The chairman of a Stormont committee has expressed concern about continued confusion over a policy change which could cost electricity consumers in the Province as much as £40 million a year.
Patsy McGlone’s comments come more than two weeks after a Stormont hearing at which MLAs were put under considerable pressure to urgently approve a change to Northern Ireland’s renewable energy policy. But they resisted the pressure because they feared that consumers could end up shouldering the cost.
Two weeks later, the position remains deeply unclear.
The enterprise, trade and investment committee resisted pressure from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which was pressing the committee to fast-track through the new rules to protect some renewable energy projects in Northern Ireland which would be threatened by Westminster’s decision to cut the lucrative subsidies for wind power.
Two weeks later and despite the apparent urgency, there is no indication of when the department will bring the issue back to the committee.
Amid fears that Northern Ireland consumers stand to see their bills hiked if Stormont adopts a different policy to Westminster, DETI claimed that it had secured a massive change of stance from Whitehall’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
Mr McGlone, who is chairman of the committee, said that there had been “radio silence” from the department since the committee deferred the decision, asking for further information.
He told the News Letter: “If it’s taken them this long to seek clarification, it obviously wasn’t that clear.”
The SDLP MLA said that it was an unusual situation – particularly given the potential cost to consumers of up to £40 million a year.
He added: “There was a lot of pressure put on the committee – a lot of very sudden pressure ... but when officials are unable to explain with a degree of certainty the situation we are in and suggest that DECC has changed its position but there is no proof of that, it leaves me in no position to make any decision about it.”
When DECC was asked its position, a spokeswoman said: “We’re consulting the devolved administrations as we implement the manifesto commitment to end new public subsidy for onshore wind projects.”
MLAs bemused by senior official’s evidence
At the committee hearing two weeks ago, senior DETI official Chris Stewart claimed there had been a “sea change” from London over the preceding days.
Yet MLAs were given a highly-caveated written DETI briefing paper, which said that the DECC position “would appear to have moved somewhat in the favour of Northern Ireland”.
Pressed on that uncertainty, Mr Stewart – who made clear at the meeting that he was acting on the instructions of DUP minister Jonathan Bell – said that it contained “very cautious civil service language”.
But he said that he had engaged in “some very plain speaking” with Whitehall.
Mr Stewart said that he had asked DECC “‘Can you tell me that if our policy delivers the same as your policy that you will not charge Northern Ireland?’ The answer was a very clear yes.
“Like you, I wasn’t prepared to go forward on the basis of a verbal assurance so I asked DECC officials to ask their minister to write very quickly to our minister ... two letters have arrived today and they say just that: that if Northern Ireland policy has the same effect as the DECC policy, then Northern Ireland will not be charged.”
MLAs asked why those letters were not in front of them and asked for them to be produced.
However, once the letters were produced, the committee was not happy with how they had been summarised by Mr Stewart.
In fact, one of the letters from Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, appeared to contradict some of his claims. She wrote: “I confirm my position that should you maintain a different policy ... than in GB, the cost impact of that decision should not be funded by GB consumers.”
Earlier, Mr Stewart had told MLAs that there had been “a fundamental change on the issue of costs, over the last week”.
However, Mr Stewart said that even after the change he claims there has been from DECC the costs to Northern Ireland could mean an increase of between £3 and £5 to a domestic bill or for an average large energy user it would add between £7,500 and £10,500 to their bills.
Pressing MLAs to make a decision that day, Mr Stewart told them: “There are a number of projects – and it’s not just one – and right now they are saying that they are at time-critical points. Crucial investment decisions will need to be made in the coming days, never mind the coming weeks, which will determine whether particular projects will proceed or not.”