster Hospital where nurses were ill and there was no money to pay for bank nurses, with the outcome that the ward was closed. At the same time, as we know, serious and grave offence has been caused by the renewable heat incentive scheme. We are called to the House to be servants of the people. The people are not our servants. The truth of what has happened in this scheme is the priority above all.

As I said yesterday, I spoke out after 20 years in elected office only when journalists were able to prove to me that requests were made for me to speak but misinformation was being given out that I was unavailable and there was an instruction to make sure I was not called before the Public Accounts Committee. People and the media have asked when I will say again what I said in the House yesterday. Let me make it clear when I will say again what I said in the House yesterday: I will say it to the judge-led public inquiry. I will say it exactly as I said it to the House because it is honest and truthful, and I will say it to the judge under oath.

There were serious concerns with this scheme, and there is evidence available that shows that special advisers interfered to stop the scheme. The reduction in the tariff, when we moved to do that, could have solved so many of the problems under my watch. I came into office and had this scheme closed within 10 months as Minister, but during that time, there was an opportunity to reduce the tariff. We have seen what happened when the tariff was reduced. The massive cost to the public was not there, but there was interference from special advisers, as has been confirmed to me by our Civil Service, and there is evidence — I kept records of it — to show that. That is a serious concern and has to be for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Is the Member alluding to the special advisers being involved in driving up the spike that happened in October and November?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

Thank you very much.

What I am saying is that, when the opportunity came before me to reduce the tariff, which was the advice I was being given then, special advisers interfered to delay the reduction in the tariff. That is confirmed to me by the top people in the Civil Service and confirmed to me by the evidence I have. I have told the truth. I have been suspended from a party I have given decades of service to while much more serious things have occurred.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Does he recognise, as a former Minister, that special advisers have no authority within the government system? They act solely on the direction of their Ministers, and, if they are acting independently without that authority, the Minister is still nevertheless accountable for those actions.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I take full accountability for my actions, but I did not appoint my special adviser. My special adviser was appointed by the party, and, when other special advisers interfered to stop the reduction in the tariff, the advice given to me by the Civil Service and by my permanent secretary — it is on record — was that, because of that, I could not go ahead and reduce the tariff as I wished to do. I have told the truth. The evidence —

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I have one and half minutes left.

I have told the truth, and I have put it before the public. There is a way through out of all this. It is a fact. Not only that but, within half an hour of me closing the scheme, my ministerial instruction was countermanded by Stormont Castle. There is a case of justice that lies at the heart of this. The public interest deserves to know who benefited. I will not go into the speculation of which special adviser has a boiler and which one does not or which one could have up to eight and which one does not. That is for a judge to decide, but make no mistake about this: what I told the BBC on one occasion and what I said in the House yesterday, I will tell a judge under oath the exact same information.

We serve the public. Well over 1,000 people have sent cards to me, letters to me and emails to me. I have had four people opposing me: two by calls, one by text and one by email, to the best of my knowledge as I stand. The public, I think, by a ratio of 50,000:1 of those who have contacted me, are overwhelmingly telling me, "Tell the truth". I have no doubt today, too — I will finish with this — that having told the truth, if Dr Paisley was here today, he would not leave me sitting on my own; he would be sitting beside me.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

My time is up, sorry.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

From the Alliance Party's perspective, it is important that we get to the bottom of the RHI scandal. This debacle has completely and utterly removed public confidence in the institutions of government at Stormont and, in my view, undermined the credibility of the two political parties that have formed the Government. It is vital that we get to the end point of the discussion. It is vital, as Mr Bell says, that we get a public inquiry, that it is all there and that, in the terms of the motion, no impediment holds back the results of the inquiry.

I welcome some of the words that have been spoken this morning by some DUP Members. Mr Stalford certainly recognised the need to end the drip-feed. He also said that RHI should be brought into the public domain. I welcome that. It is just sad that, on reflection, it has taken his party so long and that, perhaps, some of his colleagues still wish to resist some elements of this and have not managed to bring themselves to that point. I recognise that there are some who feel the weight of responsibility of the situation that their party has placed them in. Perhaps we are beginning to see that some DUP Members are beginning to recognise the challenge that this has brought to democracy, openness and probity in Northern Ireland and that, just because it can no longer be party before all else, the public have to come first. The public have a right to know and to see, and we have a right and a privilege to deliver, open and transparent government in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jennifer Palmer Jennifer Palmer UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that in the interest of good governance it is important to ascertain who made the determinations not to open the risk registers in DETI and in DFP? Was it because Westminster was picking up the tab? Does he also agree with the concerns raised today that the permanent secretary did not move to mitigate?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, and I thank Mrs Palmer for her comments. I agree that many questions need to be answered and that they can only be answered in one place, which is in an impartial, appropriately set inquiry into these matters. I know that Mr Agnew wanted to come in, and I am happy to give way to him as well.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank Mr Dickson for giving way. I come back to his point about the DUP's new-found support for a public inquiry. That was its position while still in the Government and, indeed, while Sinn Féin was still taking a role in the Government. The DUP could then, through one of its Ministers, have proposed a public inquiry at the Executive and forced Sinn Féin's hand. Sinn Féin would have been forced to agree or disagree to that. The DUP chose not to do it, so its claims are disingenuous.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I do not disagree.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Would the Member agree that, had a DUP Minister done so, Mr Agnew and others would have led the charge against it and said that such an inquiry was corrupted because a DUP Minister was doing it? You would not have been happy with anything that we would have said.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

