Top civil servants removed stark warning to Bell about RHI crisis

Stuart Wightman faced a detailed scrutiny of his actions and will return to the RHI Inquiry today
Stuart Wightman faced a detailed scrutiny of his actions and will return to the RHI Inquiry today

Many of the most senior civil servants in the Stormont department running the RHI scheme were involved in watering down what ought to have been a blunt warning that the RHI scheme was out of control.

Instead, DUP minister Jonathan Bell was presented with information which was false, something which may have contributed to delays to putting cost controls on a subsidy which by that stage had committed double its annual budget – and had done so for a period of 20 years, the public inquiry into the cash for ash scandal has been told.

The civil servants’ actions which were examined forensically yesterday are only part of the story and it is alleged that senior DUP figures were also working in the shadows to keep the lucrative scheme open, which some of them deny.

Mr Bell had only taken over from Arlene Foster, the minister who set up the scheme, in May 2015 and the first time he was formally warned about the scale of the RHI problem and given proposals to rectify it was in a submission of July 8.

That submission was put together over two days by Stuart Wightman, the civil servant managing the scheme for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

Yesterday the inquiry revealed that on July 6 Mr Wightman wrote in the financial implications section of the document: “Forecast RHI expenditure in 2015-16 is £23 million – almost twice current AME [Treasury-funded] allocation of £11.6 million.”

Inquiry barrister Joseph Aiken described that as a “very factual, straightforward” description of the situation, but said that by the time the document went to the minister the language was “very different”.

The section ultimately contained less information and instead said that “we are currently seeking extra funding as forecast scheme expenditure exceeds previous funding allocations”.

Mr Aiken said that was one of several places throughout the document where “the strength of the language appears to change”.

Mr Wightman, who was giving evidence yesterday, said that his boss, John Mills, and his boss, Chris Stewart, requested multiple changes to the document.

Among a series of problems with the submission was that it told the minister that RHI was funded in the same way as welfare spending – directly from the Treasury.

Mr Wightman accepted that was inaccurate – even based on what he and his colleagues knew at that point, having been warned by Whitehall that there would be some penalty for Stormont if it overspent.

Mr Aiken asked him why he didn’t communicate the position starkly to the minister that “we’ve only got half the money that we need”.

Mr Wightman said that the first draft was “my own words” but that more senior officials had asked for changes which he agreed to, although the document was ultimately submitted in his name.

Mr Wightman agreed that the changes to the document which went to the minister amounted to a “significant downplaying of the need for concern”.

He said that his initial drafts were more stark and “a bit more up front”.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said it was clear that all the most senior DETI officials had seen the way in which the document was being reshaped before it went to Mr Bell.

He said: “The end result of this is that the minister gets a submission which has been changed with the knowledge and/or at the direction of the senior members of DETI in such a way that it is false. That’s the very difficult situation...that is what is happening here.”

After the inaccurate document went to the minister, there was then delay in having the submission approved by him. Nine days later, the minister’s private secretary confirmed that Mr Bell’s special adviser, Timothy Cairns, had read the submission and Mr Wightman relayed that he assumed Mr Cairns was taking advice from his party before passing it to his minister. Cost controls did not come until November 17.