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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Dr Edmund Ward of scheme administrator Ofgem 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 this week...

Mr Lunny's done his best but he's breached Sir Patrick's strict Friday 15:45 knocking-off time.

There's a sigh of relief as the ball is kicked into touch and we can all start thinking about tomorrow's big game - England agin Ireland, with Joe Schmidt's side chasing the Six Nations Grand Slam.

Ireland rugby players celebrate a try against Scotland
Getty Images

We'll see you on Tuesday for more from Northern Ireland Civil Service boss David Sterling.

Have a great St Patrick's weekend!

What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News Northern Ireland

The level of oversight of the RHI scheme in Northern Ireland was nothing like that of a parallel one in Great Britain, the inquiry was told.

The RHI Inquiry
Press Eye

In Britain there were weekly and monthly management meetings between the scheme administrator Ofgem and the government department that ran the initiative.

But there were no such meetings about the Northern Ireland scheme for almost two years after it opened.

Moy Park 'told of cost control plan months before announcement'

Conor Macauley

BBC News NI Agriculture and Environment Correspondent

Poultry firm Moy Park was being consulted on a potential cost control measure for RHI boilers months before it was made public, the inquiry has been told.

Witness Dr Edmund Ward said it had been done by Stuart Wightman and Seamus Hughes, the two DETI civil servants responsible for running the scheme at the time.

Inside a Moy Park factory
BBC

In his statement to the inquiry, he said he believed the discussions had been happening up to three months before the change was announced by the DETI minister in September 2015.

He said they had been talking to Moy Park about a possible usage cap for RHI boilers, hundreds of which had been installed by farmers supplying the poultry giant.

Dr Ward, of the scheme administrator Ofgem, said the two men had mentioned the fact during teleconferences they had with him that summer.

'Straight conflict between you and DETI official'

In his written statement to the inquiry, DETI official Stuart Wightman - who began working on the RHI scheme in autumn 2014 - says Ofgem "never once raised concerns over the level of payments that recipients were receiving".

He goes on to say that was "despite Ofgem discussing this" with his predecessors at DETI who had been running the scheme.

A biomass boiler
BBC

Dr Ward insists he did, and suggests that Mr Wightman's unfamiliarity with the scheme when he joined the DETI team meant he may not have picked up on the "importance" of what he was being told.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghin says: "It's difficult to see how that isn't a straight conflict between you."

'Concerns were raised about significant heat use'

in May 2014, Peter Hutchinson, the DETI official who was central to the development of the RHI scheme, phoned Dr Ward, concerned about reports he was receiving about boilers being operated well above the 17% of the time that had been intended in the sudsidy calculation.

Mr Hutchinson (below) recounted the conversation in a note to a colleague, including a reference to potential overcompensation for claimants.

Hens in a shed
PA

Dr Ward confirms that he told Mr Hutchinson that many installations in Great Britain and Northern Ireland had a high demand for heat.

Among those were poultry farms and mushrooms farms - they need heat to assist their production, so the RHI scheme proved to be popular in those sectors.

Biomass boilers owned by those claimants would typically been used for long periods of time, resulting in them receiving more money through heat subsidies than was intended.

'Boilers were used around the clock'

Next on the agenda for Dr Ward is the issue of the amount of time that RHI scheme boilers were in use, known as the load factor.

That was another critical factor in why the scheme's budget spiralled so out of control.

Burning wood pellets
Getty Images

Long story short, the calculation behind setting the amount of subsidy on offer through the scheme was based on claimants using their boilers for 17% of the hours in a year.

But some boilers were run around the clock, and that allowed claimants to harvest a far bigger amount of money than was ever intended.

In applying for the scheme, people had to give an estimate how long they'd be using their boilers for - many said that their boilers would be running all the time.

Time for lunch...

A sandwich
Getty Images

We'll be honest - after what's been an interesting week at the RHI Inquiry, today hasn't been quite so gripping.

Time for a lunch break and a dander - the hearing resumes at 14:00, so rejoin us then for a thrilling afternoon!

'Is that reasonable way for taxpayer-funded body to act?'

Inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien has concerns about Ofgem's process for flagging up issues with the RHI scheme to DETI.

She asks if the administrator made judgements between what it believed was significant problem and what was a lesser issue before raising what it perceived to be the bigger concerns with the department.

