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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Head of NI Civil Service and ex-DETI chief David Sterling returns to inquiry
  3. Former DETI energy boss John Mills faces inquiry questions for first time
  4. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  5. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  6. Public evidence sessions expected to last until well into 2018

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

That's all for now...

Carson's statue at Stormont
Reuters

Busy enough aul' day at the RHI Inquiry and Mr Mills will be back to answer more questions tomorrow morning from 09:45.

Thanks for following our coverage - good evening for now!

What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

BBC News Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's most senior civil servant denied that the department he formerly ran was a "serial offender" in terms of problems with public money.

David Sterling
Press Eye

It was suggested to David Sterling, who headed DETI during the set-up and initial running of the RHI scheme, that the department had not learned lessons from two previous projects that had seen money squandered.

He acknowledged that the civil service has much work to do to to regain public trust after the RHI debacle.

'Too big an ask to look past just-get-it-done attitude'

Inquiry counsel Mr Scoffield asks why Mr Mills didn't ask for a project management approach to the RHI scheme even though he thought it had been needed.

"Did you raise the issue and if not, why not?" he asks.

A man pointing at a watch
Getty Images

"No, I didn't and yes, I should have done" Mr Mills replies.

"I probably thought it was too big a job to convince the department to take a more planned approach as opposed to the 'just get it done' attitude," he adds.

"Project management would just get in the way of that."

'Decision to delay cost controls taken before I arrived'

DETI's plan to develop the RHI scheme in 2014 had originally included the addition of cost controls and the opening of a similar initiative for domestic users.

That was put to public consultation but the budget protection measures later fell by the wayside.

Burning wood pellets
BBC

Mr Mills decided that rolling out the domestic programme could go ahead of adding cost controls to the original scheme which would be dealt with later - they ultimately didn’t happen.

He believed that both of those things couldn't have been done at the same time, given the scant staffing resources at his disposal.

Asked why the domestic scheme was pushed ahead, he says "these decisions seemed to me to have been taken before my arrival" and he simply "followed the advice I was given" in rubber-stamping it.

'Need for review wasn't front and centre'

One of the conditions of approval for the RHI scheme was that a full review of it would be conducted by the start of 2014.

But that never happened and an important opportunity to spot some of the defects was therefore missed.

A man using a calculator
Getty Images

Mr Mills says the message wasn't passed on to him by management when he joined the department that the review was of "critical" importance.

He says it wasn't in any planning documents for the energy division when he arrived and "if it really was that front and centre" it should've been outlined somewhere.

'Why not ask for meeting with new line manager?'

Inquiry panellist and civil service expert Dame Una O'Brien seems incredulous that Mr Mills did not press for a meeting with his line manager at DETI on taking up a new job with no overlap with his predecessor.

"It just seems an obvious step," she says, asking if he thought it would not have been worthwhile to "get their steer" on things.

Dame Una O'Brien
RHI Inquiry

Mr Mills replies that there were regular meetings with more senior civil servants on energy issues.

"There was contact within those structures," he adds.

'Continued promises led to exasperation from minister'

The "priority" when he arrived at DETI, says Mr Mills, was getting the domestic RHI scheme opened and he "did not disagree or depart from that".

But inquiry panellist Dr MacLean notes a passage in the Mr Mills' written statement to the inquiry, he says that it was himself who "made it the branch's priority".

Wood pellets
Getty Images

The witness insists now he "did not make a conscious decision" to put the domestic scheme at the top of the priority list, saying that had already been done by someone else before he arrived at DETI.

He says there'd been "continued promises" from before his time at the department to get the domestic initiative up and running, and failure to fulfill those led to "exasperation" from the minister.

'Only concern was over money handed back to Treasury'

The Treasury headquarters in London
PA

Mr Mills's "general impression" from the handover meeting with Ms Hepper was that the RHI scheme was "not a prominent issue, full stop".

He says the only concern about it was that uptake was "very slow" and money allocated for it was therefore going unspent and being handed back to the Treasury.

'Alphabet soup of things discussed'

In her account of the half-day handover session with Mr Mills, Ms Hepper says she "talked him through the key issues" of the RHI scheme. Among those were:

  • the scheme's budget and when it ran out
  • the need for the scheme to be reapproved by Stormont's finance department
  • the need for the scheme to be reviewed "pretty soon"
  • the need to add cost controls to the scheme
Alphabet soup
Getty Images

Mr Mills says he "would dispute whether they were highlighted" to him.

He says he can't remember everything that was discussed because there was an "alphabet soup of different concepts" that were run past him.

Swiss cheese, alphabet soup... something of a foodie theme today!

'Big decisions were thrust upon me'

There was no overlap between Ms Hepper and Mr Mills in the energy boss role at DETI because she left several weeks before he filled the vacancy.

Mr Mills says it would've been helpful if they had worked alongside each other for a while.

People looking at a document
Getty Images

He explains that's because there were "big decisions" that were "thrust upon you" as soon as he took up the role and he was reluctant to make them given how new to it he was.

There was only a half-day briefing session - probably in November 2013 - during which Ms Hepper outlined the role and its responsibilities to Mr Mills.

Never the Twain...

Mark Twain has made an unlikely appearance, with Mr Mills is referring to the famous novelist and wit as he explains the term "streamlining information".

