An official involved in the design of the RHI scheme has accepted that Arlene Foster made the decision to press ahead with the scheme based on “untrue” information put before her by officials.
Yesterday the public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ scandal heard from Sam Connolly, who was a deputy principal economist in Mrs Foster’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in the period when the renewable heat incentive was being designed in 2011 and 2012.
The inquiry has already heard that the expert consultants who DETI paid £100,000 to advise on how best to incentivise renewable heat told the department that a ‘challenge fund’ grant scheme could be about £200 million cheaper than an RHI scheme and produce more renewable heat.
However, the department did not want to set up that fund, partly because it did not want to have to administer the scheme itself.
Yesterday Mr Connolly claimed that the challenge fund was “given a fair hearing” before being ruled out.
He was asked about a submission to Mrs Foster which was drafted by fellow officials and which was sent to him.
When pressed on whether it was fair or appropriate to proceed with a public consultation recommending an RHI scheme on the basis of a draft consultants’ report which showed that the challenge fund would have been far cheaper, Mr Connolly said: “I don’t. I think the best approach would have been to wait to get the final CEPA [consultants’] report.”
But he said that “as far as I was concerned, the minister had made a decision, so who am I to argue with that?”
However, Sir Patrick came in at that point to put to Mr Connolly that the minister had made her decision “based on an untrue statement” put to her by officials. Sir Patrick said that contrary to what Mrs Foster was told, RHI “didn’t offer the most heat at the best value and you knew that wasn’t true...if she’d made her decision on that basis, which it looks like she certainly did, that was untrue”.
Mr Connolly said: “I would agree with that.”
It is the latest in a long line of admissions by civil servants that information put before Mrs Foster was either incomplete, misleading or inaccurate.
Mr Connolly, who was 30 at the time when he was analysing the scheme, also told the inquiry that with hindsight he thought they should have had a more experienced economist dealing with what was a “very complex” scheme “involving concepts and sums of money that were beyond me”.
And he said that it had never occurred to him that tiering of tariffs - meaning that once a boiler ran for a set number of hours the owner was paid a lower subsidy - could be a crude form of cost control, helping to stop over-use of boilers.
He said that he expected that planned reviews of the scheme would address that issue. However, Mr Connolly was asked if the scheme ought to have been designed as an optimum scheme from the outset, rather than relying on future reviews to correct flaws.
He said that he was reliant on the consultants to provide that sort of advice.