One of the two civil servants overseeing the running of the RHI scheme as it spiralled out of control has accepted that he gave information to poultry giant Moy Park which was not available to others.
Last week Sir Patrick Coghlin’s public inquiry into the RHI scandal was told that in February 2015 Stuart Wightman, the head of the energy efficiency branch in Arlene Foster’s then department, had held a conversation with David Mark, a senior figure in Northern Ireland’s dominant poultry processor, Moy Park, about its plans to use RHI to help it expand its business.
Yesterday Mr Wightman returned to give further evidence to the inquiry and stress that at the time he did not know that the scheme was in trouble.
He said: “I ran the proposal past him ... about the banding; I don’t recall talking to him about tariff changes, apart from he might have referred to degression [a cost control] and I might have said we couldn’t rule it out, you know there might be changes to the tariff in due course.
“But I certainly, unlike the engagement that I had in July, I did not get into specifics ... my understanding was we were generally talking.”
Barrister Joseph Aiken put it to Mr Wightman that Moy Park’s interest “might not have been the same as yours” and that Mr Mark had gone from the encounter and emailed senior colleagues – in correspondence which the inquiry has compelled the firm to produce – to say that new legislation in October of that year would cut RHI subsidies.
Mr Aiken said that Moy Park used the information to form a view that “there is a firm basis to invest in RHI until at least October 2015” with a “positive” outlook beyond that date, but without the same level of certainty.
Energy expert Dr Keith MacLean said his difficulty with what happened was “that you’re only telling this to Moy Park. And they, as Mr Aiken pointed out to you, are picking that up in terms of investment decisions that they’re going to make based on the information that you had given them”.
Dr MacLean said there was the potential that others “feel themselves disadvantaged because they haven’t had that information” or, if the department had not made the changes on which Moy Park’s investment decisions were being made, there may have been the potential for legal challenge from the company.
Mr Wightman said: “I take your point. I would have thought my conversation would have been appropriately caveated in terms of ‘proposals’ and ... ’subject to approvals’ ...”
Mr Aiken put it to Mr Wightman that if Mr Mark had looked at the publicly available consultation document at that point, it would not have told him about plans to cut tariffs but from his conversation with the civil servant “he knows something different that’s not in any document that’s available – and that is that from October 2015 ... there’s a mechanism that will allow for tariff reduction. That’s a piece of information that’s known to nobody”.
Mr Wightman said: “No, I accept that point. And obviously the other point about that telephone call was that I was getting information from him in terms of the number of broiler houses. But yes, I accept that point.”
He went on to say that “this was probably viewed, naïvely at the time, as a good thing” because it would have been viewed as a way to help the poultry industry.
The contact was one of several occasions on which either Mr Wightman or his understudy, Seamus Hughes, told industry figures about the looming cost controls.
The News Letter revealed those contacts last year after receiving leaked material.
Mr Wightman confirmed that he had been in contact with interested parties about the scheme but said that it had been done in good faith in an attempt to informally consult some of those more impacted by departmental policy.
He has told the inquiry that he did not know at that point about the perverse incentive at the heart of the RHI scheme which paid claimants to keep their boilers running, rather than incentivising them to be energy efficient.