RHI inquiry: official advertised scheme even as he was reining it in

Seamus Hughes giving oral evidence to the public inquiry last week
Seamus Hughes giving oral evidence to the public inquiry last week

Months after he realised that the RHI scheme was haemorrhaging money and even as he was working on putting cost controls in place, the key official running the scheme was advertising the lucrative incentive to farmers, it can be revealed.

The information, revealed in papers published by the public inquiry into the scandal, helps explain why there was a vast spike in applications in the weeks before the controls were finally put in place, and raises further questions about the lack of joined-up thinking within Stormont.

It had already emerged, to the consternation of retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin who is chairing the inquiry, that as one Stormont department – the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) – was trying to close the scheme another department – the Department of Agriculture – was still promoting it.

However, it is now clear that not only was another Stormont department promoting the scheme right up until it was reined in, but one of the officials with the greatest knowledge about the scale of the problem was continuing to advertise it to potential claimants.

Seamus Hughes was a mid-ranking official who arrived in DETI’s energy division in June 2014 – almost two years after the scheme had been launched and just over six months before it would begin to seriously spiral out of control.

From spring 2015, Mr Hughes and his boss, Stuart Wightman, had been realising that the scheme’s budget was coming under serious pressure. By early summer, they were working on urgent cost control measures which – for reasons which are not yet clear – were delayed by either the DUP minister of the department, Jonathan Bell, or his special adviser.

In written evidence, Mr Hughes has now said that “from early June 2015 onwards, (and perhaps indeed before), the branch was receiving regular inquiries from the industry about forthcoming changes”.

Mr Hughes was aware of the absence of tiering – a crude form of cost control – or of more complex cost controls which had been introduced in the GB scheme. But he said that he was unaware of the perverse incentive at the heart of the scheme, whereby boiler owners could ‘burn to earn’ due to tariffs being set above the cost of fuel.

Mr Hughes appears to have been open with businesses contacting him that cost controls were coming, not realising that such information could lead to a rush of applications.

He stressed that “all communications that I would have had at this time would have reflected the agreed position from my Grade 7, Stuart Wightman, as far as I am aware”.

Mr Hughes then went on to say: “I attended and gave a presentation on RHI at an event on 29 October 2015 at Greenmount. At this last presentation an update was given on the Domestic RHI and also an overview of the Non Domestic RHI changes due to be introduced in November 2015, (early 4 November 2015 would have been indicated date).”

Mr Hughes said that he and another official also attended an event in Hillsborough organised by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute on 8 September 2015 and gave a presentation “targeted mainly at a farming audience, (attendance probably in the order of 30 people)”.

Despite having been promoting the scheme, Mr Hughes said there was an “unexpected spike” in applications, which saw 900 applications in a period of less than eight weeks – equivalent to the total applications in the previous three years.

Mr Hughes said the spike may in part have been “due to the industry being in a strong position to respond to demand”. He said that the department believed that it would take six to 12 months for a biomass boiler to be installed but this proved to be seriously wrong.

Mr Hughes also said that there was “no pressure placed on me by anyone” over the issue of cost controls and he was unaware of “any influence or pressure being exerted on anyone else in relation to the RHI scheme”.