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

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:45 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 5:45 pm, 23rd January 2017

The Member may well be correct in that assertion, but the reality is that, in January 2016, the Committee was first advised of it, and the deputy First Minister was advised by the senior civil servant, the head of the Civil Service at that time, that the scheme had run out of control and that the advice of the officials in July was to close it down. Quite clearly, nobody in the Department of Agriculture was aware of the advice given to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment at that time. Nobody in Sinn Féin was aware of the advice being bandied around within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. If other people were promoting the scheme, it was in the lack of knowledge that the scheme from June/July 2015 was recognised within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment as being out of control, financial costs were spiralling and the advice was to close it down as quickly as possible. If other officials were briefing their Minister to go out and support the scheme in the autumn of that year, clearly officials in other Departments were not aware of the knowledge in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and, apparently, among the special advisers of the DUP and other DUP Ministers.

As I was saying, the upshot of the failure to bring forward a scheme to deal with RHI losses since earlier this year — you could argue that within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment until the election, and the Department for the Economy since — continues to cost the public purse £85,000 per day. The solution that we have before us is severely flawed. I do not think that anyone disagrees with that. As yet, it does not have European Commission state aid approval, and therefore the plan may not kick in for definite on 1 April. If state aid permission is not through by then, it stalls until such time as that approval comes through. No one knows for sure how long it will take to clear the state aid hurdle. I also read in the media that it is likely to face a judicial review. A point was made in an intervention during the last contribution that that also creates uncertainty as to when this stopgap scheme may kick in.

It is clearly not a zero-cost solution. Another £6 million will be lost to the public services between now and 1 April, when this plan is scheduled to kick in with lower tariffs. In the 2017-18 financial year covered by this plan, losses to the renewable heat scheme will be at least £2·5 million, and another £2 million-plus will be spent on inspections and the inevitable legal challenges. So it is not the full and comprehensive solution that was trailed in the media by the former First Minister over the Christmas period. In fact, while this plan deals with £30 million of public funds at risk next year, what is clearly needed is a plan to deal with the full £500 million of public funds at risk over the 20-year period.

To accept this plan today requires, as Stephen Farry said in the earlier part of this debate, a "leap of faith". However, to have faith in this solution, we have to have faith in those who are tasked with its delivery. Ofgem remains at the centre of this plan. Ofgem's involvement in this scheme has been disastrous. It has done virtually nothing to tackle the fraud and abuse of the scheme, and the Public Accounts Committee evidence given by Ofgem in October was one of the low points in this entire debacle.

A robust, 100% inspections regime is central to any solution. As yet, no business plan has been produced for that inspections regime, and inspections may not start until 1 May. That is a disgraceful delay. The business plan for the inspections regime needs to be developed and approved as a matter of urgency. Then, we have to have confidence that the DUP's fingerprints are not on the plan; that it has not been influenced by the architect of this mess, Arlene Foster, or by the DUP special adviser in the Department for the Economy who has had to step aside from all issues relating to RHI because of his family connection to the scheme. Of course, to make that leap of faith, we will also have to have confidence that the names of the beneficiaries during the spike period are not being held back because they contain more revelations about DUP links to those applicants. Minister Hamilton was asked repeatedly to release the names before this debate in order to build confidence in the solution he is proposing, and he refused to do so. That is a necessary confidence-building measure, Mr Speaker.

The part of the interim solution that has merit is the intention to reduce the tariffs for all business users from 1 April for one year. That is expected to reduce RHI losses by around £25 million next year. The rest is a hotchpotch that may or may not deliver as promised. That is why, regardless of how the vote goes today, the Minister of Finance must continue to engage with the Department for the Economy to make sure that he is satisfied that this plan will not only slow the runaway train, which is the DUP's RHI scheme, but enable us to stop it dead in its tracks from 2018 onwards and save not £25 million but £500 million for the public purse. That, I think, is the measure that is required in order to give confidence. We have, tomorrow —