An inquiry into the Renewable Heating Incentive, beginning in February, is being chaired by Patrick Coughlin, a retired Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland. Coughlin was nominated by current Lord Chief Justice, Declan Morgan and will be assisted by two panel members and additional independent assessors as required.
In a process intended to restore public confidence in the Assembly, Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir outlined: “Rest assured, every stone will be turned and there will be no dark corners where the light won’t be shone.”
He added: “The independent investigation will have the powers to compel witnesses and evidence and I pledge that as minister I will ensure the inquiry is free of ministerial control or interference.”
The Minister also outlined the terms of reference for the inquiry. This investigation will probe:
- the development and roll-out of the scheme by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, under Minister Arlene Foster;
- the signing off of the scheme by the then Department of Finance and Personnel;
- cost controls and tariffs;
- delays in implementing cost control measures before November 2015 which allowed a spike in the number of applicants that autumn; and
- the closure of the scheme in February last year.
The Assembly has voted in favour of Economy Minister Simon Hamilton’s temporary plan to reduce the potential cost of the scheme. The proposed measures would legislate to amend the tariff structure for the previously uncapped scheme. This would realign claimants into a tiered subsidy in which payments would reduce after a period of usage. The plans have been costed at an estimated £2.5 million.
This two-pronged strategy is intended to firstly, “stop the losses to the public purse, hence the time-limited solution before us” and secondly, “[create] the time and space to work on and agree a suitable long-term solution to the problems with RHI. That will be done initially by a consultation to commence very soon”.
The move, however, has been criticised by political opponents as “blatant electioneering”.
Meanwhile, the Renewable Heat Association for Northern Ireland, a group representing those in the industry, as well as non-domestic RHI scheme claimants, intend to challenge any legislation to curtail payments and oppose the publication of claimant names prior to the completion of an audit.
Subsequently, the Association was successful in securing a Belfast High Court interim judgment, preventing the Economy Minister from publicising a partial list of those named as benefiting from the green energy scheme. There is an anticipation that the potential for further legal challenges will prove costly.
Hamilton had previously asserted: “I believe that it is absolutely imperative that there is complete openness and transparency around the RHI scheme and particular in respect of the naming of businesses benefitting from the scheme. It has always been my intention to publish this information.”