One of the most senior civil servants involved in the attempts to rein in the RHI scheme has rejected suggestions that Stormont only panicked because it realised the bill wasn’t being paid from London.
Chris Stewart, who was the second in command of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), said that the “catastrophic spike” had been far greater than could be borne by the Stormont budget.
Giving evidence to the RHI inquiry yesterday, the experienced civil servant was asked about the perception which has emerged at the inquiry that it was only when civil servants realised that all the overspend was going to come from their budget – not the Treasury’s – that they realised “this is really serious”.
Mr Stewart said: “I would hope to reassure you on that point. I absolutely understand the panel’s concern that it looks as if we only started to get worried about overspend if it had to come out of DEL [Stormont’s budget]. That wasn’t the case.
“An overspend of the amount which manifested itself was a very serious matter for which we were always going to be – rightly – seriously criticised. But whilst it was capable of being borne on the broad back of AME [a funding stream direct from the Treasury] and some DEL, then it was at least feasible to do that.
“Once it reached the point where it had to be borne entirely from DEL, it’s not that it suddenly started to matter – it suddenly became completely unaffordable.”
Inquiry panel member Dame Una O’Brien asked if that was because they would have to take the money from spending committed to other programmes.
Mr Stewart replied: “It’s the displacement. I have to say that the day that that realisation dawned on us was a day of complete dismay because we realised that the net effect of that was a huge opportunity cost to the Northern Ireland Executive. That money was going to have to be found from other programmes.
“That’s not to say that a huge overspend from AME is something that can be wished away or thought of as having no consequence – you’re absolutely right; that’s taxpayers’ money; it’s our fundamental duty to spend taxpayers’ money in the way that Parliament and the Assembly require us to do.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said that comment made it all the more difficult to understand why the department had prioritised the expansion of the scheme over an interim cost control measure which would have given it some ability to rein in the scheme if demand picked up suddenly.
He said that if he had been involved at the start he would not have gone for an RHI scheme at all, but set up a grant scheme “which would have been much easier to understand and control”.
Mr Stewart was also asked who he had in 2015 believed was responsible for the premature disclosure of commercially sensitive information to industry about the looming introduction of cost controls.
Echoing what another senior civil servant, John Mills, told the inquiry last week, he said: “I assumed it was coming from Spads” because “I couldn’t really think of any alternative source at that point”.
Subsequently, it has become clear that at least some of the information was freely given out by civil servants Stuart Wightman and Seamus Hughes. Mr Stewart said that he did not believe they had done so for any improper motive and there was instead a “misjudgment” on their part.
However, he said that “very clearly” a line had been crossed by officials.
He said that he wasn’t surprised at the idea that information was leaking out through Spads because “they don’t always recognise the same boundaries as officials”.
Speaking of Spads from all parties, he said that they ought to be operating to the same standards as civil servants but “the behaviour that I observe is that they don’t always”.
Mr Stewart said that he felt officials attempting to introduce cost controls were “being treated as the opposition” by the DUP minister and Spads, and that looking at the evidence now suggests to him that “we weren’t on the same team”. He referred to “the maximum that the DUP would accept” in terms of cost controls.