MPs last night unanimously nodded through Parliament massive cuts to RHI tariffs which Stormont had told businesses would be unalterable for 20 years.
After a rushed debate during which every Commons stage of the legislation was passed in a single sitting of less than three and a half hours, boiler owners will now face maximum payments of little more than £2,000 a year for a typical 99kw biomass boiler.
That represents a 96% reduction on the top payments – which were unlimited, generating a perverse ‘burn to earn’ incentive – under the scheme implemented by the then DUP minister Arlene Foster and her officials.
And it represents a reduction of about 80% from the reduced subsidies which DUP minister Simon Hamilton implemented in Stormont in January 2017.
Although DUP MPs were heavily critical of what Secretary of State Karen Bradley brought before the Commons yesterday, they voted for her proposals, accepting her argument that if they did not do so then there would be no payments made at all from next month.
The only concession the Commons agreed was that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee – on which several DUP MPs sit – will scrutinise the legislation over coming months, after it becomes law.
The legislation will now be tested in the High Court.
That challenge – highly unusually – got under way yesterday before the legislation had even passed the Commons.
Ms Bradley agreed to “carefully consider” any recommendations from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee but did not give any promises that she would implement any such recommendations.
However, the committee has sweeping powers to compel witnesses and documents and could delve into how Stormont’s Department for the Economy, and Ricardo, the consultants it employed, came up with the new figures which it has now said are the only payments which can lawfully be made under EU state aid law.
Yesterday MPs lined up to denounce what was being done – yet then unanimously agreed to pass it based on the premise that not doing so would see the scheme end entirely, halting most, if not all, payments.
Ms Bradley defended what she was putting before them, saying: “I believe that the measures proposed by the Department for the Economy are fair and strike the right balance” between the rights of claimants and those of taxpayers.
However, MP after MP questioned how she could place such reliance on a department which had repeatedly blundered in its handling of the scheme.
There was also criticism of Ms Bradley’s decision not to bring the RHI changes as a separate piece of legislation, but to add it in to a bill which raises domestic rates in Northern Ireland – a hike of 3% above the rate of inflation.
Tory MP Andrew Murrison, a former NIO minister and the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said that RHI was an “extremely toxic issue” and should not have been lumped in with rates.
He expressed concern that the Department for the Economy “is implicated in the [RHI] mess in the first place and I would be worried if the secretary of state is being overly reliant on the advice she is receiving from that department”.
DUP MP Ian Paisley said that the bill was “so controversial and so far-reaching” that it ought to have been a separate piece of legislation, rather than having been “just stapled on to the back of this bill”.
He said that what was being done “just is not fair” to RHI claimants.
The North Antrim MP said it was nonsensical for the Department for the Economy to claim that any payments higher than just over £2,100 a year per 99kw boiler would be a breach of state aid law when identical boilers in England were getting payments almost 10 times that figure.
He said: “To rush the measure through the House is not right, fair or equitable.”
His colleague Sammy Wilson said that the RHI scheme set up by Mrs Foster “has been a disgrace”. However, he said that the GB scheme was also far too generous and incentivising practices which were irrational.
North Down MP Lady Hermon said she had been contacted by many people “who feel extremely aggrieved by the proposals in this legislation. They entered into the RHI scheme in good faith and feel that they are now being unfairly penalised”.
Ms Bradley said: “I empathise with participants of this scheme.”
Shadow secretary of state Tony Lloyd was highly critical of how Ms Bradley rushed her radical changes to the RHI scheme through on the back of another bill.
In criticism which was unusually robust, given the long-standing Westminster convention of bipartisanship on Northern Ireland, Mr Lloyd said that rushing the bill through with minimal scrutiny “is in many ways an abuse of the process of this House – there is no connection between the regional rates and the RHI”.
He went on to accuse Ms Bradley of acting in a way which was “incompetent and unreasonable”.
Referring to Karen Bradley’s proposal to further slash RHI subsidies promised for 20 years, Lib Dem MP and lawyer Alistair Carmichael said: “I have rarely seen the government produce legislation that is so obviously ripe for legal challenge on the basis of legitimate expectation. In such circumstances, at the end of the day, surely we will not even give the people concerned, the recipients of the subsidies, the certainty that the government claim they want.”
Tory MP Maria Caulfield, an MP who takes a keen interest in Northern Ireland, said there was “a stark difference” between what would now be paid in subsidies for boilers in Great Britain and what would be paid under Stormont’s scheme. She said that she was concerned at the lack of scrutiny of the complex proposals and said she was worried that there was a view among some MPs that “it’s only Northern Ireland” so the bill could be “whizzed through in a day”.
However, NIO minister John Penrose said that 80% of RHI claimants had already received a 12% return – the level approved by the EU to satisfy state aid law – even if the scheme was closed today, so “have done incredibly well”.
But several MPs queried the basis on which the 12% figure was being calculated and whether it was on the same basis as that in the GB scheme, where there are payments of about £20,000 for a boiler which on the Northern Ireland scheme would be £2,000.