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Summary

  1. Employers For Childcare brief Education Committee members VAT on childcare at home
  2. Public Accounts Committee holds lengthy inquiry session on Renewable Heat Incentive scheme

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all, folks!

    Mr Swann calls for the final item of business to be taken in closed session, so that's where we'll leave the PAC for this week.

    Parliament Buildings at Stormont

    Join us tomorrow morning at 10:00 for the Communities Committee, which is taking evidence on the Licensing and Registration of Clubs Bill.

    The interest groups appearing include representatives from churches and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

  2. 'Expect another call from committee on this'

    PAC chair Robin Swann thanks the officials for their attendance in what has been another marathon session in this inquiry.

    Heather Cousins and Dr Andrew McCormick

    However, he says the committee's work is far from done and Dr Andrew McCormick and Heather Cousins can expect to be called again to give evidence.

  3. Analysis: Trump's tax policy could hit NI plans

    John Campbell

    BBC News NI Economics and Business Editor

    Donald Trump says he will reduce the headline rate of US corporation tax from 35% to 15%.

    That could have particular implications for the Republic of Ireland, which has attracted lots of tax-sensitive US investment.

    Donald Trump

    It could also weaken the impact of the Northern Ireland Executive's plan to use reduced corporation tax as a tool for attracting investment.

    US firms employ more than 20,000 people in Northern Ireland.

  4. Trump a racist, misogynistic buffoon, says Eastwood

    Northern Ireland politicians have been sending their congratulations to Donald Trump after his victory in the US presidential election.

    But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has been less than complimentary about the billionaire tycoon, describing him as a "racist, misogynistic buffoon".

    Donald Trump

    He adds that Mr Trump's victory was one of "fanatical and fantasy absolutism over a more considered, coherent and kinder politics".

    For that reason, he says, he will "take a stand" and refuse to visit the White House while the New Yorker is president.

  5. 'This was avoidable if we'd done analysis'

    Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan sees the problem as having been the department's decision to follow a similar scheme already operating in Great Britain.

    He says DETI adopted "a flawed system before we started".

    Oliver McMullan

    But Dr McCormick says Great Britain project "did not have the same flaws".

    "If we had understood and analysed the tariffs properly and efficiently this could have been avoided. This was clearly avoidable," he says.

  6. Analysis: Trump unknown quantity for Stormont

    Mark Devenport

    BBC News NI Political Editor

    In comparison to Hillary Clinton, who made several visits to Northern Ireland over the past 21 years, Donald Trump is more of an unknown quantity as far as most Stormont politicians are concerned.

    The kind of access they might have enjoyed at the White House under a Mrs Clinton presidency seems unlikely under Mr Trump.

    Hillary Clinton with her husband Bill

    But no-one had expected that Northern Ireland would be or should be anywhere near the top of a new US president's bulging in-tray.

    Those days are long gone and we are now entering a new era for the world, never mind Northern Ireland.

  7. 'Officials fell short in managing project'

    The DUP's Gordon Dunne asks whether, in hindsight, the officials think DETI's energy team was "adequately resourced" and had "sufficient qualities and skills" to manage the project.

    Dr McCormick says most parts of the civil service "will at some stage say they are under pressure and need more resources".

    Gordon Dunne

    The permanent secretary says he "couldn't say that it was unreasonable to expect them to have addressed some of these points".

    "So they fell short," says Mr Dunne.

  8. Government making Brexit up as it goes along, says McGuinness

    Gareth Gordon

    BBC News NI Political Correspondent

    Northern Ireland's deputy first minister has accused the government of making up its Brexit policy as it goes along.

    Martin McGuinness

    Martin McGuinness was speaking after the first meeting of a new committee made up of the devolved administrations and chaired by Brexit Secretary David Davis.

    Mr McGuinness said he could not understand why more information was not being shared with Stormont, Edinburgh and Cardiff, but First Minister Arlene Foster said it was a first meeting in a long process.

  9. 'Were junior employees encouraged to whistleblow?'

    The committee returns after a minute break of about 20 minutes, and Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn asks about the department's attitude to lower-ranking employees who challenge management.

    He asks if it could have been that they "were not actively encouraged to make suggestions and effectively to whistleblow".

    Trevor Lunn

    Dr McCormick says he does not know what the culture was like in the department at the time as he was not working there.

    "I think that the right approach is for senior managers to be asking, and open and transparent in their behaviour in terms of welcoming challenge and welcoming suggestions," he says.

  10. 'Average RHI payout set to hit £1m'

    Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew says the average payment to applicants over the RHI scheme's 20-year lifespan will be about £1m.

    She refers to her time as agricluture minister, and says she constantly fielded complaints from farmers she met "at a filling station or at a funeral" that the department was holding off on paying grants to them.

    Michelle Gildernew

    She says that when she took those issues up with her officials, she was told that "until the final inspection is done and every box is ticked, they wouldn't be paying out".

    She says a similarly rigorous inspection regime should have been included in the RHI scheme to ensure "public money is being spent properly".

  11. 'Ofgem's inspections weren't up to standard'

    A number of RHI beneficiaries have had their subsidy payments suspended pending investigation into their conduct relating to the terms of the scheme, Ms Cousins tells the committee.

    But all of those suspensions have been as a result of inspections by the professional services firm PwC, rather than by Ofgem, she adds.

    Heather Cousins

    PwC was commissioned by the department to investigate the scheme after the whistleblower raised concerns about it earlier this year.

    Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan suggests the standard of PwC's inspections was much higher than those carried out by Ofgem.

