RHI: Recovery Plan

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 24th January 2017

4. Ms Mallon asked the Minister for the Economy to outline his recovery plan to reduce the £490 million renewable heat incentive scheme overspend to zero. (AQO 977/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will group the answers to questions 1 and 4.

The Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 were approved by the Assembly yesterday. When I brought the regulations before the Assembly, I stated that they were the first steps towards reducing the burden on the Northern Ireland Budget. I also outlined additional action that I was taking on inspection, audit and enforcement. My officials are progressing work to tender for 100% site inspections. The inspection process, coupled with vigorous investigation and enforcement action, will bear down on future costs. The changes in the scheme will have effect for only one year. We can, and will, make any necessary reasonable corrections when a long-term solution is developed for implementation from 1 April 2018. In putting forward a long-term solution, we will consult and listen to the views of installation owners and other stakeholders.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Minister, one of the assurances that you gave the House yesterday was on the robustness of your scheme. Yet, this afternoon, we learn that some 300 boiler owners have managed to block and thwart your promise to the House and to the citizens of Northern Ireland to deliver the names of boiler owners. In those circumstances, Minister, will you publish the names of the others who are not blocked by this injunction?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his question. However, he is conflating two issues. I wrote to his party leader, and indeed to all Assembly party leaders, before making the announcement that I did last week about wanting to publish the details of the businesses in receipt of the non-domestic RHI scheme. It was my intention to do that tomorrow. Unfortunately, as the Member says, an injunction has been placed on those who are members of the renewable heat association. I have only just received the news. I have not seen the full judgement yet, and, as the Member and House would expect, I will wish to consider it in full before making any decision. The Member's party leader wrote to me wishing to have the fullest transparency on the names, and that is still my objective. That is what I sought to do by making the announcement that I did last week.

We had to run through a process, which the Department undertook in pretty quick time, given the volume of work. I signalled my intention to publish the names, consistent with the process as laid out in section 10 of the Data Protection Act. I deeply regret the injunction that has been sought and awarded this afternoon because that, in and of itself, prevents full transparency. I will take the time to consider what can now be done in the circumstances.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, there are other ways of making public information that would allow us to identify details of usage in the RHI scheme. Is he willing to make public geographic information on where the scheme is being most abused?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

As I said in response to Mr Dickson, we will, given the judgement today, have to reflect on how we can provide the fullest possible transparency. That is what I want to achieve, and, listening to the Member, I think that that is what he wishes to see as well. He said that there are other ways in which information can be made public, and I agree that there is a range of ways in which it could be presented. It would not necessarily be the fullest transparency that not only Members but those outside the House wish to see and which is needed to instil the public confidence that is, unfortunately, lacking at the minute. I wanted it to happen, and we went down the road of a process to allow it to happen. We signalled our intention to do that, but, unfortunately, an injunction was sought and awarded today. In light of the judgement made this afternoon, I will look at the range of options that I will have to continue to pursue that goal of transparency.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Minister, the permanent secretary addressed the Economy Committee yesterday. He told the Committee that the formation of the mitigation plan, which formed part of the statutory rule that passed through the House yesterday, started on 30 December. He told us that it was a SpAd from another Department who came forward with the idea, but he refused to name that SpAd. I wonder, Minister, can you share that information with the House today?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The Member asks the question almost as though it is a bad thing that a special adviser from any Department has a good idea. If the Member had come to me with a good idea, I might have listened to it and taken it forward, but of course he did not. The idea was developed over time before being submitted in regulations to the House last week and passed last night. We should focus not on the origins or genesis of the idea but on the fact that it is legally robust, and, now that the regulations have been passed, it will allow a significant reduction in the budgetary shortfall on the RHI scheme. It reduces the shortfall from an estimated £30 million next year to between £2 million and £2·5 million, and that is before we bear down further on the costs through audit, inspection and enforcement.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers so far and for his commitment that his Department will carry out 100% site inspections. Is he able to inform the House when that process will begin?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I signalled the intention to do this a few weeks ago. The Member and the House will know that inspections of all installations would have taken place over the 20-year lifetime of the RHI scheme. Given the circumstances that we find ourselves in, particularly with accusations of fraud and abuse, I do not think that we can leave it that long before inspecting. We need to accelerate that process, which will require resource, and a tender is being drafted. The scale of inspection means that the tender must go Europe-wide, but, even though there is a legal process to go through in that regard, I expect the tender to be awarded in the coming months and the inspections to start in the not-too-distant future. I think that it is incredibly important that we do that. It is part of instilling public confidence, which is lacking.

Also critical, as I said previously, is the further bearing down on the cost of the RHI scheme to the Northern Ireland Budget. I think that a combination of more behavioural change and bearing down on cost through inspection, audits and, importantly, enforcement can reduce next year's estimated shortfall of between £2 million and £2·5 million to closer to zero.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

An interim injunction is generally granted as an ex parte application: that is, without the respondent being present or heard. Was that the situation today, or was the Department heard? If it was an interim injunction on that basis, it lasts only until there is a full hearing. When is that full hearing?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I do not know the answer to the Member's second question, but I will come back to him. In relation to the first question, the Department was there and represented. Representations were made to the court on behalf of the Department.