Justice Minister Claire Sugden should discuss the legality of claims made under the botched Renewable Heating Incentive scheme (RHI) with her colleagues in government as a matter of priority, according to one MLA.
The UUP’s Danny Kennedy indicated that discussions were “necessary” to determine what the legal status is of cases where people have been needlessly burning fuel simply to get the RHI subsidy money.
The RHI scheme was designed to encourage the use of renewable types of fuel in heating systems; in practice, this has mainly meant wood pellet-fired boiler systems.
However, it was set up in such a way that applicants received more in subsidies for each kilowatt of heat produced than the fuel they were burning was worth.
This meant that some people earn money every time they fire up their boilers, whether or not they actually need the heat.
There is a clause built in to the 2012 act which established the whole RHI scheme – called the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) – which states users “must not generate heat for the predominant purpose of increasing their periodic support payments”.
Nevertheless, Stormont’s Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleior last week quoted from an as yet unpublished report into the scheme, which he said had showed that only 47% of users whose systems were inspected were actually using the scheme in an eligible way (although it is not known on what grounds the remaining 53% had been judged ineligible).
He added that anyone who, for example, is using the RHI scheme to heat an empty shed just to collect subsidies is “stealing” from taxpayers.
There are roughly 4,700 applicants to the RHI scheme – about 2,700 on the relatively small-scale household scheme, and about 2,100 on the vastly more costly “non-domestic” scheme, covering businesses and farms.
If the 47% figure he has cited is correct across the board, that means the number of people using the scheme improperly could be well into four figures.
UUP MLA Danny Kennedy had asked via a parliamentary question whether Ms Sugden “had any (i) discussions; or (ii) correspondence with Executive colleagues regarding the legality of claims for funds under the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme”.
She replied last week that, whilst the scheme was discussed at December 15’s Executive meeting of government ministers, “I have not had any discussions or correspondence about the legality of claims for funds”.
Mr Kennedy – the former transport minister – said: “If the scheme is being flouted deliberately and wilfully I think that raises very serious concerns; as to whether that is legal or not is a different issue entirely...
“I would expect those discussions to be necessary and probably the sooner the better.”
He added: “The question to the minister was proposed because of the public interest in this and the concerns that are out there that in some way the law has been flouted or broken, so it is important that public confidence is maintained and restored as quickly as possible.”
The PSNI told the News Letter last week that it was not conducting an investigation into the scheme.