Those ripping off taxpayers using legal – but ethically abhorrent claims– under an inept Stormont scheme should be forced to publicly justify their actions, a former MLA last night said.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) – which was intended to encourage environmentally responsible behaviour – was made so generous by Stormont that a farmer is receiving £1 million a year for heating an empty shed and a firm will get £1.5 million annually for 20 years for heating a previously unheated factory.
Many others who claimed under the scheme did so in good faith and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has said that he cannot publish a list of RHI beneficiaries due to the Data Protection Act.
But last night a new potential route for making public the worst offenders emerged.
The issue is being investigated by the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Former SDLP MLA John Dallat – the most experienced former PAC member, having served for 17 years on the key committee – called for it to used its powers to compel as witnesses those who are pocketing enormous sums using morally dubious methods.
Mr Dallat told the News Letter: “If the PAC is going to be the forum to investigate this, then they’ve got to exercise all powers within the act which they operate under. Calling witnesses is critical.”
In 15 years, the Assembly’s has never compelled a witness.
Section 44 of the Northern Ireland Act gives the Assembly (in reality, really its committees) the power to require any person “to attend its proceedings for the purpose of giving evidence” or “to produce documents in his custody or under his control”.
That power is backed up by similar provisions in Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and in the Assembly’s Standing Orders.
Last night Opposition leader Mike Nesbitt said that he would like to see the PAC and the Audit Office attempt to get to the bottom of “the percentage of applicants who availed of the scheme because it was a money-making exercise”.
The scheme – which was designed by civil servants but signed off on by the then Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster – had been fundamentally flawed from the start. But there was a sudden surge in applications in three months between September and November last year as those in the know realised that the offer was too good to last.
On Tuesday, BBC Spotlight revealed that Mrs Foster had been contacted by a whistle-blower in 2013 and again in 2014 to warn about flaws in the scheme.
And yesterday Jim Allister highlighted a second opportunity where the errors could have been identified but which was missed on Mrs Foster’s watch. The scheme was supposed to obtain re-approval from the Department of Finance in April 2015 but that did not happen due to “insufficient administrative arrangements”.
Mr Allister said: “If this review and re-approval process had occurred the public could have been saved tens of millions, because this was before the massive spike in applications.”
On Thursday night, DUP Economy Minister Simon Hamilton told Mark Carruthers on The View that it was “a shocking situation, and one that needs to be dealt with”.
However, he insisted that civil servants were wholly to blame, with no responsibility lying at the feet of either of his predecessors, Jonathan Bell or Arlene Foster.
Speaking of Mrs Foster, he said: “There was no crystallisation of the problem during her time in office”.
And, when asked if the names of those claiming under the scheme could be made public, he said: “People who signed up to the scheme did not agree to have their names put forward...the Data Protection Act prevents me, even if I wanted to, from putting that into the public domain.”
However, a source with intimate knowledge of data protection law yesterday told the News Letter that the law offered no protection to businesses claiming under the RHI scheme.
The News Letter asked the DUP whether it was aware of any of its public representatives or Spads – either current or past – having benefited from the RHI scheme,
In a statement, the party said: “The DUP is not privy to the list of those who applied for and are in receipt of monies from the Renewable Heat Incentive, nor would it be appropriate for the DUP or any political party to have access to such information.
“We are however able to confirm that none of the special advisors employed by our ministers are applicants to the scheme and for the avoidance of doubt are not benefiting in any way from this scheme.”
The PSNI said in a brief statement: “PSNI are not conducting an investigation into this scheme.”
See Morning View, page 20