The DUP’s deputy leader has said that yesterday’s front page News Letter revelations about civil servants having apparently given information to the renewables industry which led to the spike in RHI claims is of the “utmost seriousness”.
Nigel Dodds said that the revelations – which tally with evidence referred to by senior civil servant Andrew McCormick to Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday – meant that the focus has shifted to “officials in the department”.
Leaked emails revealed yesterday by News Letter show that some energy firms had detailed inside information about the plan to rein in the scheme four months before cost controls were implemented – with the source of the information allegedly being departmental officials.
Until now, it has been believed that the massive ‘spike’ in RHI applications came in the period between 8 September 2015 (when the plan to introduce cost controls was publicly announced) and 18 November (when cost controls were implemented).
In that period almost as many applications were received as had been made in the previous almost three years of the scheme.
On that basis, the Northern Ireland Audit Office calculated that those applications will cost taxpayers £480 million.
However, the correspondence seen by this newspaper points to the potential for the spike actually beginning much earlier, with some in the industry aware of the looming changes a full ten weeks before they were made public – and 20 weeks before critical flaws were rectified.
A 1 July 2015 email include the suggestion that clients considering wood pellet boilers should “move asap” to “avoid missing out on the best rates from RHI”.
Mr Dodds said that there was a need for “rigorous investigation” and said it was “important that the public hear all the facts in relation to this matter”.
And, speaking about the possibility that officials had for whatever reason given over information to businesses which had led to people piling into the scheme, he added: “If true, this will undoubtedly have been a major contributory factor behind the spike in applications.”
Mr Dodds also robustly defended his leader, Arlene Foster, by highlighting that much of Dr McCormick’s evidence to the PAC had supported her version of events.
He said that after the Economy Department permanent secretary’s testimony raised “serious questions about why the Opposition parties and sections of the media sought to blame Arlene Foster for the RHI debacle”.
Mr Dodds said: “During the Public Accounts Meeting meeting Dr McCormick made clear there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Arlene Foster, and that the failings in the design and operation of the RHI scheme were the responsibility of the civil service.
“Arlene Foster has made those points repeatedly and they have now been vindicated. It is clear that only a public inquiry can establish the full facts behind the RHI debacle.”
Mr Dodds said that Mrs Foster had been “pushing for an inquiry since mid-December”, although the DUP leader had opposed a full public inquiry into the scandal until the day before Martin McGuinness quit as deputy First Minister.
Mr Dodds said that Dr McCormick’s evidence also undermined some of the allegations made by former DUP minister Jonathan Bell.
He added: “The facts are there and it shows that Arlene Foster has been honest and acted with great integrity. The public want the truth rather than cheap political point scoring and media frenzy based on a distortion of the facts.”