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  1. Design of botched scheme outlined to Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry
  2. Economy department official Peter Hutchinson gives evidence
  3. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  4. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  5. Public evidence sessions expected to last until well into 2018

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

That's all for today...

Admittedly, that was perhaps one of the less revelatory days we've had in the inquiry so far, but there is likely to be much more to come from Mr Hutchinson when he returns on Friday.

The Christmas tree in the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings

We'll be back with more coverage from Stormont's Senate chamber tomorrow at 10:00 for a session with Bernie Brankin of the DETI's finance branch.


What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News Northern Ireland

The civil servant who effectively ran the RHI scheme on his own said no extra staff were made available to help, even though he flagged up the shortage as a critical risk.

Papers on a desk
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DETI official Peter Hutchinson worked on the scheme's set-up and raised his concerns, but nothing cme of them.

Civil servant will return for further evidence session

Mr Hutchinson's appearance at the inquiry was only due to last for today, but he'll have to come back for another session on Friday.

In chronological terms, so far he's really only been questioned about the events up until the summer of 2011.

Bearing in mind that he remained at DETI until 2014, it seems there's still an huge amount to get through in terms of his role in the RHI scheme.

'Key civil servant only met minister twice'

Mr Hutchinson says he believes he only met the DETI minister twice in his five years working in the department and during his time on the RHI scheme.

Mr Lunny suggests that if Mrs Foster and her adviser Andrew Crawford wanted a deeper understanding of the initiative or challenge parts of it, Mr Hutchinson would have been the best-placed person to do that given that he was the only person who was across detail of it on a daily basis.

Arlene Foster

The civil servant says it would not be unusual for him to have met Mrs Foster so infrequently, adding that his seniors who did meet the minister more often would have also been well briefed on the details.

There was a meeting between DETI officials and Mrs Foster on 13 June, in which the submission was due to be discussed, but the inquiry has found no record of the details of what happened during it.

'Where was the pressure coming from?'

Inquiry panel member Dr Keith MacLean wants to know if there was time pressure to produce the submission to the minister, which was delivered ahead of the final CEPA economic report.

Mr Hutchinson refers to the progress being made with the Great Britain RHI scheme and pressure from stakeholders seeking the Northern Ireland equivalent, and a desire to draft a consultation before the summer of 2011.

Dr Keith MacLean
RHI Inquiry

That led to the submission being made based on CEPA's final draft report.

Dr MacLean asks if the timescale was being made by Fiona Hepper, DETI's head of energy division.

"I would expect so because her name's on the submission," says Mr Hutchinson. "I don't know if she was getting pressure herself."

'Submission to Foster could've been misleading'

Mr Lunny turns to CEPA's draft economic report for DETI on options for a renewable heat scheme in May 2011.

As mentioned earlier, options considered for what form the scheme would take were an up-front grant scheme, known as a challenge fund, and a continued subsidy scheme, which was ultimately adopted.

The May 2011 report determined that an up-front grant scheme would deliver the best results in terms of cost benefit.

A document that reads: Strictly confidential
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A submission was made to the then DETI minister Arlene Foster on foot of that report, and Mr Hutchinson says he would probably have written its first draft.

Mr Lunny suggests that some of the content of the submission could "mislead a reader" into believing that a subsidy scheme was in fact the option that economists projected would be the best value.

Mr Hutchinson says he accepts that it could be interpreted that way.

'I don't think I foresaw what happened'

Moving on to the funding arrangements for the RHI scheme, Mr Lunny quotes from written evidence provided to the inquiry by the head of DETI's finance branch, Bernie Brankin.

She explains that she would have expected energy division to "build budgetary controls" into any initiative because without those there was "potential for overspending" that would have consequences on DETI's wider budget.

Mr Hutchinson
RHI Inquiry

"I think that's a fair expectation," says Mr Hutchinson, and he accepts that a challenge fund with a set budget could not result in an overspend.

So, did he appreciate that a demand-led, continuing subsidy scheme like the one that was ultimately put in place could go over budget?

"I don't think I foresaw what happened," he replies.

'Why was subsidy scheme not ruled out?'

In February 2011, Mr Hutchinson sent a note to CEPA after a meeting with them, in which they had considered a long list of possible schemes.

Mr Lunny says that in that document Mr Hutchinson notes that a scheme similar to the Feed-In Tariff should be avoided because of high administrative costs "and the potential perverse advantage in wasting heat to claim payments".

Mr Lunny gesturing
RHI Inquiry

He puts it to Mr Hutchinson that there are clear parallels between it and a subsidy initiative that was ultimately adopted for the RHI scheme, and asks; "Why was that one being ruled out but [a subsidy scheme] not being ruled out?"

"I think it was probably just based on the fact that the [subsidy scheme] was going to be the GB [RHI scheme] methodology, but I agree looking at that now I don't now see what the difference was between the RHI and the Feed-In Tariff for heat," Mr Hutchinson says.

'Assumption on scheme preference was reasonable'

Delving deeper on whether DETI had a preference for one type of scheme over another, inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin says he still hasn't "got a clear answer" from Mr Hutchinson on the matter.