That is certainly not my stance. Any Minister is free and able to bring an appropriate inquiry — a free, open public inquiry — under the Inquiries Act to the Chamber. They will not find us wanting when it comes to delivering that inquiry. I do not mind which Minister brings it, whether it is one of the ex-Ministers of Sinn Féin, who are not even here this morning, or one of yours. Of course, you will receive criticism, but the right thing to do is to have that inquiry. It is still not too late. You can call it today. Your Ministers can set up that inquiry today; you do not require the consent of your partners in Government.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Briefly, is that a commitment that, if a DUP Minister were to do that, you would support it?

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Of course the Alliance Party will support a public inquiry in accordance with the motion today. That is why I expect you to vote for it.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Does the Member also agree that the Justice Minister could do the inquiry as well at any time if she so desired?

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

The technical nature or the nuts and bolts of an inquiry are a very interesting debate. However, what the public want to know today is when a judge-led, open, public inquiry will commence in Northern Ireland. They do not really mind who brings it; they want it to be brought on so that people like Mr Bell and others can go to that inquiry and give their answers and the public can finally get their truth. That is what they are looking for. That is what they deserve. That is what Northern Ireland wants today.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I congratulate Mr Dickson on achieving a record number of interventions.

Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP

I appreciate that this is a long and complex motion. I will focus on a couple of key clauses. The motion highlights "mounting public concern" and "damage caused to public confidence". Those words do not do justice to the anger and frustration that people genuinely feel about this scandal. It is a scandal, as we have heard from Mr Bell. It has brought down these institutions. It has led to an unnecessary and expensive election that is unwanted by the public. It has damaged the reputation of Northern Ireland nationally and internationally. It could and should have been avoided. Even as recently as Christmas, the then First Minister could have avoided the current crisis by not taking an arrogant and high-handed approach to this scandal and instead taking her share of responsibility for this failure.

I believe that the Department's permanent secretary, Andrew McCormick, said at the Economy Committee yesterday that the mistake in the original scheme was a policy mistake. Who makes policy? Ministers make policy. He was very clear about where the responsibility lies.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you very much. I take us back to a comment that was made earlier by Mr Dunne, who said that there was no proper management in place and no management review by DETI. The Minister at that time in DETI was Arlene Foster.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP

I thank the Member for the intervention. I totally agree. The changes that were proposed by the Economy Minister yesterday basically put in the tiering and controls that were, inexplicably, removed under Arlene Foster's watch as ETI Minister, as you rightly said. If, as Mr McCormick suggests — he should know — it was a policy mistake, it reinforces Mrs Foster's responsibility.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP

Does the Member also accept that, in the evidence from the officials to the Committee, they clearly indicated that their recommendation to Minister Foster at that time was that the safeguards were not in place? It was not that Minister Foster, when she was economy Minister, removed them; it was the recommendation from officials that they were absent.

Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP

I take that point on board, but the bottom line is that, if we had taken on the GB policy, we would not be in the mess that we are in today. The question is this: how do the Assembly and the public get answers? As Mr Dickson asked, where is the public inquiry that we were promised by Arlene Foster last Wednesday? There has been nothing again. Accountability seems to have been punted down the road, at best until after an election. How very convenient.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

I will move on to the cost of this scandal. The motion calls on:

"the Minister of Finance and the Minister of the Economy to bring forward a plan to arrest the liability to the public purse."

On 4 January this year, Mrs Foster said in the 'Belfast Telegraph':

"A lot has been made about the potential overspend. I want to make sure that doesn't happen. We plan to bring that potential cost down to zero. There will be no overspend."

I hope that the Economy Minister will continue to stand over that commitment. To give some context to the cost, I refer to a tweet that Sam McBride issued last week. This is not about a media storm. I pay tribute to the role that the media have played in this process; they have exposed the scandal in all its detail. He said in his tweet that RHI has cost taxpayers £3 million since the BBC 'Spotlight' programme, £20·5 million under this Executive and £32·4 million since the whistle-blower warned OFMDFM in January 2016. Of course, it will cost a further £6·5 million at least until the regulations come into effect on 1 April. There are also other costs that the Department is liable for. So much for zero cost.

Why have we had to wait until now for action? Is the thought of facing the electorate focusing minds? The Government have known about this for at least a year, if not longer. The Northern Ireland Audit Office report was published in July 2016. Why oh why were proposals brought only at the last minute? It is all, I believe, to try to avoid awkward questions on the doorsteps. However, we will certainly welcome anything that plugs the £85,000 daily cost of this scandal and protects Northern Ireland's taxpayers.

We proposed the adjournment of yesterday's debate so that we would have more time to scrutinise the Minister's proposals effectively. I hope that we will see a proper business case, have time to allow the Examiner of Statutory Rules to look in detail at the proposals and ensure that there is a sound legal foundation for the legislation. The last thing that we want is a legal challenge, although it appears that that is already in waiting. As my colleague Steve Aiken said yesterday, I hope that the Minister will stake his position on the legal validity of his proposals.

