RHI inquiry: devolution ‘a very hard process to manage’ says former top civil servant

David Thomson giving evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday
David Thomson giving evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday

A retired senior civil servant has spoken candidly about one of the fundamental problems with devolution – small numbers of civil servants in Belfast attempting to replicate the complex policy work of vast Whitehall departments.

In candid comments at the public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, David Thomson – who met Arlene Foster on a weekly basis when she was Stormont’s energy minister – referred to wider issues raised by the episode.

Mr Thomson, who retired in 2014, is not the first civil servant to give evidence to the inquiry which implicitly or explicitly raises questions about whether Stormont is able to handle multiple areas of complex policy.

Mr Thomson, who was one level beneath the most senior official in Mrs Foster’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), said that he knew that in Whitehall there was a team of 77 civil servants working on the policy while a handful of staff – some of them part time and without energy expertise – were handling Stormont’s policy.

But he said that this was a “very common” scenario under devolution.

When asked if he had simply decided to “muddle through” despite knowing that the department was inadequately staffed to create its own policy, he said: “That’s part of the problem with devolution.”

Mr Thomson then corrected himself, saying “I don’t mean a problem with devolution” but inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin interjected to say: “That’s all right. It’s a problem with devolution.”

Mr Thomson then repeated his original comment, saying: “It’s a problem with devolution. Devolution is a very hard, difficult process to manage.

“The Department of Health in Whitehall had a private office [for the minister’s work]; DETI had a private office; we were servicing the Assembly – all those things that the large Whitehall departments did ... we were replicating here.

“You still had to have the private office, you still had to have the minister, you still had to have Assembly questions, you still had to have committees ... that whole devolution is a very difficult thing to manage.”

Dame Una O’Brien, who was the most senior civil servant in charge of Whitehall’s Department of Health, said that DETI had about 500 staff, something she characterised as “about half the size of a large secondary school”.

Sir Patrick put it to the witness that outside “the refinements of the civil service ... in the real world” there were brochures literally promoting the RHI scheme as ‘cash for ash’, there were people writing to the civil service saying that profit could be made from the scheme and there was a warning from a woman who told the department that companies no longer wanted her energy-efficiency equipment because they were being incentivised to waste heat.

Sir Patrick asked: “Why was the outside world fully aware ... and inside the civil service all was peaceful and calm?”

Mr Thomson said: “I don’t know ... the reason the inquiry is here is that something fundamentally went wrong that none of us who were there at the time suspected and I never thought when I retired that I’d be sitting four years after retirement at an inquiry because you want to look back on your career and think everything you did was for the public service and everything was good and all those right things.”

Mr Thomson also hinted that some key decisions around the RHI scheme may not have been recorded in writing because of a changing culture at the department which may have been linked to attempts to frustrate potential Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.