The civil servant who spent more time than any other official in designing and running the RHI scheme in its early stages has rejected a claim that his department effectively tampered with the independent advice of consultants.
Last week the public inquiry into the RHI scandal heard that CEPA, who were brought in by Stormont’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) to advise it on how best to increase the use of renewable heat technology, had disclosed an email in which one of its consultants said to a colleague that DETI had asked it to change its recommendations.
A CEPA director told the inquiry that there “probably was some negotiation over what the final position would be”.
But yesterday, when asked if it was right that there had been a “negotiation” between the department and the consultants - who were paid £100,000 for their work - over whether the consultants would recommend an RHI scheme or the cheaper option of a ‘challenge fund’ grant, former DETI official Peter Hutchinson told the inquiry: “Not that I can recall...we went back to them and said ‘those recommendations [in a draft report] don’t stack up’...I don’t recall a negotiation or anything like that; I don’t think that’s right.” He said that CEPA “may have known there would be a preference towards an RHI at that stage” but insisted that DETI still wanted an honest appraisal of all the options.
He accepted, however, that the consultants at that point had a “preference” for a challenge fund but DETI wanted an RHI for non-monetary reasons such as providing a long-term signal to the market and the cost of administering the proposal.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said that ultimately it was going to be “a factual decision for the inquiry” and said that “there is a clear indication from some of the documentation which is consistent with what Mr Hutchinson is saying which is that DETI did have a preference” for an RHI scheme.
The technical assessor to the inquiry, Dr Keith MacClean, queried why the documents kept referring to the £25m cost of the scheme – yet that was only for the first few years and the scheme would run for about 24 years in total with expenditure in “the hundreds of millions”.
Mr Hutchinson conceded that those reading the documentation who were not in energy division may not have realised the full picture but said that he and his team were aware of the numbers involved.
And Mr Hutchinson was quizzed on why documents sent to Arlene Foster and other decision-makers said that a Northern Ireland RHI would provide “the highest potential renewable heat output at the best value” - when in fact CEPA had been clear that a challenge fund would have been about £200 million cheaper and would have delivered more renewable heat.
Sir Patrick said it was “difficult to understand” why it was not said at that point that “the challenge fund will save £200m - but here are the reasons why in terms of policy you might prefer an RHI”.
Mr Hutchinson said “I don’t think there was any reason behind it”.