I suppose that we should be grateful that the arrogant response to the scandal has started to wane. The penny appears finally to have dropped that the public anger in response to the scandal is genuine and widely held and that the usual tactics to distract attention will not work. The last-minute action brought yesterday appears to be designed to be a short-term fix ahead of an election campaign. While we hope that public money can be saved, that does not get the DUP off the hook. We must have a public inquiry.

Finally, the whole mess is summed up by the recent fire in Fermanagh, where eight boilers in a shed overheated. It is a scandal — incompetence at best. Northern Ireland deserves so much better. At least people will now have the opportunity to pass their judgement on the scandal.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 11:45 am, 17th January 2017

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the issue. There are a lot of people who have culpability: two ETI Ministers; the officials who drafted the scheme; the specialist consultants who were brought in; Ofgem; and the Assembly Committee that oversaw it. Everybody — everybody — has culpability in this. We owe the public an apology for devising a scheme that was not fit for purpose. An important message that needs to be got out there is this: we devised a scheme that was not fit for purpose, we regret that and we need to fix it. That should be the focus of the Assembly and everyone in it. We need to rectify the mistake and move on.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, Mr Beggs.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has given a list of those who had some direct involvement. Would he add those who occupied the position of Finance Minister during that period, because they would have been alerted to the difficulties and could have taken action to correct, and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which should have been coordinating our Executive?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, I would, and the entire Executive for that matter and the SpAds who were involved. Everybody has culpability in this. However, this is what I am coming to: the motion targets one individual — the First Minister, who was Arlene Foster. Arlene Foster did not devise the scheme. She was presented with it. She did not ask for it to be changed by civil servants so that it was different from the UK one. She was presented with a scheme and told, "This is the best way forward for Northern Ireland". She accepted the advice of the energy division, which devised it after input from all the specialist consultants and Ofgem. Here we have a fixation with a hate campaign against Arlene Foster. I say clearly that Arlene Foster brought in tens of thousands of jobs, in conjunction with Invest NI, to Northern Ireland during her period as ETI Minister. Northern Ireland had the second-highest success rate in bringing in inward investment in the United Kingdom. The only place beating us was the south-east of England. Every other region in the United Kingdom was trailing in the wake of Northern Ireland when Arlene Foster was ETI Minister and was out there bringing jobs back to Northern Ireland, yet Members are fixated with a hate campaign against her.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. There was one question posed by Sinéad Bradley and Robin Swann, neither of whom is in the Chamber. They have had to go out; maybe they are as busy as me — I do not know. The question that they asked was this: "What about the 880 applications created during the run in the autumn?", as if there were some sort of sinister plot. It could have been something as simple as Amber Rudd closing the renewables obligation certificates (ROCs) scheme a year early creating a run on the RHI scheme, because people were concerned that it too would close early. Of course, the Minister at that time was Jonathan Bell, and he knows all about the ROC issue at that time.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is absolutely true that Amber Rudd moved early and that that created all sorts of issues and problems. There were issues about wind energy as well that we had to close early. Had that not been the case — I know that Mr Frew worked hard to ensure that it was not the case, as indeed did Mr McGlone — we would have been in a worse position.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member very much for giving way. He talks about the good work that Mrs Foster has done as First Minister. I would expect no less of her than doing her job, however, if she had done her job as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, she should have seen the difference between the GB scheme and the Northern Ireland scheme. If you are over the jot and tittle, that is exactly what happens. That does not seem to have been the case. Does the Member accept that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member gets back to this "Get rid of Arlene" campaign. Ofgem did not see it, the officials did not see it, the specialist consultants did not see it and the Committee, which had Alliance members, did not see it. Nobody saw it, but Arlene Foster has to take the hit on it all. Arlene Foster brought in tens of thousands of jobs as ETI Minister. She was a hugely successful ETI Minister and has been a hugely successful First Minister. The hate campaign brought about by all of the other Members here needs to stop. They need to stop the hate campaign against Arlene Foster.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Poots might like to reflect on his comment that the Alliance Party had a member on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment: for the record, the Alliance Party did not have a member on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am happy to have that clarification. That is not an issue.

We are happy for a public inquiry to take place because, with all of this "He said, she said" —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

You are the man who said, "No public inquiry".

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not want a public inquiry of the nature of Chilcot or of the nature of Saville, and I explained that in the last speech that I made on the issue. We are happy for a full public investigation to be led by a judge. We want it done quickly, and I would love to have the information out before an election and stop all of this "He said, she said" trial by media and the hate campaign being imposed on us by the other politicians against Arlene Foster because she is much too successful a politician for their liking. She is far too popular with the public, so let us damn Arlene Foster and get rid of her because she is much too great a politician for you to contend with.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

For the record, Mr Poots, I do not hate Arlene Foster; I do not hate anyone.

The timeline of the introduction of the scheme and the deliberate intervention to alter the scheme and to remove the cost controls, signed off by the Minister Arlene Foster, is well documented. The number of warnings personally given to Arlene Foster and to the Department in question is well documented. The DUP talks about understanding public anger. They talk about sharing public anger, but what they have refused to do is to take responsibility for the part that they have played in it. What they have done is engage in a blame game: it was the whistle-blower's fault; it was the civil servants' fault; it was the consultants' fault; it was the media's fault, and it still is when we listen to the contributions that have been made thus far; or it is the Opposition's fault, and, when we raised valid questions about who knew what and when and about what they did and who was responsible and should be held accountable, we were accused of misogyny. Mr Frew accuses us today of wanting to engage in a bloodfest. On top of that, we have Mr Bell's account of events versus Mrs Foster's account of events. Wherever the truth lies — a public inquiry will determine where the truth lies — the unquestionable truth is that this is a DUP-created mess of epic proportions.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

In one second.

