RHI scandal: As he closed disastrous scheme, Jonathan Bell claimed it was a success

Jonathan Bell told the Assembly in February that money had not been squandered on RHI
Jonathan Bell told the Assembly in February that money had not been squandered on RHI

Jonathan Bell told the Assembly as recently as February that the RHI scheme was “a positive news story” and denied that money had been “squandered”.

As attention focuses on the credibility of Mr Bell’s statement last week that he wanted to close the scheme and that it should have been shut “on day one” when he took over as minister in May 2015, the text of a speech which Mr Bell gave to MLAs raises questions about how candid he was being with the Assembly.

At that point, where it was clear to the department that the scheme was out of control, Mr Bell still chose to describe it in markedly positive terms.

Mr Bell did warn MLAs that if they voted against the closure of the scheme they were “voting for an open-ended funding commitment” and he warned that “we now face significant budgetary pressures”.

He went on to tell the chamber that the funding stream had “enormous budgetary pressures, and must be suspended”.

Yet Mr Bell also told MLAs: “I want to make the point, however, that some of the reaction to the closure of the RHI implies that money has been squandered or investment lost.

“That is not the case. The RHI has seen over £50 million brought in to Northern Ireland over the last four years.

“That has gone to help some of our most important local industries, to bolster the rural economy and to provide much-needed jobs. Existing scheme participants will continue to receive support for 20 years.

“Those who hoped to avail themselves of the scheme will, naturally, be disappointed, but let us not forget what benefits the scheme has brought.”

Mr Bell also said: “The RHI is a positive news story for the Northern Ireland energy market as consumers embrace new technologies, reduce their carbon emissions and help to support the development of this new sector.”

And, in a press release where he announced the scheme’s closure in February, Mr Bell said: “Both schemes have been very successful with the non-domestic scheme in particular seeing significant uptake during the last 12 months and more so in the run up to the recent scheme changes introduced in November 2015.”

That press release was released at 6.02pm on a Friday evening, a slot in which government often tries to ‘bury bad news’.