He says both Mr Sterling and a ministerial advisor Andrew Crawford used that term when referring to keeping the then minister Mrs Foster informed on energy matters.

Mark Twain
Library of Congress

Mr Scoffield suggests their advice meant: "Keep it short, essentially".

"Slightly unfair," says Mr Mills, explaining that he took it to mean to be succinct and highlight the main points to the minister.

He quotes a Twain line: "Sorry I wrote you a long letter. I would have written you a shorter one if I had had time."

'Parts of energy boss role extremely impenetrable'

Mr Mills succeeded Fiona Hepper as DETI's energy boss after she left the post in November 2013.

Ms Hepper had committed far more time to the role than the usual nine-to-five hours - she's told the inquiry that she often took work home at evenings and weekends.

John Mills
RHI Inquiry

Before taking up the role, Mr Mills told DETI's permanent secretary Mr Sterling that due to family reasons he couldn't work beyond normal office hours, and he was assured that wouldn't be a problem.

But he tells the inquiry that he soon found the job to be "extremely heavily loaded", with some "extremely impenetrable" work to be done on projects of real "complexity".

At his appraisal at the end of his first year in the post, he told a senior manager that the role required someone who "could devote more hours to it than I could".

New witness John Mills gives evidence

Next up is John Mills - he's been mentioned many times in other witnesses' evidence to the inquiry so far.

That's because he managed the energy team at DETI - which was responsible for the RHI scheme - from January 2014 through a key period when a range of things went badly wrong with the initiative.

John Mills
RHI Inquiry

He joined the civil service in 1987, starting out at the justice department and he later worked as the head of water policy at the then Department for Regional Development (DRD) before moving to DETI in 2016.

He no longer works at DETI, having moved to Stormont's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in May 2016.

You can find his full written statement to the inquiry here.

'It's for inquiry to judge what I'm responsible for'

How much of the RHI debacle is the personal responsibility of Mr Sterling?

That's the question asked by the inquiry barrister Mr Scoffield, one that he himself admits is "blunt".

"I'm not trying to duck this but I think it's for the inquiry to reach that judgement", is Mr Sterling's reply.

David Sterling
RHI Inquiry

"If there are issues with my performance or conduct there are processes within the service for dealing with those."

He's sought to provide the inquiry with a "fair and honest assessment of my own contribution to this" but it's "difficult to provide that overall conclusion" about what failures land squarely on his plate.

After two-and-a-half days sitting in the witness chair, Mr Sterling is released to get back to his desk and probably get into tackling a big inbox...

'Lessons must be learned from handover failures'

The handover process between the staff working on the RHI scheme did not work well and lessons need to be learned, acknowledges Mr Sterling.

Within the space of a few months, the three people working most closely on the project all left DETI, meaning that crucial knowledge of how it operated was lost to the department.

A man handing over a folder
Getty Images

Their successors had little or no expertise on renewable energy matters, never mind a knowledge of the RHI scheme.

Mr Sterling says the handover should've been more thorough to ensure that key details - priorities, important deadlines, etc - "weren't capable of being lost or forgotten".

The civil service will look at a new process, he adds, requiring staff to sign off that they understand what they're taking on and accept the responsibilites of their new role.

'Holes in Swiss cheese all lined up'

Swiss cheese
Getty Images

Numerous lapses in good governance - "the holes in the Swiss cheese" - all lined up to cause the catastrophe of the RHI scheme, according to inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien.

The former senior Whitehall civil servant says the auditing of the project was "such a crucial piece of the internal governance", but of course, it was one of the important checks that didn't happen.

Neasa Murnaghan QC, representing the Department for the Economy - formerly DETI - made the same fromagey analogy in her opening statement to the inquiry back in November.

'Auditors didn't take good, hard look at RHI'

There was "no good, hard look" at the RHI scheme by DETI's auditors in its first three years of operation, says inquiry barrister Mr Scoffield.

Asked if that's acceptable, civil service boss Mr Sterling says again that a careful examination of the initiative should've taken place.

Burning wood pellets
Getty Images

He says a "fairly thorough review" would've caused some "pertinent questions" to be asked about whether the scheme was working as had been planned.

Inquiry panellist Dr MacLean suggests that even just a "cursory glance" at some of the figures from the initiative would've enabled civil servants to see that its budget was running out of control.

Sterling facing another hour in hotseat

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Back after lunch, Mr Scoffield tells the inquiry that his final set of questions for Mr Sterling should be take no longer than an hour.

After that we'll be hearing from John Mills, DETI's former energy boss.

Time for lunch...

View more on twitter

It's an earlier-than-usual break for lunch today because there's an unveiling of a new portrait of Martin McGuinness in the Great Hall here at Parliament Buildings.

We'll pick up proceedings just after 13:00.

'RHI should've been more closely audited'

A mangnifying glass
Getty Images

The RHI scheme was not earmarked for a full audit review by DETI, even though it was incredibly complex and had hundreds of millions of pounds of public money flowing through it over its 20-year lifetime.

Mr Sterling admits that it should've been more closely scrutinsed.

Audit resources were diverted to cover the department's telecoms work as a result of the failings in the Bytel project, and the examination of other programmes fell down the priority list.