In a document from CEPA, it said it did its work on the "assumption" that DETI wanted a subsidy scheme.

Sir Patrick Coghlin
RHI Inquiry

Sir Patrick says that what Mr Hutchinson has told the inquiry would suggest that that was a "reasonable assumption" for CEPA to make.

Mr Hutchinson accepts that but says he would have told CEPA that its recommendations had to be made on a firmer basis and broader issues that initial discussions about the options with DETI.

'Did DETI have a preference on scheme model?'

The afternoon session begins with inquiry counsel Mr Lunny picking up the questioning of Mr Hutchinson where he left off before lunch.

In 2011, DETI commissioned the consultancy Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA) to prepare an economic appraisal for a renewable heat scheme, and two options for the type of initiative were put forward from that.

Among them was a challenge fund - basically an up-front capital grant scheme for biomass boiler installations - and another option, which was ultimately adopted, was a continuing subsidy scheme.

Wide shot of inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Mr Lunny displays a document from February of that year that suggests that DETI may have had a preference for a continuing subsidy scheme scheme before CEPA did its work.

In an email from a solicitor to Mr Hutchinson in February 2011, the following line occurs: "DETI's policy objective is to implement an RHI scheme that is similar to the scheme in GB."

Asked whether that indicates a preference for a subsidy scheme over a challenge fund, Mr Hutchinson says it was felt that the latter could be achieved using existing powers but a "legislative gap" would have to be filled if a subsidy scheme were to become an option.

There were also "legitimate concerns" about how a grant programme could be delivered, says Mr Hutchinson, and there was a sense that a subsidy scheme could "piggy-back" on the Great Britain RHI scheme, basically meaning that DETI could take pointers from how it operated when running its own initiative.

Time for lunch...

A fairly slow-paced opening session ends for the lunch break, and with that we'll head off to grab a healthy snack.

Fish and chips

Mr Hutchinson's evidence session resumes at 14:10 GMT, and his written witness statements suggest there's plenty more to come, so join us then.

'No conspiracy over unsaved document'

In March 2012, DECC opened a consultation on changes to the RHI scheme in Great Britain, proposing a temporary suspension of the initiative if estimated spending reached a level where it could go beyond the allocated budget.

Mr Hutchinson says he kept across developments in the GB scheme and read the consultation document.

But audit records show that he did not save it into the Northern Ireland Civil Service's electronic document library system, known as Trim, until several months later in October.

A man using a computer keyboard
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Mr Lunny asks if that means he didn't actually read it until it was saved.

Mr Hutchinson says he stands by his position that he had read it, adding: "Just because [I didn't save it in the system until later] doesn't mean that I haven't seen it.

He explains that he may have had it as a hard copy or saved on his computer and simply forgot to save it into the system, adding: "I don't think there's any kind of conspiracy."

'Aware of regular reviews of other energy schemes'

Mr Lunny turns to other energy schemes that were subject to reviews.

The Feed-in Tariff (FIT) solar power generation scheme in England and Wales was subject to an unscheduled review in 2011 to address the danger of an unsustainable growth in subscriptions.

Wide shot of the Inquiry in session
RHI Inquiry

Closer to home, the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO), supporting the generation of renewable electricity, was subject to regular review, and there were occasional changes to the banding of payments.

Mr Hutchinson says he was aware of this.

'Stopping scheme's set-up not a viable option'

Stopping the set-up of the RHI scheme due to the risks posed by staff shortages was never seen as a "viable option", says Mr Hutchinson.

Dr Keith MacLean
RHI Inquiry

In response to a question from inquiry technical assessor Dr Keith MacLean, Mr Hutchinson says the environmental target of achieving 10% of Northern Ireland's renewable heat production by 2020 and the fact that a budget had been allocated to work towards that aim meant that a scheme "had to come forward".

"I don't think doing nothing was seen as a viable option," he adds.

'No extra staff provided despite shortage warning'

No extra staffing resources were provided for the RHI scheme during Mr Hutchinson's time working on it, he says.

That is in spite of Mr Hutchinson raising in the project's risk register an "immediate" and critical need for more staff to be allocated to it because of its complexity.

A man carrying files
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Mr Lunny suggests that it would've been clear that Mr Hutchinson was working long hours, evenings and weekends and "undertaking almost every task that appeared to be required" for the scheme.

Mr Hutchinson raised the issue with his line manager, who in turn raised it with her bosses, and he adds: "There are only so many times you can say it."

Knowing what he knows now, Mr Hutchinson says it would be "hard to argue against" having extra staff dedicated to the scheme's set-up at the time.

'Risks posed by inadequate resources'

A risk register was prepared for the RHI scheme, with Mr Hutchinson saying he probably prepared the first draft.

Mr Lunny draws the inquiry's attention to one of the risks identified in it - inadequate resources to deliver the project, including staff.

Mr Lunny asks a question
RHI Inquiryl

The risk does not have an "owner", unlike every other identified risk, and Mr Lunny says Fiona Hepper, who was the head of DETI's energy division, described this as an "unresolved issue".

