Criminal prosecutions should be brought against anyone who abused a green energy scheme set to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds, the Economy Minister has warned.
Simon Hamilton has also rejected claims his predecessors were “asleep at the wheel” when the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was rolled out by the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).
He was quizzed about the botched initiative during Question Time at the Assembly.
“I am absolutely adamant that where there is proof and evidence of abuse of the scheme, that appropriate action including, if required, criminal proceedings should begin against anybody who has abused the scheme or defrauded the scheme,” he said.
The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people off fossil fuels but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.
It encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.
However, unlike the rest of the UK, no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to the size of boiler and the hours it was operated.
That effectively enabled a business to burn unnecessary heat 24/7 just to make money.
Management of the scheme is currently being examined by MLAs on Stormont’s public accounts committee.
Mr Hamilton said new measures were being put in place to mitigate any costs to the public purse and revealed that a consultation is expected to be brought forward early next year.
He added: “These are serious, serious issues which I am very seized of the importance of and am dealing with on an ongoing basis to try and find a resolution to many of the issues that have flowed from the allegations and concerns there have been with regards the Renewable Heat Incentive.
“My department is currently developing a proposal for changes to the Renewable Heat Incentive which, if accepted, would lead to significant reduction of future costs to the Northern Ireland Executive.”
Thousands signed up to the RHI before it closed, but not before Stormont had been left exposed to a huge overspend.
Overall, more than £1 billion of public money will be paid by 2036 to Northern Ireland-based businesses which signed up to the scheme.
Branding the scheme a “squander made in Stormont”, TUV leader Jim Allister posed the question: “It might cost him his job but would the Minister agree, that at least one of his predecessors, particularly Mrs [Arlene] Foster was asleep at the wheel in terms of failing to exercise ministerial supervision and ensuring that there were adequate cost controls in place.”
However, Mr Hamilton said previous ministers had been ill-advised by policy officials.
“It is very clear to me that the ministers followed all advice given to them and because that advice was wrong; it was based on bad grounds the scheme was badly designed,” he said.