Northern Ireland

RHI inquiry: official 'raised staff shortage risk'

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Image caption Peter Hutchinson said he raised it in a "risk register" but nothing came of it

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

Peter Hutchinson worked at the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was set up.

He said he raised his concern in a risk register, but nothing came of it.

He was giving evidence to the public inquiry into the scheme at Stormont.

The team introducing a similar scheme in the rest of the UK had 77 staff, the inquiry heard on Tuesday.

It was set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the energy initiative, after its costs spiralled.

The RHI scheme offered to subsidise the cost of its claimants' fuel - mostly wood pellets - for running their heating systems.

But the fuel actually cost far less than the subsidy they were receiving, effectively meaning that users could earn more money by burning more fuel.

The most recent estimate put the projected overspend at £700m over 20 years.

The scandal generated significant public concern and the fallout surrounding it led to the collapse of Northern Ireland's devolved administration and a major political crisis that exists to this day.

'Working on his own'

Mr Hutchinson said he had raised concerns about staff resources on the risk register because it was a complex project being managed by a small team.

He said he had passed it to his line manager who had raised it with her bosses.

"There are only so many times you can say it, I suppose," said Mr Hutchinson.

Knowing what he did now, and having seen how it all "panned out", it would be hard to argue against the idea that extra staff would have helped, he said.

Mr Hutchinson had a wide range of responsibilities within the department, the inquiry was told, including:

  • Managing the design consultants
  • Drafting consultation documents
  • Preparing an application to Europe for state aid permission

Much of this had been done, his manager said, while he was "working largely on his own".

Mr Hutchinson said the RHI scheme had not been managed as a departmental project with the checks and balances that that would have entailed.

He said instead each part of the process had been viewed as a separate step.

By the time the need for peer review was raised, the main decisions had already been taken and the scheme was almost ready to start, he added.

'Time pressure'

Later, Mr Hutchinson said they had based a recommendation to the then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster on options for an RHI scheme on the findings of their consultants' draft report - not the final one.

He said there had been time pressure to get on with the launch.

Some of that was coming from the renewable energy industry and some of it was because if the available funding was not spent, it would be handed back to the Treasury.

Inquiry Counsel Donal Lunny suggested there was a "degree of danger" in doing so.

But the official said that if they wanted to get the scheme out to publication they needed to get an indication from the department of the "direction of travel" for the RHI scheme.

Mr Lunny said "haste" should not be an excuse for the delivery of a "poor scheme".

Mr Hutchinson later conceded the consultants' findings - that an alternative scheme would provide a better, cheaper method of renewable heat - was not clearly communicated in the options paper sent to then DETI minister for a decision.

He said he had not raised the need to consider cost controls in the scheme with design consultants, CEPA.

He had been asked to do so after more senior officials had established that any overspend in the scheme would have to be paid back out of departmental budgets.

Mr Hutchinson said he was working on the assumption that there was a finite budget for RHI and everyone had to work within it.

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