RHI inquiry: senior official admits basic gaffes now ‘don’t look too clever’

Fiona Hepper giving evidence to the RHI inquiry yesterday at Stormont
Fiona Hepper giving evidence to the RHI inquiry yesterday at Stormont

A senior civil servant who initially claimed that her team had “probed the evidence” before deciding on the creation of the RHI scheme has admitted that missing mathematical tables whose sums don’t add up and a subsidy higher than the cost of fuel now “doesn’t look too clever”.

Fiona Hepper, who was the senior official responsible for designing the RHI scheme and who was subsequently promoted by the civil service, yesterday faced detailed questioning over the role which she or her team played in the subsequent financial disaster as the scheme ran out of control two and a half years later.

On multiple occasions throughout her evidence, Mrs Hepper responded to implicitly incredulous comments or questions from the inquiry panel by saying “I do accept that” or “I take your point” or otherwise conceding that with hindsight she or her colleagues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) ought to have acted differently.

Mrs Hepper claimed that her team had carried out a detailed examination of what consultants CEPA had recommended for the scheme.

However, it was pointed out that the officials had missed that the consultants had wrongly recommended a tariff which was higher than the cost of fuel and Dr Keith MacLean, the technical adviser to the inquiry, highlighted that the officials had also missed that a key CEPA table contained figures which did not add up.

Mrs Hepper said that they believed they had received a “comprehensive explanation” from CEPA for what lay behind its report but admitted that now it “doesn’t look too clever”.

She accepted that “maybe we didn’t do some basic checks of their work” but insisted that there had nevertheless been “good scrutiny” by civil servants and that they ought to have been able to rely on the expertise of the consultants.

Mrs Hepper said she could not recall whether the DETI ‘casework committee’ – a key approval which allowed the scheme to progress – had been explicitly pointed towards the fact that CEPA had said that an RHI scheme would actually be more than £200 million more expensive than a grant scheme known as a challenge fund.

David Scoffield QC put it to Mrs Hepper that the department’s consultants, CEPA, had highlighted in their report that a challenge fund would have delivered more renewable heat at less cost. Yet the minutes of the casework committee meeting recorded that “the RHI option, whilst requiring complex administration arrangements, can be implemented at a fraction of the cost”.

Mrs Hepper said that she believed that claim probably related to simply looking at the first four years of a scheme which was going to run to 2040.

Mr Scoffield asked her whether, if that was the case, it was not an example of false economy by prioritising short-term savings over much greater long-term savings.

Mrs Hepper said: “I suppose in one way, you could say that, but what we were looking at was the [first] £25 million ... and we were trying to match up the administration costs over that period, but I take your point about the tail, etc.”