As Mr Smith has outlined and as Sam McBride tweeted, this DUP scandal has cost the taxpayer £3 million since 'Spotlight' was broadcast. It has cost the taxpayer over £32 million since the whistle-blower warned the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in January 2016, and it continues to cost the taxpayer £85,000 every day.

A second unquestionable truth in all of this is that the situation has been fuelled and pushed to this brink because of the arrogance of the DUP in their response and their defiance when being held to account.

As other Members have said, the DUP has finally begun to realise and wake up to this fact, hence the shift in tone, the move to being more contrite and the U-turn articulated so blatantly today by Mr Poots that it is now in favour of a public inquiry.

The third unquestionable truth, and then I will let Members in, is that under this Executive, the scandal has cost the taxpayer over £20 million. The DUP created this mess but is a partner in government with Sinn Féin. There is joint authority and joint responsibility. The Executive parties knew about this scandal for well over a year — some of us could argue, much longer than that — and yet they said nothing.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

One second. They said nothing, but they became very vocal and frantic when the 'Spotlight' programme threw this into the public domain. Sinn Féin, in particular, became vocal only when it could see the public backlash. Up to that point, it tried to keep it from the public. That is the truth. I will let Mr Nesbitt in.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank Ms Mallon for letting me in. She will have heard Mr Poots twice enumerate a long list of those who allegedly missed the flaw in the renewable heat incentive scheme, but, on neither occasion, did he include special advisers.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I did not hear him say special advisers. Does the Member agree that that raises the question of whether they missed it or exploited it?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

All Departments need to be put under scrutiny, as do all Ministers and all special advisers. That is why the SDLP has consistently called for a public inquiry. We have nothing to fear from the questions of who knew what, when they knew it and what they did about it. Sinn Féin, a joint partner in government, knew about this for a year and said nothing until the public started to get very angry about it. On the airwaves today, a member of Sinn Féin derided this debate on such a critical issue, describing it as a "meaningless" discussion. That sums it up, and it tells the public who is genuinely exercised and outraged by all of this. It is very clear that we will see attempt after attempt to distract from all of this, because we could have been several weeks into a public inquiry and saved the public £85,000 every day. People need to face up to the fact that when you are in power, the buck stops with you. You are responsible, which is why you get the big money, and you should be held to account.

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate concerning very hastily brought forward regulations that attempt to mitigate spend on the botched renewable heat incentive scheme. I do not need to remind anyone that the unregulated and uncapped RHI cash for ash scheme is indeed the biggest scandal ever to hit this country. It is the biggest scandal ever in the history of devolution, and it has left a monumental black hole in the Stormont finances to the tune of £500 million. The scandal has driven these institutions and our Government to collapse.

Make no mistake about it: the ousted First Minister, Arlene Foster, implemented the scheme under the concept of ministerial responsibility, so she is culpable. There was a flawed tariff in place, no cost controls or progress reviews, limited inspections and very little regulation. Finally, as far back as 2013, there was a complete failure to act on a whistle-blower's warning. Four years later, it is the DUP that brings these proposals to us in what I regard as merely a simple exercise in face-saving.

How many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted since the scheme was introduced? We know that £30 million has been squandered this financial year so far, but the RHI scandal goes much further. Some very serious allegations have been made around corruption at the heart of the Executive. It is my belief that by no means do we have all the information concerning the RHI scheme out in the open. Departmental documents have been hidden from view, even from the Public Accounts Committee's (PAC) investigation. We do not know who the recipients of the scheme are, who benefited, and whether supporters of a certain political party reaped heavy rewards from the RHI scheme. It is ironic that the Economy Minister, Mr Hamilton, seemed very content —

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sorry; I will not take any interventions because you have had long enough to say and do the right thing. You have not done so up to this point and you will certainly not take advantage of me to make any political points.

It is ironic that the Economy Minister, Mr Hamilton, seemed very content yesterday to remove regulations, which are open to legal challenge, and he will not publish the details of the recipients of the scheme due to the prospect of the same legal challenge. What has the DUP got to hide?

These are all very serious questions that have gone unanswered so far and the public deserve that they be answered immediately. That is why, from day one, the SDLP called for the First Minister to step aside during a public inquiry into this botched energy scheme that would be devoid of any political influence or conflict of interest. After all, the scheme will cost the taxpayer £85,000 per day or £600,000 a week. What could the money do for our failing hospitals and for our GPs? We heard only this morning of the closure of a GP surgery. I think that it was in County Down, but I am not sure. What could that money not have done to help in those situations?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

If Members would just hold off on the far side, they will respect the point that I am going to make. While supporting entirely that the First Minister should step aside during a public inquiry, likewise, I am sure that the Member will support the view that any other Minister giving evidence about his or her Department should step aside while they give evidence to that public inquiry?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for his comments and I agree totally. I was asking what the money could possibly have been used for had it not been squandered to the extent that it was. Hospitals and our GPs are facing crisis point and our roads are in a dilapidated condition. In my area, work was recently done on the railway line, which caused the roads around my area to be churned into quagmires. That has yet to be resolved, sorted and fixed. Money like this could be better spent and used for local projects and issues.

