The chairman of the public inquiry into the RHI scandal has expressed surprise that officials in one Stormont department were promoting the disastrous scheme months after officials in another Stormont department had started trying to rein it in.
In evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the Stormont Executive in 2015, questions were yesterday raised at the inquiry about the level of communication between ministers and senior civil servants in the DUP-run Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) had the Sinn Féin-run Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD).
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked a series of questions about how it could have been that DARD was still promoting the scheme to farmers at a point when it is now clear that DETI knew it was dangerously out of control and was attempting, despite resistance from some DUP figures, to belatedly introduce cost controls.
It is now clear there was a huge spike in applications in that period before cost controls were implemented in November 2015 to rein in the ‘burn to earn’ aspect of the scheme.
Donal Lunny, junior counsel to the inquiry, took the inquiry panel to part of a witness statement from the permanent secretary of Stormont’s agriculture department, Noel Lavery.
He said that Mr Lavery had set out how between November 2011 and October 2015, the department’s educational arm, CAFRE, included information about the RHI scheme at 58 training events aimed at farmers, which were attended by 2,358 people.
It also promoted the scheme at eight ‘knowledge and technology transfer events’ attended by 258 people in that timeframe.
Picking up on the significance of the dates, Sir Patrick said that “October 2015 would have been what – four months – after it would have been realised how big the spike was and they needed to have the tiering?”
Mr Lunny replied: “That’s correct, Mr Chairman.”
Sir Patrick said: “So the Department of Agriculture were carrying out promotional training events while the Department of Energy were trying their best to reduce the attraction of the scheme?”
Mr Lunny said: “So it seems”, adding that Mr Lavery’s evidence made clear that at some of the events organised by his department biomass boiler installers were present and selling their wares.
He added that both CAFRE and private firms’ documents showed that they were promoting the lucrative nature of the scheme, highlighting factors such as the cost of fuel and the likely payback time.
Mr Lunny said that some of those documents were contributed to by civil servants within DETI’s energy division.
Sir Patrick said: “It would be difficult to have any difficulty with promotion at the start [of the scheme] when there was very low take-up.
“But it is very hard to understand how when one department was emphasising the profitability of the scheme, the other department was trying to control it.
“One wonders was there any communication at all at the higher levels – permanent secretary, minister – about what was happening. It’s almost as if they’re two different worlds here.”