Two men in a meeting
Getty Images

Dame Una asks: "It's that filtering that I'm trying to understand - is that a reasonably way for one public body, being funded through taxpayers' money... to conduct itself?"

Dr Ward accepts that Ofgem didn't identify some of the key problems with the scheme in the first place, and that's why they weren't passed on to DETI.

'False sense of security in fraud prevention plan'

Ofgem had a fraud prevention strategy that covered both the Great Britain RHI scheme and the Northern Ireland initiative.

It made an appearance during yesterday's evidence session with Ofgem administrative manager Teri Clifton, and lists the measures in place to prevent the generation of unnecessary heat purely in order to claim RHI payments.

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

One of those is measures is the "tiered tariff for biomass", which didn't exist in the NI scheme.

"I agree that's not right," says Dr Ward.

Mr Lunny says that if Ofgem officials had read the fraud prevention strategy "they would have been lulled into a false sense of security".

'We didn't consciously withhold information from DETI'

Ofgem "can be confident" that it did not consciously withhold information about the RHI scheme from DETI, says Dr Ward.

An email inbox
Getty Images

Inquiry panellist Dr MacLean notes that the witness has said that the administrator would've been happy to discuss key problems with the RHI scheme with DETI if it had been asked by the department.

But he adds that Ofgem didn't do much "popping your head up" by raising the issues first.

'Risks workshop was never held'

Before the RHI scheme opened, Ofgem proposed holding a risk workshop with DETI in the initiate's early development stage, partly to ensure appropriate action was taken in the event of problems, but it never happened.

Dr Ward says he wasn't aware of it, but he took part in regular risk workshops with DECC for the GB RHI scheme.

Sir Patrick Coghlin
RHI Inquiry

With DETI, he doesn't feel there was "a collaborative approach" to identify risks.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin wants to know why there wasn't more collaboration, given that Ofgem was being paid for the service.

Dr Ward says his understanding is that Ofgem had been "handed some functions and been asked to go away and deliver those and that there wasn't that detailed engagement".

'Absence of tiering didn't seem unreasonable to me'

A major question in the RHI debacle is why there was no tiering system in place for the subsidies on offer through the scheme.

Tiering is an important way of keeping the scheme's cost - it and works by reducing the tariff on offer once a claimant has used their heating system for a certain amount of time.

Burning wood pellets
BBC

The intention is that a claimant is therefore prevented from overusing their biomass boiler and producing heat unnecessarily in order to collect more cash.

Dr Ward was aware that the Great Britain RHI scheme had tiering but the Northern Ireland scheme didn't - that "didn't seem unreasonable" to him because the energy market in Northern Ireland was different to the one across the water.

'Wasn't aware of any minuted meetings at DETI'

Dr Keith MacLean
RHI Inquiry

Inquiry panel member Dr Keith MacLean asks whether Dr Ward ever saw any evidence that DETI had aspects of project management in place.

"I wasn't aware that there was a senior responsible owner within DETI; I wasn't aware that there were formal boards or minuted governance meetings within DETI," the witness replies.

He also saw no evidence of a formal work to monitor whether the scheme was hitting its carbon targets.

'Civil servants didn't fully understand how scheme worked'

There were 77 people working on the Great Britain RHI scheme at DECC, but only two - one part-time - at DETI on the similar Northern Ireland initiative.

People looking at charts
Getty Images

Dr Ward says that lack of staff became "clear" in 2014 when DETI began "prioritising" getting its domestic RHI scheme open ahead of making crucial changes - including the introduction of cost controls - to the non-domestic initiative.

In his written statement, he says the staff shortage also created problems for DETI in that the civil servants working on the scheme "did not have the opportunity to develop a detailed understanding of how [it] was operating in practice".

'Ofgem and DECC had weekly RHI meetings'

In addition to their project board meetings, Ofgem and DECC also had face-to-face, lower-level project management meetings about the GB RHI scheme.

For instance, he says that discussions in those meetings about the matter of the so-called gaming of the GB scheme resulted in workshops being set up to address the issue.

Gaming was the practice of installing of multiple small boilers that were eligible for a higher subsidy instead of one larger, more efficient unit that was subject to a lower subsidy - that allowed claimants to collect more money.

Dr Edmund Ward
RHI Inquiry

But there was no similar level of project management meetings with the Northern Ireland RHI scheme.