Sinn Féin is no martyr either in all of this. The party talks about equality, a bill of rights and dealing with the past —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

— yet it agreed to a Programme for Government. Mr Speaker, as I am making a winding-up speech, I thought that I had 10 minutes —

[Interruption.]

— I am not making a winding-up speech. OK. I will conclude and say that —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

We have two possible scenarios. Scenario 1 is that Arlene Foster steps aside as First Minister for a temporary period, and scenario 2 is that she refuses but the result is that she is forced out of her position as First Minister, as has transpired.

In scenario 1, we could have had an agreed inquiry into the RHI scandal. We could have had an agreed proposal to protect public money. We could have had stable government.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Will the Member take a brief intervention?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I will give way in a moment.

What we have is scenario 2, where, as I say, Arlene Foster is still not the First Minister. Whether that will be temporary or permanent, we will see. We have a proposal from Simon Hamilton on protecting public money that I would argue is dodgy at best. We have no inquiry, and although I think that it is increasingly unlikely, we do still have Ministers and still have that opportunity. We have institutions that are on the brink of collapse. I have to ask the question: given that, in both these scenarios, Arlene Foster is, at least temporarily, no longer the First Minister, what has her intransigence achieved? Why are we facing political crisis? I will give way to Mr Stalford.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I fear that he is engaging in a rewriting of history, because when this was debated, the SDLP motion that was brought forward to exclude the First Minister from office, a device that hinged on a measure that was created for when people's proxies were suspected of engaging in paramilitary behaviour, that was prejudging any inquiry. The Member knows that. Now, post-19 December, the Member and others are pretending that they were engaging in fairness when the truth of the matter is that — if not necessarily in his case, certainly in others' — the intent was not fair: it was malicious.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. I would argue, and have argued, that Arlene Foster could have taken the lead. She could have done as her predecessor, Peter Robinson, did and actually say, "I will step aside. I will take that decision". I do not agree with the method of inquiry in the Peter Robinson case, but it is a sad scenario when I am saying, "Remember the good old days when we had Peter Robinson? There was an honourable guy".

[Laughter.]

It is a worrying time.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

They are not saying that.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I think that it is a worrying time. I ask the question: what has been achieved? What did this insistence on saying no and refusing to step aside achieve? All that was being asked was that Arlene Foster do what would be expected of any employee who was under suspicion. All that was being asked was indeed what Mr Bell was expected to accept by his party; suspension without prejudice pending investigation. But Arlene Foster is no ordinary employee: she is the leader of unionism. Some leadership. This is what it has led to: the Assembly and institutions, which have taken hard work to get up and running and on which Northern Ireland's future depends, on the brink of collapse; no Budget; no Programme for Government; and no solution to RHI. That is what her leadership has achieved. That is where we are.

I have sought to be positive and constructive in my contributions since I was elected to the House. Today, I have sought to do that. Following yesterday's debate on Simon Hamilton's proposals, which I have been clear that my party cannot accept, I have written to the Finance Minister and asked him to investigate the possibility of a windfall tax. The Green Party proposes that there be a 100% tax on any payment that is owed to RHI recipients over and above the cost of wood pellets. That would ensure that there would be no incentive to produce heat without use and no cash for ash. The proposal, in my view and in the advice that I have been given, would be legal because it would not retrospectively change the contracts of recipients but would do what any Government are entitled to do; introduce a tax on windfall payments that have been received. <BR/>I believe that the proposal is fair, I believe that it is legal and I believe that it is a long-term solution, unlike the one-year proposal that we had from the Economy Minister yesterday. We still have time, albeit very limited time, to protect public money. I call on the Finance Minister

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

— to work with his colleagues to achieve that.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I do not need to remind the House how deeply angry and frustrated the public are that £600 million of public money has been wasted on a scheme that was designed from the start to fund private companies to get cash for ash. When we put it into context, in the wake of Red Sky, NAMA and the scandal around the social investment fund, it is clear that corruption is at the very heart of Stormont.

In the last few weeks, I have been knocking on doors and speaking to people in my constituency. People are well aware of the corruption that exists in this place, and they are absolutely fed up with it. They are fed up being told that there is nothing that can be done about waiting lists in our hospitals. People have to wait two, three or four years to get even the most basic operations.

They are fed up being forced to go out on strike for a respectable wage, be they teachers, nurses or public-sector workers; fed up when their benefits are placed on the chopping block and not knowing whether the bedroom tax is going to affect them this year, next year or whenever; fed up that, at the same time as the DUP was squandering up to £600 million, the rest of us were being told to tighten our belts; and fed up that, just months after thousands of people marched through Belfast city centre and other cities against the cuts detailed in the Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Féin and the DUP began implementing exactly those cuts.

