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

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 6:00 pm, 23rd January 2017

I suspect that a public inquiry might get some clarity on that, though it seems that there was such a tangled web that it may be difficult to extract any clarity from it.

The fact that we have a special adviser from one Department putting forward a patch repair for a scheme that is in another Department's remit simply adds weight to the perception that it is the special advisers who are in charge of the Ministers rather than Ministers being in charge of their Departments, and that is despite special advisers not being accountable to the Assembly and the public, whereas Ministers now simply act as though they are not.

It was also indicated that the business case was commenced on 30 December when the scheme was brought forward. That is despite the fact that, on 19 December, Mr Speaker, you recalled us to the House under a promise that was made publicly — it was in the public domain and in the media, who have taken much criticism from some in the Chamber today — that we would get not just a statement about what had happened but the presentation of a comprehensive scheme that would reduce the cost implications to zero. Not only did that not happen on 19 December but it is clear that what was being said in public was at odds with the timeline in private, as no such scheme was presented until almost two weeks later and is not a comprehensive solution but a patch repair. It gives further weight to the perception that the scheme and the timing and content of this repair are being driven by political considerations rather than considerations of good governance. There is genuine concern that this is less a patch to prevent the continued leaching of public funds over the next year and more a political fig leaf to cover the DUP's embarrassment over the RHI shambles ahead of the elections. It is one that carries significant risk, on which I will elaborate. Therefore, we have serious reservations about supporting such regulations.

Fourthly, the regulations have been given only limited scrutiny by the Examiner of Statutory Rules. Whilst the Examiner was able, in a very restricted manner, to look at the rule in the last week, that was not as complete and thorough an examination as would be expected, particularly of something that carries such risk. In fact, the Committee was, I believe, unable to agree the Examiner's report this morning, as it did not have confidence that it had been given sufficient time to consider the limited response that the Examiner was able to produce or to have full confidence that those would be the only remarks on it.

Fifthly, there is a major risk of legal challenge, primarily focused on the lack of consultation on the scheme. I realise that the intention is to consult during the first year of the scheme, but the risk of legal challenge is immediate. It is exacerbated by a lack of consultation with the sector and by the lack of Executive and Committee scrutiny. That approach, far from being cost-neutral, could place us at significant risk of incurring legal costs and, at the end of the process, still being liable for the £85,000 a day overspend.

There is, as a result, also an absence of analysis of the impact of a change in the scheme — in particular any sudden change — on a range of sectors including, for example, poultry and mushroom production. It was said earlier that I would not know much about poultry, but, from being in the Assembly, I know quite a lot about the cultivation of mushrooms. I have to say that, at times, when you sit in Committee, you feel that that is exactly how you are being treated. That may open up further opportunities, however, for legal action around the fairness of the measures that are being introduced and the impact that they could have on specific sectors and businesses.

Sixthly, there is a risk of the European Commission not endorsing what has been proposed as it may breach state aid rules. That places Northern Ireland at risk of infraction proceedings. I suspect that, in real terms, Europe has bigger issues to wrestle with over the next weeks and months. However, we are, essentially, looking for them to be generous towards us at a time when, perhaps, our Government have been less than generous towards them.

Why is all this being done in such a rush? I know that the DUP will focus on the fact that the resignation of the former deputy First Minister has added pressure to complete this process quickly, and we accept that to a point. However, whilst the collapse of the Assembly may have added to the pressure to complete it now, it does not explain why the action that is being taken today was not taken at any point in the last couple of years. We are now being told that this is the most straightforward and off-the-shelf solution to the problem. However, the Department did not actively consider this approach until the very end of last year. It was as a result of public and political pressure, not concern to protect the public purse, that this belated burst of activity was brought forward. The lack of action from February 2016 when the scheme closed and now is inexplicable. Arguably, if his had been initiated even in June 2016, we could have saved around £15 million in this financial year alone. That £15 million would have been adequate to introduce the cancer drugs fund, which costs £13·6 million.