The indicators for this risk are identified as "small team, complex and technical issues and varied requirements".

Mr Lunny says the risk is rated in the document as high in the document "both for its impact and its likelihood".

'Mr Hutchinson worked largely on his own'

In 2012, Mr Hutchinson was awarded a special bonus for his work on the RHI scheme, and Mr Lunny reads from the form nominating him for the award.

In the form, his colleague Joanne McCutcheon explains that Mr Hutchinson deserves the bonus because he "has performed exceptionally well during the year, well above what would be expected from his grade".

Peter Hutchinson
RHI Inquiry

"He worked largely on his own, managing the consultants who are modelling a proposed renewable heat incentivisation scheme for NI," she goes on to say.

"He then drafted the consultation and fronted the public consultation events."

'Two full-time staff worked on set-up of RHI scheme'

There was the equivalent of five full-time staff working in DETI's renewable heat branch by 2012, and only two people were working specifically on the RHI scheme.

Mr Hutchinson has said his role was "complex and heavily loaded".

A man making calculations
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Mr Lunny suggests Mr Hutchinson is being modest about the scale of the weight of work he had, saying that he was recommended for bonuses for the amount he was doing.

Mr Hutchinson says he was the staff member who would've been the across most of the detail of the scheme.

'Risk management in place for GB RHI scheme'

Mr Lunny says that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had 77 people working on the Great Britain RHI scheme by 2013.

Donal Lunny
RHI Inquiry

There was a project board and monthly meetings with a risk register reviewed on a monthly basis.

He quotes from the statement given to the inquiry by DECC's successor - the Department for Business Energy and Industrial strategy (BEIS): "Ofgem and BEIS both have risk and management processes for the GB scheme."

Key civil service witness sworn in

Today's witness is Peter Hutchinson - he was a civil servant at the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) during set-up and running of the scheme until part of the way through 2014.

After he's sworn in, junior counsel to the inquiry Donal Lunny asks him about the relevant experience he brought to his role working on the scheme.

Peter Hutchinson is sworn in
RHI Inquiry

Mr Hutchinson says he is by no means a specialist in energy matters, joking that he has "an arts degree, unfortunately".

Mr Lunny asks if he took part in any energy related training courses, to which he replies: "I don't recall any specific energy-related training."

Mr Hutchinson's written witness statement is available in six parts on the inquiry's website - scroll towards the bottom of the page to find it.

What is the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News Northern Ireland

An independent inquiry into the RHI scandal was established in January by the then finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

He ordered it in the wake of the huge public concern and what was then a developing political crisis surrounding the scheme.

Sir Patrick Coghlin

The RHI Inquiry began last month and Sir Patrick Coghlin (above), a retired Court of Appeal judge, is its chair and has been given full control over how it will operate.

It will look at:

  • the design and introduction of the RHI scheme
  • the scheme's initial operation, administration, promotion and supervision
  • the introduction of revised subsidies and a usage cap for new scheme claimants in 2015
  • the scheme's closure

For more information on the RHI Inquiry, you can read our handy Q&A.

RHI scheme - the fallout

When the scale of the overspend emerged, public and political concern rocketed.

As the minister in charge of the Stormont department that set up the RHI scheme, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster faced calls to resign from her role as Northern Ireland's first minister in December last year.

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster

She resisted, and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness then quit as deputy first minister in protest at the DUP's handling of what had by then become a full-blown political crisis.

That move brought about the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, and as we near a year on from that Northern Ireland remains without a devolved administration.

If you want a bit more detail on the background to the scandal and the subsequent inquiry, here's our need-to-know guide on the RHI scheme.

RHI scheme - the flaws

There were critical flaws in the way the RHI scheme was set up that left it open to abuse and that later saw its budget spiral out of control.

Crucial cost curbs that existed in a similar scheme in Great Britain were not replicated and claimants could effectively earn more money the more fuel they burned.

Biomass boilers
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That was because the subsidies on offer for renewable fuels were far greater than the cost of the fuels themselves - the scheme was later nicknamed "cash-for-ash" for that very reason.

As a result, the scheme racked up a huge projected overspend - £700m at the most recent estimate, if permanent cost controls are not introduced - and the bill will have to be picked up by the Northern Ireland taxpayer.

RHI scheme - what was it?

Need a quick refresher on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme? Well, we're here to help...

It came to the fore of the Northern Ireland public's knowledge in autumn last year - few people, if anyone, would have expected it to have the consequences it has done in the months that followed.

Wood pellets

It was set up by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2012, as a way of encouraging businesses to switch from using fossil fuels to renewable sources for generating their heat.

Those who signed up were offered financial incentives to buy new heating systems and the fuel to run them.

Good morning

After a bizarre day yesterday in which Stormont was, for a while at least, at the heart of the Brexit action, things have settled down a little bit at Parliament Buildings... for now at least.

In the meantime, the RHI Inquiry resumes, entering its fourth week.

The RHI Inquiry

Facing a full day of questioning will be Peter Hutchinson, one of the civil servants who was involved in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme at its outset.

We have live video coverage and text commentary to keep you updatefd throughout the day.