RHI inquiry panel needs expert members

RHI, widely dubbed cash for ash, is based on the burning of wood pellets
RHI, widely dubbed cash for ash, is based on the burning of wood pellets

I have been perusing the recently established RHI public inquiry website with considerable interest.

The website is comprehensive and sets out in considerable detail the various procedures and protocols and terms of reference for the conduct of the inquiry and in particular, how the inquiry team will be structured.

On the plus side, the inquiry’s terms of reference are very widely drawn and on the face of it, provide an excellent opportunity for the investigation to be wide ranging and comprehensive in its coverage.

However, I have some significant concerns about the proposed resourcing structure of the inquiry team.

First, it is not clear what criteria was used to select the panel or inquiry team but interestingly – though perhaps, not altogether surprisingly – given that the inquiry panel is chaired by a judge, the inquiry team appears heavily imbalanced with solicitors, QCs and legal professionals to the virtual exclusion of any other professional discipline apart from a technical energy specialist as an advisor.

While there will clearly be the need for significant legal expertise given the complexities of the case, there are equally just as important other fundamental areas of the inquiry that will need to be rigorously addressed.

For example, the business case which is referred to in the terms of reference, will be a key document underlying the whole commercial and financial rationale for the scheme. It is therefore essential in my view for someone with financial expertise and experience of business case appraisals together with relevant knowledge of governance arrangements, to be involved at the outset.

Secondly, I also note from the inquiry website that consideration may be given to the appointment of a third panel member. I believe however, that this should be a priority appointment and that it should be filled by someone with a relevant professional commercial/business background.

When I raised my concerns directly with the inquiry panel their response was that the inquiry would be able to draw on assessors and expert witnesses as required and that they were confident that this together with the skills and knowledge within the team would be able to deal with the issues I had raised. I do not share this optimism.

Firstly, one could likewise argue that the inquiry could draw on legal expertise as required without the need to load it at the start with potentially expensive legal professionals but secondly and more importantly, there needs in my opinion to be a dedicated multi-disciplinary team in place at the outset if the inquiry is to be properly co-ordinated and managed from Day One.

I do not believe this can be adequately addressed by the ad-hoc appointment of “expert witnesses” as required.

Alas, I do not have the authority to dictate how the public inquiry should be conducted. But it needs to be properly resourced if it is to retain the public confidence of the NI taxpayer.

I shall therefore maintain an interested watching brief on its progress.

Derek Lynn, Retired civil servant, Ballymena