As election looms, late DUP bid to cut vast RHI costs

A wintry scene at Stormont yesterday where the DUP minister Simon Hamilton was making a last-minute attempt to curb costs on the RHI scheme.  

Picture by Jonathan Porter/Press Eye
A wintry scene at Stormont yesterday where the DUP minister Simon Hamilton was making a last-minute attempt to curb costs on the RHI scheme. Picture by Jonathan Porter/Press Eye

A year after Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’s office was warned that the RHI scheme was being seriously abused, last night emergency legislation to rein in the out of control project was tabled.

As Stormont appears all but certain to collapse next week and politicians contemplate facing an electorate enraged by revelations of the ineptitude at the heart of the RHI scheme, DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton made a last-minute attempt to cut the cost to taxpayers.

Mr Hamilton tabled a hastily-constructed proposal – which appears to only have been pushed to the front of the political agenda after BBC Spotlight exposed the scale of the RHI squander last month – at the Assembly’s business committee yesterday evening.

The regulations were only circulated to MLAs yesterday afternoon, meaning that most MLAs who will be asked to vote on the legislation on Monday will only have the weekend to consider a legally complex proposal.

The legislation would retrospectively alter RHI claimants’ contracts to introduce tiering and a cap on what can be claimed – the two critical measures to safeguard public money in the GB scheme which were consciously stripped out by Arlene Foster’s department in 2012. Mrs Foster has blamed her officials for that decision.

Last week Mrs Foster vowed to “bring that potential [RHI] cost down to zero” and added: “There will be no overspend.” However, neither the regulations themselves nor the accompanying ‘explanatory memorandum’ which explains the legislation make any reference to the overspend being entirely eradicated.

Costs of the RHI debacle are rising at £85,000 a day.

Meanwhile, fresh concerns about the scale of the RHI squander have been expressed after it emerged that 44% of boilers inspected have had their payments suspended.

The regulations would put in place a less lucrative scheme for one year as “the first stage of cost control measures to permit further consideration of longer term cost control measures...on 31st March 2018”.

Aside from questions about the legality of retrospectively changing the RHI contracts, the explanatory memorandum contains several statements which would appear to leave the regulations vulnerable to legal challenge, but which have been necessary because of the haste with which Stormont has suddenly acted since the BBC Spotlight programme on December 6.

The formal memorandum states that there has been “no opportunity to consult on the introduction of these first stage measures” but that it would “give consideration to consultation” before the next stage in a year’s time.

The department also admitted that it had not carried out an Equality Impact Assessment, had not carried out a Regulatory Impact Assessment and said that “the financial implications will be further examined as part of the next stage”.

A lawyer who spoke to the News Letter yesterday before the text of the regulations emerged expressed serious concern about what the public was being told about the possibility of rectifying the RHI errors.

He said that it was “nonsense” to suggest that the solution could involve no cost to taxpayers and said there was an onus on the DUP and Sinn Fein to admit that “corrective legislation will result in a huge cost to the public purse”.

He said that any retrospective legislation of this nature would be subject to scrutiny for compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights – which sets out property rights – and added: “The cynic in me believes that the politicians would prefer to pass legislation which they know will fall foul of the ECHR in the knowledge that they will be long gone by the time the ECtHR makes a ruling on the legislation or, if not gone, that the public will have forgotten about it in the interim.”

Yesterday the BBC reported that OFGEM, which administers the RHI scheme, has suspended payments for 33 of the 63 installations they have inspected.

Money was recovered in four of the cases – a change from the situation just a fortnight ago when Mr Hamilton’s department told the News Letter that no money had been recouped.