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

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 5:00 pm, 23rd January 2017

There has been a lot of discussion in the debate about scrutiny, such as what scrutiny of the proposal for the RHI scheme took place, who is culpable, where things went wrong and how they were not spotted. Today we are being asked to approve regulations with very little scrutiny and very little time for scrutiny. We know why that is: we are facing an election, the Assembly is due to dissolve on Wednesday and we are pushed for time. The question is this: why? Why are the institutions collapsing? Why have we got here? It is the Executive that have collapsed, and I think it is fair to put the blame at the door of the Executive parties. We had a possible scenario in which Arlene Foster could have stepped aside, we could have had a public inquiry and, indeed, we could have taken the necessary time to find a solution to the RHI debacle in order to protect public money. Arlene Foster is no longer First Minister — she did not step aside — but there is the same result. We are having a public inquiry, it would seem, and we will get the details of it tomorrow. We have these regulations proposed as a solution but without proper scrutiny and with an election looming.

The first scenario would be much more preferable, in which our institutions were not facing collapse; we, as public representatives, were not being contacted by organisations that are having to put their staff on protective notice because there is no Budget and they have not been given any certainty about their funding; and what was left of the goodwill towards politics in Northern Ireland was not completely destroyed. We are being asked to back the Minister's proposals. Given the time, we had the extra week to examine the proposals, hear from the Examiner of Statutory Rules and see whether more confidence could be given. I cannot read the paper by the Examiner and not continue to be concerned by what is being put forward.

This is a gamble. On the one hand, the prize is savings to the public purse. The Minister has not outlined as much. I notice that, last week, he did not refer to reducing to zero the cost to the Northern Ireland Budget, although some of his colleagues have today. I will see whether he makes that commitment today. We therefore have the prize of some reduction in the public spend. On the other hand, we have the risk of litigation and judicial review, and of further waste of public money on expensive legal challenges. And for what? What is being proposed is a temporary fix. It is a sticking plaster for one year while we, I assume, work on a proper solution. I do not think that I can take that gamble with public money. Given the focus that there is on this and the scrutiny that we do as MLAs in the midst of it all, I do not think that I can support the proposals today.

There has been a lot rehearsed about the RHI scheme, so I will not go into it in great detail. It was supposed to be a green scheme, with £25 million from the UK Government to help us switch to a low-carbon economy. I raised in September 2013 the issue of the perverse incentive. I got a response back from the then Minister. She stated:

"In designing the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) DETI has included energy efficiency assumptions that will ensure that the tariffs are most appropriate and most beneficial for those that have already carried out energy efficiency improvements".

She continued:

"within the existing RHI for commercial premises it is assumed that the installation of a biomass boiler, or another renewable technology, would be the final action taken by a business seeking to become 'low-carbon'." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 88, pWA209, col1].

That for me was the problem: assumptions were made. When those of us in the wider green movement — I and others — questioned at the scheme's inception why energy-efficiency measures were not being required as standard before installing, which would have required an audit in advance of installation rather than retrospectively, as we have now, the position was clear: we assume that people will do the right thing, so we will not add in those measures.

There is a lot of talk about whether it was a case of omission by lack of action or deliberate action that led to this. I believe that there were deliberate decisions made not to have audits and inspections of properties in advance of installing the boilers. There was consultation on the proposals for degression. You have a consultation, and the assumption that I make — a fair one, in this case — is that you are considering having a form of cost control. Again, a deliberate decision was taken not to introduce cost controls. Indeed, when I questioned the head of energy division at the ETI Committee in February 2016, he made it clear that it was a policy decision by the Minister not to introduce degression because we were focused on implementing the domestic scheme. That throws up the question of why you cannot have two priorities, but how that unit was funded and resourced is another matter.

Enough evidence was presented about the risk of £490 million of public money being lost that the then Minister, Arlene Foster, could and should have stepped aside until we got to the bottom of the issues. That it is what any honourable Minister would do, and, indeed, as has been pointed out, it is what Peter Robinson did when there were suspicions about him. Again, when that is the bar that is to be achieved, it is a sad day when Peter Robinson is being held up as the pinnacle of respect.