The DUP and Sinn Féin Executive have been committed to a programme of austerity and cuts. The RHI scheme is only the latest example of how the Executive put the interests of the wealthy before the interests of the vast majority here. Their proposed corporation tax cut on top of RHI will only give another handout to big companies and the rich. The corporation tax cut will lose around £300 million a year from the block grant. When added to the £600 million loss to RHI, on top of the £700 million agreed by the Executive to make 20,000 public-sector workers redundant in the Fresh Start Agreement, you get £1·5 billion. In one way or another, it is £1·5 billion redirected away from people who need it most. The £1·5 billion could have been spent on waiting lists, jobs, mental health services, topping up benefits and protecting vulnerable people.

Instead, we see cuts, cuts and warm Ferraris. What we need to see now is the former First Minister Arlene Foster and everyone else responsible for the burn to earn scandal held to account. We need a public inquiry to establish exactly who those people are. On top of that, we need a full list of the beneficiaries of the RHI scheme, and that should be published. All the contracts awarded through RHI, such as that to the Charles Hurst Ferrari dealership, to collect money for the next 18 years should be rescinded and ended immediately.

We need to see the money wrongly paid out through RHI being paid back into the public purse and put into public services. Anything short of those measures will not deliver the kind of accountability that the public want and deserve. We need to see accountability. As we now know, despite warning after warning about the cost of the scheme, Arlene Foster refused to listen to those calls. When she wrote to the banks outlining that tariffs for companies would be protected, she urged banks to:

"look favourably on approaches from businesses".

This is what is at the heart of the scandal: designing policies that are in the interests of corporations, in the belief that increasing benefits for corporations and reducing their taxes will lead to a trickle-down of wealth. We have decades of evidence that trickle-down economics does not work. It only makes the rich richer.

We found out yesterday the scandalous news that six billionaires own more wealth than the poorest 50% of the world's population. What a disgusting state of affairs.

What a disgraceful state of affairs we have right here, in our own backyard. We should ask ourselves what kind of society the Executive are creating, where people are dying on the streets while Ferraris are heated almost free of charge.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 12:15 pm, 17th January 2017

Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

The RHI scandal may be heralded as the straw that broke the camel's back, but there were deaths on our streets long before this scandal —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

— and no one threatened to bring down the House. What kind of status quo are we being asked to return to by the big parties?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The case for a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 is unanswerable. The question is this: why have we not already got one? The answer, in large measure, is because the parties hitherto of government have, to this point, blocked such an inquiry. Indeed, with considerable vehemence, we were told by Mr Poots, just four weeks ago:

“Get the message ... there will not be a public inquiry”.— [Official Report (Hansard), 19 December 2016, p47, col 1].

There is nothing like a looming election to focus minds and to try to get on the right side of public opinion. Now we are told that the DUP supports a public inquiry. Good. In fact, we were told, this day last week, by Mrs Foster that one would be announced within 24 hours. Where is it? Was that just another sound bite to get through another day?

The case for a public inquiry is overwhelming. There are some things that are —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. As I indicated in the speech I made four weeks ago, the Saville-type or Chilcot-type inquiry is not in anybody's interest. If you go back to how I dealt with pseudomonas, for example, you will see that we had an inquiry done and dusted in a matter of months, whereas the hyponatraemia inquiry, which the Member rightly asked a question about, has cost £15 million and, seven years later, has not delivered the answers. That is not the way forward. We want the truth.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

There never was a need for a protracted inquiry, because there are —

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Not just yet.

There are very net issues to be addressed. This is not a Saville or anything else; this is something that can be done in a few months at most. It is a very focused issue; indeed, there are some issues for which, it is abundantly clear, there are already answers. There are issues for which answers are definitely needed, but, for example, there is no dispute that it was Arlene Foster and Arlene Foster alone who signed off the scheme and decided, as a policy, to take out of the GB scheme the tiering in the tariff, with disastrous consequences. That is indisputable. She alone decided that. Yes, there are areas to be explored; some of them go to the heart of the matter and the heart of the potential corruption. Why was the date of 1 October 2015 — the end date of the old scheme and the start date of the amended scheme with tariffs — changed? Who changed it? At whose behest? At whose direction? For whose benefit? Those are the questions that go to the heart of the matter.

Mr Bell has shed some light on that by indicating that compulsion was applied; indeed, he said this morning that, within half an hour of him deciding to close the scheme, his instruction was countermanded by Stormont Castle. If that relates to 1 October, that goes to the heart of the matter. Why would there be such a countermanding?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

That related to the closure of the scheme, not the reduction in the tariff.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Fine. I am glad of the clarification.

It seems that there was a vested interest somewhere about the closure of the scheme, and, going by what Mr Bell suggests, that vested interest rested in Stormont Castle. Is that not exactly the sort of thing that we need to have ventilated and exposed to the glare of a public inquiry? Maybe that is why, until this moment, there has been great reluctance from the primary party of government to have a public inquiry. If there are countermanding instructions emanating from Stormont Castle —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member will conclude his remarks.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— that might well be a reason, but it is not a reason to deny the public the truth, and that is what must be obtained.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Before I call Mr Eamonn McCann, I remind him that he has only four minutes. If he takes an intervention, he will not get an extra minute.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Mr Speaker, I take that as a warning to everybody else not to ask me to give way; in light of what the Speaker has said, I will not.

