Calls have been made for First Minister Arlene Foster to “consider her position” after a botched energy scheme allowed hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to essentially go up in smoke.
Mrs Foster headed up the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the deeply flawed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was rolled out in 2012.
The initiative aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people to switch to eco-friendly wood-burning boilers, but it ended up landing Stormont with a massive £400m overspend.
Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt said the mismanagement of the RHI scheme was “the biggest financial foul-up in the history of the country”.
He added: “This is a scandal prone Executive and on this occasion, it comes to a fundamental tenet of democratic government called Ministerial Accountability. If Arlene Foster believes in it, she must consider her position.”
The government-led scheme incentivised business and domestic users to install costly eco-friendly heating systems, paying them a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.
However, no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed, effectively enabling users to burn unnecessary heat 24/7 in an effort to make as much money as possible.
One farmer is said to be in line to receive £1m for heating an empty shed.
It has emerged that applications for the RHI scheme had more than a 99% success rate, with only 12 of the 1,958 processed applications received by the department being rejected.
The information was revealed to Ulster Unionist MLA Harold McKee in response to an Assembly Question.
The South Down Assemblyman said: ““With 99.4% of all decided applications being approved, it’s clear this scheme was little more than a free-for-all. The sheer maladministration of the RHI has left a crippling legacy on Northern Ireland’s finances for the next 20 years, and given the pressures facing our schools, hospitals and support for small businesses, that is simply unforgivable. No matter how hard she tries to distance herself from it, Arlene Foster’s fingerprints are all over this fiasco.”
Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show this morning, TUV leader Jim Allister described the handling of the RHI scheme as “staggering and inexcusable” and also urged the First Minister to consider her position in light of the revelations, accusing her of being “asleep at the wheel”.
Further, Mr Allister called for the names of the beneficiaries of the RHI scheme to be made available to the public.
He added: “Our government gave them (the beneficiaries) a blank cheque so to speak and they took it. Why has the Minister refused to agree to publish the names of the beneficiaries to allow for further scrutiny to see if these were genuine applications in every case?”
In 2013, a whistleblower flagged up concerns about the RHI to Mrs Foster’s department, warning that it was seriously flawed.
However, the warning was not acted on and the scheme continued.
Despite concerns about the scheme being heavily abused, thousands of applications were processed and a massive overspend was racked up before it was eventually closed earlier this year.
Overall, more than £1 billion of public money will be paid by 2036 to Northern Ireland-based businesses which signed up to the initiative.
Management of the RHI is currently being examined by Stormont’s public accounts committee.
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood MLA has called for an Assembly convention that allows Ministers to escape scrutiny from the public accounts committee to be waived.
Mr Eastwood called for deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to stand with him in demanding the highest standard of accountability.
Mr Eastwood said: “The unwritten convention which allows Ministers to duck tough questions should be no impediment to transparency on this issue. And the First Minister cannot use it as a shield to deflect legitimate public interest scrutiny.”
Ecomony Minister Simon Hamilton said criminal prosecutions should be brought against anyone who abused the scheme.
He added that new measures were being put in place to mitigate any costs to the public purse and revealed that a consultation is expected to be brought forward early next year.
Mrs Foster is currently in China on a four-day visit to promote economic, education and cultural opportunities for Northern Ireland.
In a statement to the Nolan Show this morning, Mrs Foster said: “I accept and support the findings and recommendations of the NI Audit Office in relation to the RHI. In retrospect it is clear there were significant failings with the design of the scheme which should have been identified.”
Meanwhile, DUP MLA Alastair Ross has criticised comments by opposition representatives about the RHI scheme as “predictable political attacks” which he says prejudge the outcome of the ongoing investigation into the issue.
Mr Ross also pointed out that some of those making criticisms also voted against closing the scheme when the proposal was put to the Assembly.
“The failings of the RHI scheme have been have been acknowledged as shocking,” he added. “It is a matter of extreme regret to everyone involved in government.
“The public accounts committee is still working to get to the bottom of this issue and it is vital they are able to continue with this process.
“There are parties now expressing grave concerns over the costs incurred. However the same parties criticised the scheme’s closure and called for its continuation. Amongst those issuing statements with grave concerns include some of the 34 MLAs who voted against the scheme’s closure when it was brought before the Assembly.
“Cost issues surrounding the scheme were made clear at that time, but they voted to keep the scheme open for longer. The party politicking that marked the debate at that time continues today unfortunately.”