The RHI Inquiry has heard evidence about how one Stormont department set out to mislead another Stormont department about the scale of the RHI crisis – with evidence that there was “no demurring” from senior civil servants.
By June 2015 it was known to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) that it had failed to carry out a major review of the scheme – something which had been a condition imposed by the Department of Finance when it gave approval for expenditure on the subsidy.
Such a review would have been likely to uncover that RHI was fundamentally flawed, with a perverse incentive to ‘burn to earn’ and no cap on subsidies.
However, as DETI set about formally informing the finance department documentation was prepared which masked the full gory picture of what had happened.
A five-page briefing note was prepared by Stuart Wightman, the head of DETI’s energy efficiency branch which was running the scheme, for the department’s head of finance, Trevor Cooper, ahead of a meeting with the Department of Finance.
Yesterday Mr Cooper spoke candidly about the knowledge within the senior tier of DETI that what they were giving to their fellow officials was not the full unvarnished picture.
Counsel for the inquiry Joseph Aiken said that the briefing note suggested he tell the Department of Finance that a review of RHI had been conducted in 2013 “when everyone knows that’s just not what happened”.
Mr Cooper said: “Correct.”
Mr Aiken asked why “this type of inaccuracy” was allowed to stay in documentation being sent between government departments.
Mr Cooper said: “It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t.”
Mr Aiken said: “This is a stark example of a statement being made that the people reading the document know isn’t true, and yet it doesn’t involve someone going back saying ‘you can’t say this – that’s not right’.
“In fact what happens is it becomes the accepted language and makes its way right through all of the material and ultimately [is] given to another government department which is the gatekeeper to the funds as a statement of fact.”
Mr Cooper – who spoke bluntly at points during his evidence to the inquiry – said he was “not defending” what had happened.
Mr Aiken said he was interested in the wider question of how it could be that “communications that are inaccurate seem to be acceptable” to civil servants.
After a long pause, Mr Cooper sighed and said: “I’m not sure what the answer to that question actually is ... there’s actually no defence.”
Mr Aiken asked whether laziness or casualness or carelessness had “crept in”.
Mr Cooper said it was “potentially cultural” within the civil service.
He then went on to say that “this fig leaf was raised” at a June 3 meeting of senior DETI officials, including permanent secretary Andrew McCormick.
They knew, he said, that “we haven’t done a review” but wondered if it could be claimed that they had done a such a review.
He added: “Now there was no agreement to it. But there was no demurring, let’s put it like that. So no one agreed it.”
Dame Una O’Brien said: “So the idea of saying that the 2013 [consultation] was actually the review was raised in that meeting.”
Mr Cooper accepted that no one at the meeting “including me” spoke up to say it was wrong to misrepresent what had not been a full review of the scheme as having been what was meant to have taken place.
Mr Aiken put it to him that even though some people at that meeting may not have fully understood the full implications of what they were discussing, as the summer progressed “these type of characterisations are known to be untrue” but they kept being used.
Dame Una O’Brien said that “things might have turned out differently if you had been honest with each other at the time”.
Mr Aiken said that wording ultimately formally sent to the finance department could create the impression that “we started the review even earlier than we said we would”.
Mr Cooper accepted it could be read like that but argued that the “fuller description makes it much more obvious to the reader” that they had not actually done a review as intended.
Mr Aiken said: “Why would the reader have to work that out rather than say it bluntly?”
Mr Cooper said: “No, you’re quite right.”
Everyone in DETI knew that a proper review of RHI had not been done – yet they agreed to a document going to the Department of Finance which suggested that a review had happened, Mr Cooper said.
The senior DETI official painted a picture of a department which was more focussed on protecting itself from criticism than on presenting the full truth – even to other civil servants.
The technical assessor to the inquiry, Keith MacLean, asked Mr Cooper whether he had challenged what was in the document prepared for him, which claimed that a review had happened, given that he had separately been told bluntly by another official that the review had been missed and that was a major issue.
Mr Cooper replied candidly: “Everyone [within DETI] knew that there hadn’t been a review done.”
Dr MacLean said that he believed the wording drawn up within the department represented “an untrue statement” because it stated that “in line with the business case approval, officials commenced this...”
Dr MacLean said that no one was going back to Mr Wightman and saying “that is a misrepresentation”.
Mr Cooper said that the tone of the meeting where Mr Wightman made the suggestion in the presence of senior departmental officials was “we’re not in a great place here, you know — we need to put our best foot forward”.
The inquiry has heard previous evidence that Mr Cooper often was a voice of challenge within the department who was known for asking difficult questions of colleagues and at other points he was challenging some of those involved in RHI around some of their flawed thinking.
In an email to another senior official, Mr Cooper said at the time that he felt there was “naivety” on the part of Mr Wightman and his energy division colleagues, with them having “glossed over” the issue of reviews and “there’s no self-awareness that the reason they may be delivering greater renewables than GB counterparts is the simple fact that we may be overcompensating – so it’s not actually over-performing; indeed, potentially quite the contrary”.
He said there was “nothing on how they’re going to constrain spend”.
Ultimately, DETI told the finance department that RHI represented “continuous and continuing value for money”.
Senior DETI official Trevor Cooper said the he knew the scheme could not be best value for money but he was passing on the views of others within the department.
He said that in other conversations with the finance department he was more candid about his concerns.