At least one DUP member succeeded in delaying cost controls on the RHI scheme for several weeks against Civil Service advice and leading to a huge number of applicants piling into the ‘cash for ash’ scheme, a top Stormont mandarin has alleged.
Civil servants wanted to urgently close down the RHI scheme in the middle of 2015, Andrew McCormick yesterday told MLAs, but the then DUP minister Jonathan Bell’s special adviser (Spad) Timothy Cairns forcefully argued for it to remain open.
In an explosive five-hour evidence session before the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Dr McCormick said that he put advice to Mr Bell on 8 July 2015 to cut the overly lucrative RHI tariffs quickly but it was delayed due to “others in the party”.
Dr McCormick - who is the most senior official in Simon Hamilton’s Department for the Economy and one of two people in contention to take over as head of the civil service - said he knows that although the argument was conveyed by Mr Cairns it “came not from him, but from someone else”.
Later in the evidence session - and only when the committee formally pressed Dr McCormick to answer the question (despite a protest from DUP MLA Trevor Clarke) - he named Dr Andrew Crawford as the individual who he understood had acted to delay closure.
Dr Crawford was Arlene Foster’s long-standing Spad, having been with her for years while she was Enterprise Minister and set up the scheme before moving with her to the Finance Department, where he was at that point. He is now the Spad to DUP Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen.
Dr McCormick stressed several times that he had no direct evidence to suggest that Dr Crawford had been involved and that he had learnt that through “hearsay”.
However, given Dr McCormick’s senior civil service position and the high regard in which he is held by both Executive and Opposition parties at Stormont, the fact that he named Dr Crawford raised eyebrows around Parliament Buildings yesterday.
Last night Dr Crawford confirmed that he had been in discussions with Mr Cairns in the summer of 2015 but denied that he had tried to delay cost controls.
In a statement issued by the DUP press office, he said: “As some one who worked in DETI for many years I spoke to the then DETI Special Advisor at that time about the RHI scheme.
“Any discussions with the DETI Spad during the summer of 2015 would have been on the basis of my experience of the department.
“In discussing the matter with the DETI Spad I would have been offering informal advice and assistance as a colleague to my successor in the department and not on behalf of the Finance Minister or the party.
“However, as I pointed out to the BBC in December I did not attempt to keep the RHI scheme open at the original tariff against the wishes of the minister. Indeed, I specifically stated on 31 July 2015 that the department, ‘will need to make changes from 1st October’.”
Recalling the summer of 2015, Dr McCormick said that it was by then clear to officials at the department that the costs of the scheme were getting out of control and they were alarmed at the future financial liabilities which were piling up.
He said that there had been significant “pressure” to delay closure and “the visible manifestation of the pressure was coming to us through Timothy Cairns” but Mr Cairns told him that he had no personal interest in the scheme.
Dr McCormick said he had no reason to believe that “the influence from Andrew Crawford [was] coming at the minister’s [Foster’s] instigation”.
Nevertheless, when asked by Alliance’s Trevor Lunn whether a minister is responsible for their Spad’s actions - even if unauthorised - Dr McCormick said: “Yes”.
Dr McCormick also told MLAs that the renewable heating industry was prematurely aware of the looming cost controls just ahead of the spike, and suggested that information had leaked out of his department, contributing to the surge in applications.
Dr McCormick said there was evidence the industry was asking others in the “political class” to delay cost-saving measures.
He said: “The consequence is very serious because this shows that there was premature awareness of the potential for the tariff to be reduced and the message went within the sector - ‘get in quick’.”
Dr McCormick’s evidence also revealed disastrous inadequacies within the Civil Service, where a host of basic errors had contributed to the vast bill for taxpayers.
The senior official – who will today give evidence to the Assembly’s Economy Committee – also made a series of revelations:
• Dr McCormick referred to “one email [from the whistleblower] says ‘I had spoken to the minister [Foster]’”, despite the fact that Mrs Foster says she was never told allegations;
• The senior civil servant said that the whistleblower’s email to Mrs Foster’s personal email address was never passed on to officials;
• Dr McCormick said that with hindsight his department faced “political pressure” to delay putting in the cost controls but at the time did not seem “sinister;
• The permanent secretary said that it was a “not unreasonable inference” that some in the “political class” urged RHI claimants to pile in, but that he does not have evidence which proves this.
The veteran official also said that the DUP’s ‘hokey-cokey ministers’ – where the party resigned from government for several weeks in September 2015 in protest at the murder of Kevin McGuigan – had played a part in the crisis developing.
Dr said that the absence of a minister (at the point where we now know that the RHI spike was happening) had “affected” the department’s work on bringing in cost controls and been one of the reasons behind delays in closing the scheme.
At one point, the DUP’s Gordon Dunne attempted to play down the significance of the whistleblower, saying that she had contacted the department via her business email address.
He defended Mrs Foster, saying: “She had clear business interests and the minister had to take that into regard”.
But other MLAs angrily interjected, saying that the woman had acted out of public spiritedness and Dr McCormick accepted that if her advice had been acted on Northern Ireland would not be facing
But Dr McCormick’s evidence was by no means a simple endorsement of the position adopted by Stormont’s Opposition parties or Mr Bell.
He took variance with various claims by Mr Bell, saying that part of Mr Bell’s interview with Stephen Nolan last month involved reference to two separate conversations in a way that was “very clearly misleading”.
And, when asked if all of the Strangford MLA’s claims in the interview had been accurate, he said: “No.”
Dr McCormick also did not simply defend the civil service as an institution but admitted multiple grave errors within the department.
He said that “ministers have a right to expect civil servants to get these things right” but that officials had got it badly wrong.
When the DUP’s Carla Lockhart put it to him that Mrs Foster acted on advice of “educated, well-read officials”, Dr McCormick confirmed that Mrs Foster followed advice in setting up and running the scheme.
In a withering assessment of how hopelessly inadequate the rules had been, he took issue with the use of the word “corruption” to describe those who have been abusing the scheme, adding: “Deception wasn’t necessary to abuse this system”.
He said that Mrs Foster was never given advice to the effect that “you really need to get cost controls in” because uptake of the scheme was low when she was minister.
And – perhaps crucially – he backed up Mrs Foster’s consistent claim that she did not instigate the decision to strip out cost controls but that she had been advised to do so by officials.
Dr McCormick also speculated about the possibility that some in the renewables industry had put pressure on the department via DUP members to delay cost controls because “the industry was saying to others in the political class that we hear something is about to happen, can you do something about it and can you give us longer?
“That is purely inference, I have no evidence for that, it just seems a not unreasonable inference that that might have happened.”
He said the decision to delay a reduction in the tariff and the influence of Mr Bell’s adviser created the conditions for the overspend, the “perfect storm”.
He admitted officials were “blind” to the consequences.
He said documents had appeared with him anonymously after Christmas which required further investigation. And he said that he believed that a meeting involving former minister Mr Bell was recorded without his knowledge.