"Did that strike you as odd?" asks Mr Lunny, who wonders if the witness ever asked DETI about it.

"I don't recall ever asking DETI about that," Dr Ward replies, adding that a monthly telephone conference was instigated in spring 2014.

It was DETI's responsibility to make sure that the RHI scheme was better run, according to Dr Ward, who defends Ofgem's role, saying the administrator carried out all of the functions that had been required of it.

'Don't know why scheme oversight board wasn't set up'

In preparing to take on the administering of the RHI scheme, Ofgem suggested that a joint monitoring board should be set up to keep an eye on how the project was being operated.

This proposed board would've been made up of representatives from Ofgem and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

It was to meet monthly after the scheme had opened, and would scrutinise the scheme and control its operation, costs and uptake... but the board was never set up.

people in a meeting
Getty Images

But Ofgem did attend monthly meetings with the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) - which was running the GB scheme - to discuss how that initiative was working.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin says he had "difficulty" in understanding why Dr Ward didn't query why there was a board for DECC but none for DETI.

"I don't understand why there wasn't a board," the witness responds, adding that if it was viewed by Ofgem as unnecessary that was a "mistake".

'I answered PAC's questions to best of my ability'

Dr Ward was one of three Ofgem officials who faced the Northern Ireland Assembly's Public Account Committee in October 2016 to answer questions from MLAs about the RHI debacle.

It's fair to say that was an afternoon he and his colleagues (below) would probably rather forget, as they came in for sharp criticism from the committee for their handling of the scheme.

DR Ward and two of his Ofgem colleagues at the PAC in 2016
BBC

At the end of that lengthy session in Stormont's Senate chamber, the PAC chair Robin Swann told them: "We've been sitting here for nearly four-and-a-half hours and I think you've actually raised more questions than you've answered."

Reflecting on that in his written statement to this inquiry, Dr Ward says: "I was asked to speak on matters which went beyond my personal experience or responsibility - I did so to the best of my knowledge and ability."

New witness Dr Edmund Ward gives evidence

Ofgem's Dr Edmund Ward affirms in front of the inquiry - he was a senior technical manager at RHI scheme's administrator.

Dr Edmund Ward affirms
RHI Inquiry

Junior counsel Donal Lunny is asking the questions today.

You'll find Dr Ward's written statement to the inquiry in full here.

What happened yesterday at the RHI Inquiry?

DUP MP Ian Paisley lobbied an official to accept an RHI application for a more lucrative subsidy as rates were being cut, the inquiry heard.

Teri Clifton from Ofgem - the body that administered the initiative for DETI - said she took a "very intimidating" phonecall in November 2015.

Ian Paisley
Pacemaker

She said she found she was speaking to the applicants, their representatives Action Renewables, Mr Paisley and the poultry producer Moy Park.

They all wanted her to accept the application after the deadline had passed because the applicants - the McNaughtons - otherwise stood to lose a considerable sum of money.

What is the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News Northern Ireland

An independent inquiry into the RHI scandal was established in January last year 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.

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

Sir Patrick Coghlin
Pacemaker

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 2016.

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster
PA

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. Now, more than a year on from that, Northern Ireland remains without a devolved administration.

You can find much more detail on the RHI scheme in our need-to-know guide.

RHI scheme - the flaws

The budget of the RHI scheme ran out of control because of critical flaws in the way it was set up.

Claimants could effectively earn more money the more fuel they burned because the subsidies on offer for renewable fuels were far greater than the cost of the fuels themselves.

Burning £20 notes
BBC

The most recent estimate for the overspend was set at £700m, if permanent cost controls aren't introduced.

The massive overspend bill will have to be picked up by the Northern Ireland taxpayer.

RHI scheme - what was it?

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme - or RHI for short - came to the fore of the Northern Ireland public's knowledge in late-2016... and the fallout from the scandal attached to it is still being felt in the region's politics today.

A biomass boiler
Getty Images

The scheme 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

It's been a busy, revelatory week up here at Stormont at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry but it's not over yet.

Stormont's Parliament Buildings
AFP

Thanks for joining us for the final session of the week - today's we'll be hearing from another representative of the RHI scheme's administrator Ofgem.

Dr Edmund Ward will be questioned very shortly, so stick with us throughout the day for our live stream of the heraing and a text commentary of the key evidence.