Jonathan Bell: I was not told about spike in applications for RHI scheme

Solicitor Denis Moloney and his client, former DUP minister Jonathan Bell (right) as they arrive for his second day of evidence at the RHI inquiry at Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast.
Solicitor Denis Moloney and his client, former DUP minister Jonathan Bell (right) as they arrive for his second day of evidence at the RHI inquiry at Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast.

A former Stormont minister has said his department did not tell him that costs for a renewable energy scheme were spiralling.

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Jonathan Bell said it is a matter of “grave concern” to him that it now appears the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) had that information and did not share it with him.

Mr Bell was minister at the DETI, which oversaw the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

It was intended to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to green alternatives such as biomass.

By the summer of 2015 the cost to the taxpayer was beginning to spiral as firms realised how lucrative the incentives on offer were.

A public inquiry set up to examine what went wrong with the RHI scheme heard on Friday that there was a spike in applications in September and October before cost controls were applied in November.

The inquiry heard that applications increased by 100% in six weeks.

Mr Bell signed an order to introduce cost controls on September 3, but these did not come into effect until November.

He insisted he would have tried other mechanisms if he had known about the spike in applications.

“Nobody informed me through the agreed processes of the department, so I wasn’t aware at all of the spikes in applications, nobody was even informally briefing me,” he said.

“What causes me grave concern is why I wasn’t told after the first week, the second week, the third week, running right up to the sixth week.

“Why if my department had the information, and why when my department had a mechanism to get urgent messages to the minister, why was none of this done.

“If it is the case that Ofgem and others were telling my department about a surge in applications, had they told me after week one there had been such a surge, we can’t deal with it, then I would have looked at urgent procedure, I would have looked at other legislative mechanisms that were in our arsenal to address legislatively that sort of concern.

“But nobody told me and that causes me grave concern that I was a minister in the department which seems now to have had that information but for whatever reason was not following the agreed process to bring that to the attention of the minister.”

The inquiry also heard that at that time, the DUP had an “in-and-out” policy in terms of its ministers.

It was a protest move following the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast in August 2015 and subsequent statement by PSNI Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes that members of the supposedly decommissioned Provisional IRA had been responsible.

DUP ministers resigned in opposition to sharing government with Sinn Fein, a party with historic links to the Provisional IRA.

Ministers resigned for a number of days before returning to office for a number of hours and then resigning again.

This pattern was repeated to stage a protest without losing ministerial positions.

Mr Bell told the inquiry that this in-and-out policy did not have an impact on his work as a minister.

“DETI functions continued as normal, I returned on (a) weekly basis to deal with urgent business, and only resigned when all urgent business (was) dealt with,” he said.

At the start of Friday’s hearing, Sir Patrick Coghlin warned that the inquiry is not a “media sensational platform”.

“There is no open invitation to witnesses to come along and use the hearings for the purpose of publishing material to which they object or take offence for reasons which are irrelevant to the inquiry,” he said.

“It is not a media sensational platform.”

The warning came after a reference was made on Thursday to allegations of sexual misbehaviour by DUP ministers.