Unannounced audits of RHI sites in Northern Ireland only began about two years ago – with potential abusers having been given about a fortnight’s notice of an inspection up until that point.
Most RHI sites have never been audited in any way and it will be more than a year before every installation is visited.
Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan told the inquiry that unannounced audits only began in the 2016-2017 financial year – the year in which RHI became a huge public scandal after the Audit Office report and then BBC Spotlight’s exposé.
The inquiry has already seen evidence that senior Ofgem figures were internally dismayed at their counter-fraud department’s indiscreet methods of alerting suspects that they were under investigation – potentially giving them time to cover up their activities.
Barrister Joseph Aiken put it to Mr Nolan that “if you tell someone three weeks in advance that you’re coming, by the time you arrive, the problem won’t be there for you to find”. audits.
Mr Nolan said: “It’s hard to argue with the principle that if you tell someone you’re coming, it lets them engage in evasive behaviour.”
But he added that, broadly speaking, “it’s probably not something you can change in three weeks”.
“Maybe I’m being a bit glib in that, but I don’t think that’s totally unreasonable
He was asked why it took several years to realise the value of unannounced,” he said.
“Certainly we are doing more unannounced audits now.”
At the end of his evidence yesterday, Mr Nolan was one of a handful of witnesses who have been praised by the panel for their openness, with inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin saying: “My own view is that you have done the very best that you can to answer our enquiries and you’ve done that with a commendable piece of candour.”