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

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 3:45 pm, 23rd January 2017

I begin by referring to a subject that some Members have already placed on record during the debate, and I make no apologies about revisiting that subject, as it is part of the journey to the debate today on these regulations. During recent weeks, when the media and the Opposition parties in this Chamber performed a public service by shining a light on the RHI debacle, much play has been made of the fact that all parties in the Assembly on 15 February last year, with the exception of Sinn Féin and the DUP, voted against the statutory rule brought by then Minister Bell to suspend the scheme at the end of February. I was not serving in the Chamber at that time, but I have read the Hansard report on the debate to try to understand the background and the context of what was said and done that day. It is quite clear to me that some of the subsequent comments around the vote that day have been, to put it mildly, as economical with the truth as President Trump's chief press officer has unashamedly been in the last few days.

In reality, MLAs were seeking the continuation of a properly revised and tiered RHI scheme that had the proper cost controls applied since the previous November through to the end of the financial year on 31 March 2016. That would have permitted a controlled wind-down. It is quite clear from Hansard that members of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, especially its Chairman at that time, along with all the Members of the Assembly, felt that they were being starved of information around the scheme. It is also clear that the DUP and its, until quite recently, friend and partner in the Executive, Sinn Féin, voted as they did after that debate because they knew much more than others about this developing scandal that they hoped would simply go away.

This regulation has been brought to the House by the Minister with a haste that I suspect has more than one eye on the public judgement on the RHI scandal. The House was invited last Monday to pass it into law with total disregard for due process or scrutiny by the Economy Committee and the official Examiner. Where is the precedent for such a manoeuvre? Surprisingly, it is the draft Renewable Heat Incentive Schemes (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016, which was laid in the Business Office on 8 February 2016, a mere four working days before the plenary session at which it was considered. It is truly amazing that this scheme has twice had to short-circuit the normal protocols of this Chamber. Is it any wonder that there was considerable suspicion about the amendment that was being rushed through the House last Monday?

Last February, there was not the normal Committee scrutiny of the motion to suspend the RHI regulations. It will take the investigation of a full public inquiry to find out the full truth of what was going on behind the scenes in January and February. We have heard contrasting stories of bullying and shouting as Minister Bell attempted to close the scheme early. All normal Assembly scrutiny processes were bypassed, yet the DUP has unashamedly tried to blame the Committee and Opposition MLAs ever since, with fingers being pointed in any direction that they could think of except towards themselves and refusing to recognise the concept of ministerial responsibility that pertains in most countries outside of North Korea.

It is obvious from what is in the public domain at present, with no doubt more to come, that an attempt was being made to keep most of the Assembly in the dark in February 2016. It was known that there was an overspend, but the full financial disaster was not made clear before the Comptroller and Auditor General's report at the start of July. The DUP knew exactly how bad the situation was, and this prompted it to vote as it did last February.

However, Sinn Féin must equally have known how bad it was, and yet it chose to vote alongside its Executive partner. In my eyes, this poses questions for it to address. It is ironic that a party that played a very bad game of hokey-cokey around a full public inquiry, with its position changing two and three times a day, should now be attempting to instigate such an inquiry and announcing it just a few hours after a senior figure in its party was on the radio saying that it would not and could not support one.

It will be interesting to discover, through an inquiry, how much they did know and how they allowed their non-aggression pact with their partners in the Executive to adopt the example of the three brass monkeys, who saw no evil, heard no evil and refused to talk about the evil.

