With the ash from the Renewable Heating Incentive blowing across the political landscape, I was reminded of this exchange from a 1980 episode of Yes Minister.
Sir Humphrey: “It’s a tiny mistake, minister, the sort that anyone can make.” James Hacker: “A tiny mistake? 75,000 pounds? Give me an example of a big mistake.” Sir Humphrey: “Letting people find out about it.”
Let’s begin by nailing down one single inescapable fact. Key people at ministerial, advisory and departmental level made whopping mistakes. Those same people then proved wonderfully adept at admitting that mistakes had been made; yet not one of them seems prepared to admit that they bear particular responsibility. We’ve had bland statements, bland smiles, a commitment to “get to grips with this very serious matter,” and the promise of internal and public inquiries to “establish the facts and ensure that something like this can never happen again”.
How difficult is it to pin the tail on the donkey? How difficult can it be for a minister to sit down with the permanent secretary and clarify who gave the nod of approval, ticked the relevant boxes and oversaw the ongoing implementation of this particular scheme? How difficult can it be for Arlene Foster to explain what she did with the letter she received from the whistleblower? Who did she give it to? What follow-up did she ask for? When did she get the follow-up? What did she do with it? Did she ask her special advisor (Spad) to look into it? Did she inform her successor? Did anyone from her department ever tell her that the contents of the whistleblower’s letter were worth following up? Crucially, did anyone from her department ever tell her that there was no case to answer?
One woman – the whistleblower –took a few minutes on her computer to realise that there could be a huge problem with the RHI scheme. This was in 2013. She contacted Arlene Foster, who referred her to a team of civil servants in her department who dealt with energy issues. The whistleblower met them in the autumn of 2013 and urged them to address the flaws she had uncovered. Nothing was done. In May 2014 she emailed the department saying: “It’s got to a stage where it cannot be ignored any longer.” But nothing was done until earlier this year when the scheme was closed after “a huge spike in applications in late 2015 finally broke the budget”.
Why was nothing done? Who made the decision that nothing should be done? Who decided that the whistleblower’s concerns – which turned out to be accurate – shouldn’t be acted upon? Why, at the very least, wasn’t the application process suspended until a thorough investigation had been carried out? Why hasn’t there been a formal ministerial statement listing the names of the civil servants who met the whistleblower in the autumn of 2013, along with the minutes of that meeting?
Earlier this year the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) had this to say about RHI: “This scheme has had serious systematic weaknesses from the start. The fact that the department decided not to mirror the spending controls in Great Britain has led to a very serious ongoing impact on the NI budget and the lack of controls over the funding has meant that value for money has not been achieved and facilitated spending which was potentially vulnerable to abuse.”
Again, the department and senior staff should have known that this story was going to take on a life of its own. Since the whistleblower hadn’t had a satisfactory response to her concerns it was obvious that she would take those concerns elsewhere. And once the NIAO conclusions were in the public domain it should also have been obvious to the department that the story would be followed up by the media. Yet the response of the past week suggests that the department, let alone the key people involved from the start, was not prepared. That fact, in itself, is very worrying, because that lack of preparation raises suspicions.
Thirty-six months ago the department was first informed that there were potential flaws in the RHI scheme; flaws which, as the NIAO later confirmed, “facilitated spending which was potentially vulnerable to abuse”. When concerns and flaws of this kind have been flagged up for three years is it unreasonable for the media and general public to wonder why the department seems so vague when it comes to answering questions? And is it any wonder that increasing numbers of people are of the opinion that this story now involves something much more serious than mistakes and stupidity?
We all know what happens if we miss a mortgage or credit card payment; or default on a loan; or find ourselves overdrawn at the bank. We all know what it’s like to look at an oil or gas bill and decide that we need to turn down the thermostat and timer a little. And it’s because we know that, we also know that ending up with a potential overspend just south of half-a-billion pounds represents the sort of industrial scale incompetence, recklessness and serial stupidity which requires political and civil service resignations. It also requires a recall of the Assembly – even if it messes up their Christmas shopping plans.
Let me close with another quotation, this time from a Billy Bunter story: “Yikes,” squealed Bunter, as he emerged from the larder with his face and waistcoat smeared in raspberry. “What jam tarts? I know nothing about missing jam tarts. Some other fellah ate them.”