A new Northern Ireland Audit Office report has found that ten renewable heat incentive (RHI) boilers were running all year except for the short period when they were serviced.
Such extreme usage was found in only a small number of the overall boilers in the scheme, but the scheme was being mis-used very widely. Less than half of the 295 boilers inspected last year were found to be operating in a way where heat was being generated for an eligible purpose within the intentions of the scheme.
In a damning remark, the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly referred to “systemic weaknesses” in controls that have facilitated the possibility of funding that is “at best not in line with the spirit of the scheme and at worst is fraudulent”.
Even if the retrospective cost controls being challenged in the High Court survive that challenge there will still be a £2 million annual overspend on the scheme, the Audit Office found.
This report is a reminder of the scale of the RHI scandal.
Not only was taxpayer cash squandered in a shameful fashion, the very purpose of the scheme – to conserve energy and ultimately help the environment – was at best ignored, and at worst treated with contempt.
As soon as the scale of the RHI scandal became apparent, the News Letter called for a robust inquiry into the affair that had the power to compel documents and witnesses. There is now going to be just such a robust inquiry, although it was a massive error (and a further squandering of taxpayer cash) that limits were not put on the costs of that probe.
A thorough investigation is necessary for a simple reason: if democracy and devolution is to work and to command popular support, there must be both competent governance and transparency so that voters can rest assured that the people they elect to power will administer that responsibility well.
RHI was a reminder that the post 1998 phase of Stormont devolution is still in its infancy and there is much still to learn.