In his comments earlier, Mr Frew was very critical of the media. He said that, at some point, the media had moved from reporting the news to wishing to be the news. It is called investigative journalism. Had it not been for the pressure of investigative journalism and the public and political scrutiny that followed it, I doubt very much that we would be standing here today discussing this solution, because it was that pressure and not foresight or protecting public resources that has driven this scheme.

The Minister is here today seeking our trust in the absence of the normal rigorous scrutiny to which issues of such importance rightly ought to be subjected. We have a duty to judge the regulations on their merits and the Minister on his record. Despite the lack of opportunity for Members to properly scrutinise this and the need for him to engender confidence and go the extra mile, if you will, he refused to take a single intervention when he introduced these regulations to the House last week. Further, as I referenced earlier, the Minister was not available to attend the Committee this morning to answer questions, leaving it to his officials to answer questions that are of a politically sensitive and urgent nature.

Last week, when the Minister sought my party's support in his bid for an independent public inquiry into the matter, we responded in detail to that request. We set out our grounds for supporting such an inquiry and contacted the Minister's private office to take Minister Hamilton up on his offer of a meeting to discuss it. We called for a public inquiry and we are willing, despite reservations, to support that were it to meet certain conditions. We were not seeking a scalp, as some in the Chamber have suggested today. We were seeking the truth on behalf of the people who employ us and who will pay for this mistake: the public. Their money is at risk. Their services are being jeopardised. Their confidence in these institutions, which are here to serve them and not party or self-interest, is being eroded. I want to set out what happened as detailed in the last paragraph of the letter that I hoped to give to the Minister at that meeting but ended up having to email to his private office.

"In conclusion, we welcome your offer of a meeting to discuss this matter. Having sought to arrange a time through your Private Office, we were advised that you would not be attending, but that the meeting could proceed with your Permanent Secretary and a lawyer. Given the time pressures and sensitivities of these matters, it is our view that a meeting at ministerial level is required in order that you can indicate directly whether you would be satisfied with the terms that we have outlined."

Again, we see a Minister happy to assume the trappings of office but appearing too readily to leave the heavy lifting, the jot and tittle if you will, of serious issues to officials and advisers. It is that eagerness to assume power but unwillingness to take responsibility that is at the very heart of this sorry mess.

The Minister's own record of avoidance of transparency and robust decision-making processes extends beyond this scheme. When we look at the manner in which a rushed decision was taken with respect to United Airlines without all the due diligence, only for it to unravel in an unholy mess later, we have serious reservations about the robustness of the scrutiny to which he, personally, will have subjected this statutory rule. The cynical view in the public mind remains that this is primarily a ploy on the part of the Minister and his party to give the appearance of having acted ahead of these elections. Given the antics of the Minister and his colleagues and their poor record on accountability and transparency, I have to say that, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to conclude otherwise. Ultimately, however, we believe that we need to try to stop the leaching of cash on this scheme, so we will not stand in the way of this passing today.

I want to take the opportunity, through you, Mr Speaker, to remind the Minister that he will be responsible for what is decided here, not me, not my colleagues and not any other Assembly Member in the Chamber. No amount of buck-passing, muck throwing or ducking of responsibility will change that fact. These are his proposals; they came from his Department; he is responsible for them.

In answer to Edwin Poots, I have to say that no one is suggesting that any Minister alone devises every scheme, every policy and every action of their Department, but every Minister is legally responsible for the actions of their Department, and it is good governance and leadership to step up when that occurs. The real scandal here is that, while we have people unable to heat their homes and struggling to feed their families, we have barns being raided by the police — empty barns with steam rising off them in the snow. I want that to stop.

We will not block these proposals today, despite our serious reservations. I hope that these proposals are a success, not for the Minister or his party but for the sake of the public who ultimately are paying the price for this debacle though they carry none of the responsibility for it.