RHI scandal: DUP confirms top civil servant suspected SPAD influence

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton MLA
Economy Minister Simon Hamilton MLA

It has been confirmed that a senior civil servant told the DUP that one of the party’s special advisors was believed to have been involved in influencing decision-making over crucial cost controls in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The DUP confirmation that it was told of suspected special advisor involvement came in a statement on Wednesday.

It said that sometime since mid-December Dr Andrew McCormick had informed the DUP that, whilst he had no evidence to support it, he nonetheless believed that a special advisor had been involved.

Dr McCormick is the permanent secretary of the Department for the Economy (formerly known as DETI).

Mid-December is when the RHI scandal gathered pace, in the wake of the BBC broadcasting a Spotlight documentary about the scheme.

The statement on Wednesday was in the name of economy minister Simon Hamilton (who has inherited the botched RHI scheme), and John Robinson (a special advisor, or SPAD, to the DUP).

It said: “Prior to the 15 December when the BBC broadcast allegations of the involvement of DUP special advisers in preventing the introduction of cost controls for the non-domestic RHI scheme, Dr McCormick had not informed us of the name of any DUP Special Advisor that he believed to be seeking to offer advice or exert influence over the matter.

“Since the allegations aired on the 15 December, Dr McCormick has subsequently informed us that it was his understanding that a DUP Special Advisor who was not the then DETI Special Advisor was involved in the summer of 2015 but that he had no evidence to substantiate this.”

The issue of cost controls for RHI is vitally important.

Although they had been present in the scheme from the beginning on mainland UK, they were only belatedly introduced in late 2015 in Northern Ireland.

They mean that after a certain number of hours, the rate of subsidy provided for generating heat drops off sharply - reducing any incentive to continue running boilers after that point.

Former DUP enterprise minister Jonathan Bell, who took the decision to introduce cost controls after taking over from Arlene Foster as head of the department, had previously alleged that SPAD pressure was exerted to try and stop the scheme being reined in.

Addressing the issue of alleged SPAD involvement in the Assembly on December 19, Arlene Foster had said: “The former Enterprise Minister claims that he made a decision to amend the RHI scheme but was overruled by special advisers.

“Since last week, I have specifically investigated this claim. The evidence is clear.

“The only decision taken by the Minister was in early September to amend the scheme in November. The Minister was not subsequently overruled by special advisers, and I am clear that whatever representations may have been made by anyone on this issue, it was not being done with the authority of the party.

“I understand from Minister Hamilton that the permanent secretary recalls being told at the time that some in the party wanted the scheme to be kept open.

“He was unaware of the source of this suggestion, but believes it may have been based on the erroneous but widespread view at the time that because the scheme was funded through annually managed expenditure (AME), it was possible to maximise take-up without creating a problem.”