I am grateful that the Opposition were able to ask the House to delay the debate for one week to allow some level of scrutiny to take place. The Economy Committee has worked hard since to gather evidence and take some legal advice, without the help of Sinn Féin. It seems to me that this exercise, far from providing answers, has actually raised more questions. Since last July to the end of December 2016, a further £15·5 million of the public purse has gone up in smoke. The Economy Committee was told that lots of work was going on behind the scenes to try to come up with a mitigation plan. The permanent secretary informed the Committee that the plan contained in this statutory rule had only been conceived on 30 December last year. Just two weeks later, it was announced to the world as a finished article — an amazing feat of record-breaking administration after seven months of inertia since the audit report of last July. We were told that, because of a lack of any sustainable data, a lot of guesswork had to be employed in its formation. Is this really the way to run a country? However, a more damning piece of information came to the Economy Committee this morning, when the permanent secretary told us that this latest plan was actually suggested by a special adviser from another Department, whom he refused to name. Why the secrecy? Have we not had enough of this culture of lack of transparency that breeds suspicion in the mind of the public we serve?

Last week, the Committee heard evidence from representatives from the mushroom-growing industry, the poultry sector and spokespersons for the renewable industry. The mushroom industry representative told us that large contracts with customers had been agreed for the supply of product based on a price tendered on the basis of the sums that they had done around their heating outgoings. They felt that they would be unable to simply tear up their contracts with customers in the way that this statutory rule was going to allow. The poultry sector expressed similar concerns and felt that many livelihoods were going to be put in jeopardy if the goalposts were moved. One of the spokespersons for the renewable industry highlighted a point I made to the Minister that, if the Government decided to simply tear up existing contracts, future overseas investors might think twice about coming here to do business with a Government that may not be prepared to see out the terms of a contract.

This plan smacks of being a desperate measure by the DUP to bring some level of respectability to a monumental failure of their making. It is obvious that they want to draw this upcoming election back to their comfort zone of a battle between green and orange. From what I am hearing — I suspect that the DUP are hearing it as well — an angry Northern Ireland public will not be falling for that trick.

During an Economy Committee meeting, I pointed out to the Minister the dilemma that many people had signed up to this scheme in good faith and were encouraged to borrow large amounts of money from banks that Mrs Foster had written to, in glowing terms, to allay any fears they had around lending money. The Minister replied that, indeed, many people had not signed up in good faith. Surely, if people of ill intent could see the golden egg on the other side of their boiler, why did the then Minister or her staff not pick it up? When asked who requested leaving out the cost controls section contained in the UK model, the permanent secretary replied that it was a policy decision. Who makes policy decisions? It is not a Committee or a civil servant but the Minister. Why was it allowed to be left out by the Minister?

I believe that pressure was being applied by whatever means necessary to make this scheme a political flagship success. I received information from one businessman who was visited at his home by officials who told him about this wonderful scheme. He thought it was too good to be true and was politely walking them to his gate. He mentioned that, since the scheme was only open, at that point, to commercial users, he would not be eligible. They then asked him whether he ever brought work home from his business or visited his company's computer from home. They suggested that they could be creative with paperwork to get him into the scheme. He told them to close the gate behind them on the way out, as he recognised the whiff of fraudulent behaviour. Were these salesmen being judged on how many people they signed up, with weekly targets to meet? It seemed to me to be so. Was the thinking behind the renewable heat incentive scheme to make it a political success story at any price? A lot of what we know now certainly points in that direction. Had that success materialised, I am sure that we would have heard from many authors, and the kudos would not have been shared, like the blame for this scandal being thrown in every direction open to the political policymakers — in this case, the DUP.

The permanent secretary expressed his disappointment this morning that, during the spike in applications, nobody told him that it was potentially a licence to print money, but did the whistle-blower not do that very thing some time ago and, in one case, directly to Mrs Foster?

The House is in an impossible situation today on whether or not to support the statutory rule, given the lack of information. We are damned if we do and damned if we do not. No doubt, if it all subsequently goes sour through legal action, we will be reminded that we all supported it. What a way to govern. What a way to run a country. This is all a monumental mess of the DUP's making. The taxpayers and the rest of us in the House are being asked to do the heavy lifting to sort it out. Some things never change.

Mr Frew referred to the fact that we should not attack the concept of the scheme and so forth. I remind the House of some comments that I made in a recent debate when I said that the RHI was a good concept, damaged by poor administration and lack of ministerial control.