RHI Inquiry: Civil servant admits removing line criticising him ‘looks bad’

A senior civil servant has admitted that it “looks bad” that a colleague’s criticism of his division was removed from a key internal document – but insisted that it had not been an attempt to massage the truth of what had gone on.

Yesterday the RHI Inquiry heard fresh evidence about how civil servants in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s (DETI’s) energy division had been highly critical of their colleagues in the department’s finance division in the period where RHI was running out of control.

Trevor Cooper was the head of DETI's finance division at the point when RHI was running out of control ' and was being criticised over the scheme

Trevor Cooper was the head of DETI's finance division at the point when RHI was running out of control ' and was being criticised over the scheme

The criticisms were recorded in a draft ‘assurance statement’, a crucial civil service mechanism for reassuring itself that every area of the department is either functioning correctly, or if there is a problem that it is being dealt with appropriately.

The document goes to the departmental board’s audit committee which includes independent members and is intended to be a bulwark against the squander of public money.

In May 2015 John Mills, the head of energy division, recorded in the document that “despite the repeated requests for information from the finance division and [the Department of Finance], the division has yet to receive any clarity around the maximum available RHI budget going forward.

“This is essential for future planning in terms of tariff reductions, etc. Without this clarification, both schemes may need to be closed to prevent overspends.”

Trevor Cooper, the head of DETI’s finance division, yesterday accepted at the inquiry that Mr Mills’ comments represented a fairly accurate portrayal of the then situation.

However, when the final version of the document was circulated to members of the departmental board, references to the RHI situation were far more anodyne and criticism of the finance division was removed altogether.

There is no suggestion that Mr Cooper acted unilaterally or in a secretive way to change the document, and other senior civil servants were central to the changes being implemented.

When asked about the issue during a previous hearing, Mr Mills told the inquiry that within the civil service “it’s not done to say things like that [internal criticisms of colleagues in formal documents]”.

The document also only referred in oblique terms to the fact that the department knew that it had forgotten to seek reapproval for the scheme and therefore all future spending was irregular.

Mr Cooper said that there had been a series of internal conversations with senior officials about the issue before the changes were made.

Counsel to the inquiry Joseph Aiken asked why such “legitimate criticism” was removed from the document.

Mr Cooper conceded: “It looks bad. I totally accept that.

“Now, rightly or wrongly – and actually wrongly – when I looked at [a fellow official’s] analysis, it appeared to me that actually energy division had been given sight line of their budget ... I accept it’s wrong.”

Mr Aiken put it to him that it was human nature that “you don’t want the audit committee seeing a criticism of finance division”.

Mr Cooper said: “It actually genuinely wasn’t that. It was a genuine belief within finance division that they had been given ...”

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “Surely the purpose of the assurance statement is to confirm that any problems that have arisen were as follows and they have been dealt with in the following way? It is a means of ensuring that control is maintained in a proper way.

“To write ‘DFP approval for the non-domestic scheme means that expenditure on new commitments and beyond requires separate approval’ gives absolutely no indication at all of a problem that needs to be looked at ... instead it’s written in this very bland, camouflaged way which raises no suggestion that something’s gone wrong.”

Mr Cooper responded: “But I had also separately told the audit committee members and the Audit Office that the approval had been overlooked.”

Sir Patrick said: “That may well be right. But this is a form of permanent record – a so-called assurance statement. Once you combine that with removing from it the fact that energy had tried on three occasions to get some further information from finance, then one really does begin to worry about the validity of this type of assurance statement. It moves from being a clearly recorded means of controlling the system and improving on what has gone before to a way of camouflaging things that have gone wrong.”

Mr Cooper conceded that the document ought to have been more blunt.