There were "mistakes" and "flaws"; we have heard those words here over and over again. Nobody spotted the flaw in the scheme. The regulator did not spot it and departmental officials did not spot it, the implication being, "How could you expect a poor, simple politician to spot it when all those other people missed it?". There might be an explanation for that. When we think of a flaw, we usually think of something that has deteriorated, something that was missed and so on. The reason why nobody spotted the flaw is that there was no flaw in the system. There was no flaw at all. This was deliberate, and it was conscious. Apparently, we cannot accuse people of criminality, fraud and all the rest of it. I do not accuse any individual of being a criminal or a fraudster; what I say is this: it is a flat fact that there was criminality and fraud. The task is to get to the bottom of that and to hold those responsible to account.

The scandal that has emerged does not have to do with just the RHI scheme. We will not go into all of the other things, which are relevant, going back to Red Sky and the rest of it. We will hear a bit more about all of those things. Remember this: when NAMA comes down the road in a few months and the scandalous facts of that come out into the open, we will have another crisis. Had we got over this crisis, the NAMA crisis would have come along before the end of this year and put us in the same position.

We will go away, stand in an election and come back. We are told over and over again by commentators — sharp, acerbic commentators — that there is no real point in having the election because everybody will come back in the same numbers — at least, the DUP and Sinn Féin will come back in the same numbers, so nothing will have been solved. The DUP seems to think that. The DUP takes its voters for fools and treats its electorate like fools. It uses them as voting fodder and operates on the assumption that, no matter what it does, come election day, it will be able to rally people to the flag. Well, we shall see. It is possible to reach a tipping point on these things, you know.

People Before Profit invites any ordinary Protestant person who has voted DUP in the past to look at the representation that they have been given. Look at who has been represented by the DUP. Is it them? We are talking about who is responsible for these hundreds of thousands and millions of pounds and so forth. Meanwhile, back in the real world, people are named and shamed in front of their neighbours because, allegedly, they have conned a thousand quid from the public purse by doing the double or something like that. We have government websites asking people to phone and tell them and the police who is defrauding them and asking people to tout on their neighbours in relation to social security and the rest of it.

Meanwhile, major crime goes on.

We have learned a few other things in all this. We have certainly learned about Mrs Foster, Sinn Féin and the rest of the DUP. Let us remember, when we look back at all this, that when the scandal first emerged both the DUP and Sinn Féin were adamantly against a public inquiry. Sinn Féin was against it. Then it put out a statement saying that it was in favour of it. Then it withdrew that statement and said, "Oh, that was a typographical error". Do Sinn Féin and the DUP take us all for fools? They do in a sense because they believe that all they have to do is —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

— play to the expectations of their own community, and it does not matter what else they do.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I am sorry, Gerry. Apologies for that, but let us crack on.

Before I summarise all the contributions to the debate, I thank everybody who has been involved in it, particularly for the vigour and clear direction that they have put into the discussion and for raising some of the key areas that have come out of this. Before I add my clear support for the motion, I will make a few pertinent remarks about helping to restore confidence in the institutions and, above all, get to the truth. Many of the Members who spoke talked to these points.

First, given Simon Hamilton's push for the statutory rule yesterday and for the need to expedite the haemorrhaging of funding of £85,000 a day from our very constrained Budget, he has, as Mr Dickson clearly pointed out, the opportunity, even at this late stage, to call for a public inquiry. I would like him to do that at this late stage; set it up and get it moving. He can do the right thing. Do the right thing now.

We also talked about the First Minister standing aside without prejudice and about how that could have not only helped us to get to the bottom of the RHI scandal but, probably more importantly, restored confidence in this institution and in the Government of Northern Ireland. We have turned what was a financial crisis into an existential threat to the whole of the institutions and what is happening in Northern Ireland. We need to move on from this. There was an opportunity for leadership and direction and that has, very sadly for everybody here, been missed.

I will go on to some of the comments. First, thanks very much indeed to Claire for her excellent and eloquent introduction. It is the first time that I have heard the 12 days of Christmas approach. It is vital that the judge be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice; it cannot be by the Attorney General. All of us at this end of the Assembly very clearly say that as well.

Thank you very much indeed, Emma Little Pengelly, for your contribution, but we were unsure what you were saying about a public inquiry. Do you want a public inquiry? Please say. Yes?

Thank you very much indeed, Robin Swann, for your contribution. I know the constraints that you are under as the Chair of the PAC, but I think everybody at this end of the House very clearly gives thanks to you for your chairmanship and to the PAC for its hard work and for what it has done to bring the issues to the fore.

Like Stephen Farry, I, too, am particularly surprised that HM Treasury is not interested in what is going on, because the issue here is not just the potential £0·6 billion but the £1·18 billion cost to the UK taxpayer — and, ladies and gentlemen, we are all UK taxpayers, so I am surprised that this is not of interest going forward.

I fully support and agree with Gordon Dunne's comments about what is going on. The lack of business process, risk management and even basic project management smacks of something as bad as the Ministry of Defence used to do. It is like something that would have happened 20 years ago. There is a definite failure in our mechanisms of government. I know that we have all called for the political side of it to be addressed, but something desperately has to be done about the state and functioning of our Civil Service, because, quite clearly, at least in the Department for the Economy, formerly DETI, it is not fit for purpose going forward.

Thank you very much indeed, Gordon Lyons, for your contribution. I was also interested in my honourable friend Mr Beggs's intervention. We were talking about the returns that we were looking at. Whereas in Northern Ireland we were getting returns from the RHI initiative of somewhere in the region of 84%, the returns in GB were around 7·4%. There is obviously something to be looked at.

