RHI scandal: Even when clearing up its mess, DETI got key word wrong

The DUP's Jonathan Bell, who was minister at the time

The DUP's Jonathan Bell, who was minister at the time

Even when attempting to clear up the mess created by their department, DETI officials put together documentation which was significantly flawed, the News Letter can reveal.

When the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) largely copied the GB RHI scheme in 2012, someone took the decision to remove the cost controls – which involved both a degression in tariffs based on demand and a cap on subsidies – from the legislation.

Eventually, that led to soaring demand, exacerbated by the fact that the subsidy had been set significantly above the cost of wood pellets, meaning that for every £1 spent on pellets, the department was paying £1.60 – incentivising claimants to run boilers as much as possible.

When in autumn 2015 DETI finally sought to undo its decision to strip out the cost controls, the issue had to be brought to the Assembly’s enterprise committee, which scrutinised the department’s work.

Documents provided to that committee and obtained by this newspaper, along with the testimony of officials before the committee, raise questions about the candour with which the department dealt with MLAs about a scheme which they knew was facing serious difficulties.

In fact, formal documentation put in from of the committee and seemingly drawn up by the policy experts in the department who ought to have understood the issue better than anyone actually used the wrong word for a key cost control which they were introducing.

In a letter to the committee from senior DETI official Stuart Wightman on 3 September 2015, he extraordinarily used the wrong word for the cost controls being proposed – and the same error was made in the other documentation given to the committee when requesting its approval.

He described one of the cost controls as ‘digression’ – which means ‘a temporary departure from the main subject’ – rather than ‘degression’, which means ‘a descent by stages or steps’.

Further questions are raised by what DETI officials then verbally told MLAs when they came to explain the documentation.

In a meeting on 17 September, the officials came to give details of the proposal from the then minister – Jonathan Bell – to introduce cost controls.

One official appeared to give the committee fundamentally inaccurate information, giving MLAs the impression that stalling on the decision could halt renewable investment, when in fact as we now know renewable investment was going through the roof at that point as people piled in to the wildly generous scheme before the deadline.

At the hearing, the chairman, SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, asked the official: “So, why’s it so urgent? Well, it was so pressingly urgent and then it slipped off the radar - that was 8 September.”

The official replied: “The reason for the urgency was that we were originally aiming for the 4th of November and we’ve been very open with the industry about that date.

“Due to a delay in securing the necessary financial and legal approvals, yes, the date has slipped. So we’re keen that there’s not a hiatus out there in terms of the industry because I know because we’re changing the tariff banding there are a number of installers holding off on new installations.

“Also, in terms of value for money, we’re obviously keen to obviously make the changes as soon as possible in terms of affordability of the scheme going forward.”

Mr McGlone asked: “So, a bit of a rushed job, but what time are we up today then?” The official replied that it was going to be debated in the Assembly chamber at midday.

At the time of going to press, the Department for the Economy, which replaced DETI in May, had not responded to a request for comment.