  12. 'Genuine concern over feedback on inspections'

    Dr McCormick says there is a "genuine concern" at the department over the extent of feedback from Ofgem about what it found in its inspections of sites that were using the RHI scheme.

    He tells the committee that Ofgem said "there wasn't much to worry about" from the first 57 inspections it carried out.

    Wood-fired boiler

    But chair Robin Swann tells Dr McCormick that Ofgem had informed the committee two weeks ago that it had alerted the department to problems.

    Dr McCormick says it would be fair to say the department was aware there were issues but Ofgem did not expand on them.

    There would "not have been pressing reason to pursue and ask a lot more questions" on those issues, he adds, but "knowing what we know now, it looks bad."

  13. 'We believed Ofgem had ability to run scheme'

    DUP MLA Alex Easton asks why Ofgem was asked to run the scheme when it had no base in Northern Ireland and carried out only a small number of inspections to approve applications.

    At the last session of this inquiry, Ofgem officials came in for heavy criticism over their handling of the RHI project.

    Ofgem E-serve graphic
    Image caption: Ofgem E-Serve administers government green energy schemes

    Dr McCormick said the department had "every reason to believe they had the technical ability" to operate the scheme effectively because it had been the administrator of the same scheme in Great Britain.

    "They were selected because of the experience that they had that wasn't available here," DfE official Heather Cousins adds.

  14. 'Whistleblowers maybe felt we didn't listen'

    An investigation into the RHI scheme was started after a whistleblower made allegations about it to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister in January this year.

    An approach had previously been made to Ofgem, the scheme's administrators, in the summer of 2015.

    The committee in session

    Mr Swann asks Dr McCormick why he thinks the complaint was made to OFMDFM rather than the DETI.

    The civil servant says: "I don't think it's unreasonable or unfair that people had maybe felt that the department wasn't listening."

  15. 'We're criticised for not spending Treasury cash'

    Dr McCormick has said several times during his two appearances before the PAC that the department had many projects going on at the time when the RHI scheme was open and therefore his officials' focus may not have been as sharp on it as it could have been.

    Running parallel to the RHI scheme that was set up for businesses is a similar scheme for domestic users, which cost £3m a year for a seven-year lifespan.

    Mr Swann asks: "A complete scheme worth £21m was a bigger distraction than a scheme that could potentially cost £1.18bn?

    wood pellets

    "Is that because it was simpler and easier to understand?"

    Dr McCormick says the minister had made it a priority to put the domestic scheme in place, and the "attitude" was that failing to do so would result in the funding being lost by Stormont.

    "We get plenty of criticism as officials for failing to spend and handing money back to the Treasury", he adds.

  16. 'Question of 'why' not sufficiently asked'

    In reply to questioning from Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney (below), Dr McCormick says there has to be "an inquisitive and challenging attitude in everything we do".

    Declan Kearney

    "In this case the word 'why' was not sufficiently asked," he adds.

    Mr Kearney says he finds it "deeply alarming" that they are having this conversation about the department that is supposed to be "the powerhouse of economic innovation".

  17. 'No disciplinary proceedings going on'

    The DUP's Trevor Clarke asks about the whistleblower who first raised concerns about the scheme.

    "Are they part of the disciplinary stuff that's going on?" he asks.

    Public Accounts Committee

    "There is no disciplinary stuff going on - there is a fact-finding exercise," Dr McCormick replies.

    He says he will not prejudge the outcome.

  18. 'Officials did not believe warnings over scheme'

    Mr Swann says the committee has been told by "a whistleblower or concerned member of the public" that there were clear warnings about the scheme as far back as October 2013.

    Dr McCormick says that at a meeting after the warning "the officials did not believe what they were being told".

    Arlene Foster

    Mr Swann puts it to Dr McCormick that Arlene Foster, the then DETI minister, was informed.

    He replies that what Mrs Foster did was "entirely appropriate".

    "She said you need to go and see my officials, and that happened."

  19. 'Biggest financial scandal in living memory'

    Mr Swann says the costs incurred and mistakes made in the RHI scheme make it "the biggest financial scandal in living memory".

    Dr McCormick, who has been in the civil service for almost 40 years, admits he "can't recall anything that was on [this] scale".

    A quick reminder for you - the scheme is due to cost £1.18bn over 20 years.

    A pile of £10 notes

    Mr Swann delves into the effect of making up the losses on other government programmes.

    He asks how much money was reassigned in the last monitoring round to cover the costs of then RHI scheme, with DfE official Heather Cousins says £20m was set aside.

    Mr Swann says £1.7m was taken from apprenticeships, £600,000 from assured skills and £1.2m from training schemes.

  20. 'Impression that silence would make issues disappear'

    Chair Robin Swann sums up what he says is the PAC's "view on this".

    "Only belatedly the department appears to have recognised the gravity of what has occurred," he tells Dr McCormick.

    There were "numerous warning signs" that there were "serious problems" with the project, but they were "effectively ignored" by the department and "for far too long the department behaved as if nothing was wrong".

    "The committee is left with the impression that DETI hoped that silence and inaction would make these issues disappear," he adds.

    Robin Swann

    Dr McCormick acknowledges that would be a "very fair" summation of the RHI scheme.

    But Mr Swann then says the comments are actually from the committee's report on the failed Bytel broadband project several years ago.

    "Did the department learn anything from Bytel?" he asks.

    "We thought we had learned quite a lot but clearly not sufficient," Dr McCormick says.