Thank you very much indeed, Christopher Stalford. We missed you. We enjoy your contributions. It was good to hear from you again. Thank you, and we will miss you.

[Laughter.]

We do; we enjoy your contributions.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:30 pm, 17th January 2017

The Member is very welcome, and I hope that the good people of Belfast South will —

[Interruption.]

[Laughter.]

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I will move on to more serious issues. Sinéad, you are quite right. Sinéad Bradley pointed out the fact that there is a complete lack of clarity of thinking and that there is fraudulent activity, or suspected fraudulent activity, but there is something in this that needs to be investigated, and I will return to that later on.

Paul Frew made a contribution; thank you very much indeed.

[Laughter.]

Then we moved on to Mr Bell.

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member agree that the fishing analogy that Mr Frew used in his contribution was somewhat unwise when he referred to the feeding frenzy and to members of my party being caught on the hook? Does he agree that the only frenzy that I am aware of — I am sure he is aware of it too — is the frenzy of people who tried to sign up to this botched scheme in the spike when hundreds of people availed themselves of it?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed, and yes, I would agree with that.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

That is a very important point. It is reckless for the message to go out here today that there was some sort of frenzy by people trying to get onto this scheme for any reason other than that they wanted to be part of the incentive scheme. These are reputable businesses that decided to go forward with the scheme because they were maybe advised to do so by suppliers or other businesses or accountants. It is very dangerous and reckless to say here today that those people tied up in that spike were doing anything other than carrying on their business.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank Mr Frew. Thank you very much for leading me in, because I was about to talk about the contribution from Mr Bell and, particularly, the concerns about the roles of SpAds. If ever we needed an indication of why we need a public inquiry, what was going on? Who was running the Government at the time? Was it the SpAds or was it the Ministers? Was it being properly and accountably looked at? These are really serious questions that need to be answered.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Just briefly on that point, does the Member recognise that there is no such concept as a rogue SpAd? Even if a SpAd is acting unilaterally, by definition they owe their appointment solely to the Minister and the Minister is fully accountable for everything the SpAd does.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you for that intervention. Yes, that is the normal course, custom and practice of the role of special advisers. However, for some strange reason, here in Northern Ireland in our Sinn Féin/DUP SpAdocracy, we seem to have completely missed that point.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

No, I want to continue on.

Philip Smith's contribution was very clear and concise and brought out some of the most important and key issues going forward. I was interested in Mr Poots's comments about culpability. You are quite right; we need to look at the whole chain. One of the things we looked at considerably in the military was the chain of command, all the way from the top to the bottom. All of it needs to be looked at.

Thank you very much, Nichola, for your contribution. Indeed, there are unquestionable truths. What we need to do and be very clear about is to deal with these unquestionable truths and that can only be led by a public inquiry.

Thank you very much, Steven, for supporting our plan for moving towards a windfall tax. We should also explore the issue of the rating scheme to reduce that as well. We have not had the chance to look at any of these issues in sufficient detail, and we need to do that as well.

Thank you very much, Gerry and Eamonn, but there is definitely a clear issue of accountability here and where it lies. Everybody in Northern Ireland is asking for the answers to this, and these are key questions. These are things that we need to talk about as well.

Jim Allister's contribution was eloquent but very clear on the reasons why we definitely need a public inquiry.

The question again to be asked, while the Minister is still here, is this: why does he not call for a public inquiry now?

With my final comments, I will talk to a serious matter that the Economy Minister raised yesterday and that has been alluded to during the debate, and it is the question of potential fraud. It would be no surprise that matters involving many millions of pounds—

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

— would, in normal circumstances, and definitely in Great Britain, require the attention of the Serious Fraud Office. Today, as a party, we have written to the PSNI to ask what actions it is taking to investigate this scandal —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

— now that the Minister has clearly stated his suspicions of fraud. I ask that we support the motion.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the mounting public concern relating to the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme and the serious allegations of incompetence, corruption and abuse; further recognises the damage caused to public confidence in these devolved democratic institutions; calls for the establishment of a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, to be chaired by a judicial figure proposed by the Lord Chief Justice; believes that the First Minister should stand aside pending publication of the final inquiry report; further believes that the terms of reference should include the development and operation of the scheme, any matter in relation to policy, financial, operation and compliance, the role and conduct of relevant persons and organisations, assess if there were breaches of any relevant code, public standards or employment contract, the response to and treatment of persons who raised concerns, if any person with a potential conflict of interest acted to their own benefit or the benefit of others, assess all RHI applications and report on any actions to be taken in respect of suspected fraud, the suspension and recovery of payments and the future operation of the scheme, make such recommendations as the inquiry believes necessary, including in relation to any issue of potential malfeasance in public office or of suspected criminal activity identified; believes that the inquiry should issue a final report within six months of its commencement, with the provision for interim reports at least on a two monthly basis; further calls for all inquiry reports to be published in full upon completion without requiring the agreement of any Executive Minister, the Executive or the Secretary of State, with copies of any report lodged in the Assembly Library; calls for any case of suspected fraud identified to be referred to the PSNI; and further calls on the Minister of Finance and the Minister for the Economy to bring forward a plan to arrest the liability to the public purse.