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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Inquiry counsel David Scoffield outlines evidence for the final series of hearings
  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 Leanna Byrne and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

That's all for today...

Stormont
Getty Images

That's all we have for today. There were some interesting exchanges between SPADs this morning brought to our attention, but after that things got a little heavy, even for RHI nerds like us.

Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:45am for Stuart Weightman's return to the chamber.

See you then!

What happened at the RHI Inquiry today?

Chamber
RHI Inquiry

The inquiry was told that it will have to decide whether an Arlene Foster assembly statement at the height of the scandal showed the "candour" which might have been expected.

The issue was raised by counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC this afternoon.

Mrs Foster addressed the assembly in December 2016 as the political row over the debacle intensified.

It followed the explosive interview given by her former party colleague Jonathan Bell to the BBC's Stephen Nolan.

In it he claimed DUP spads had worked to keep the scheme open as he tried to close it, allowing hundreds of applicants to pile in and qualify for lucrative payments.

'Closure of the scheme to new entrants'

Mr Scoffield now turns to the new 2015 RHI regulations themselves and whether they were the right and proportionate response to the problems emerging from the RHI.

"There is little doubt that when they came into force improved matters to some respect both in terms of limiting potential for overcompensation of some participants under the scheme and also in reducing the anticipated overspned of the scheme," he says.

Mr Scoffield
RHI Inquiry

However, the scheme remained open to new entrants for several months, at which point it had to be closed.

'Inappropriate behaviour'

We are still on the theme of sharing information on the RHI scheme with those outside of government.

Mr Scoffield says it seems to have been an issue for DETI officials, but also with SPADs, having established a number of instances where Dr Crawford had shared information with contacts and family members.

Email
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Dr Crawford has accepted in his formal submission that the sharing of information was "inappropriate behaviour".

Mr Scoffield also says that in 2017, after the RHI scandal emerged, Dr McCormick received documentation from an anonymous source to draw his attention to the email contacts between DETI officials in the summer of 2015.

'Officials kept industry informed of proposed RHI changes'

Officials were in regular contact with industry representatives - often involving detailed information about the changes envisaged in the RHI scheme.

Mr Wightman (below) was involved in regular contact with Mr Hegarty and kept industry abreast of proposed changes to the scheme.

They agreed that Mr Hegarty should call weekly to learn of the latest developments.

Stuart Wightman
RHI Inquiry

These engagements were taking place well ahead of the drafting of the ministerial submission informing Jonathan Bell of the proposed changes to the scheme on 8 July.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Department for the Economy says:

"There should have been a greater appreciation of the potential impact of providing advance notice to stakeholders."

Contact with industry

Mr Scoffield lists a number of communications and emails between DETI officials and Moy Park, Alternative Heat and with the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU).

He says "it is fairly clear that there was open communication" between companies and the farming industry.

Cattle
BBC

A big question for the inquiry, he says, is whether these informal consultations were "a proper discharge of public function" or whether they were practical consultations.

Sir Patrick says that one defence is that officials were conducting stakeholder engagement.

'Install boilers now to avoid missing out'

Mr Scoffield now takes us to the plans for tiered tariffs that were emerging in the middle of 2015.

Tiering is a cost control mechanism which drops the subsidy rates offered whenever a certain limit of usage of a claimant's heat system has been reached.

He quotes from an email sent on 1 July 2015 by Paula Keelagher, of Balcas, a supplier of biomass pellets, to a boiler installer.

Biomass pellets
BBC

She goes into some detail on the proposed changes to the RHI scheme.

The information has been supplied to her by Fergal Hegarty of a company called Alternative Heat, who received it from DETI official Stuart Wightman.

The email lists changes to the banding of boilers, and the introduction of a two-tier tariff as in the Great britain RHI scheme.

The email says:

"If any of your claimants are considering installing biomass systems we would advice that they should move ASAP to avoid missing out on the best rates from RHI especially sub-100kW installations"

'One or two weeks to fit boilers'

Boiler
BBC

Panel member Dame Una O'Brien wants to know how long it would have taken to fit the biomass boilers.

Mr Scoffield says it varies, as evidenced by information from fitters and suppliers.

"A number of those involved... could install and commission a boiler within periods of less than six weeks. And sometimes that would be as short as one to two weeks from order to installation and commissioning," he says.

This could depend on factors such as whether the requisite boiler was in stock.

He says the question arises whether the DETI officials didn't realise how quickly the market could respond to demand for boiler why was there such a lack of understanding.

The spike

We are now on the topic of the spike in applications or the RHI scheme.

The big surge in numbers came in October and November 2015, between the cost controls being publicly announced in September and taking effect in November.

In that period the number of boilers on the scheme doubled as did the financial liability as firms sought to get into the scheme before the lucrative tariffs were abolished.

Mr Scoffield says that before August 2015, the total number of applications came to 818.

Fire
BBC

From the announcement of the changes to the tariffs application number came to 950. In one week, there was 200 applications.

The Department of Finance's (DFE) evidence is that this large number of applications was not anticipated by officials, having relied on historical data from OFGEM.

But Mr Scoffield says the inquiry must probe:

  • Whether the spike in applications was adequately foreseen and precautions were taken.
  • Whether the spike was reacted to.
  • Relationships between DETI officials and industries like farming, that were availing of the scheme.
  • Whether they had learned from the experience of the GB scheme.

Time for lunch

A break for lunch now and we'll be back with more after 2pm.

Lunch
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'Deal with the real story'

David Gordon
BBC

We are onto another email exchange.

On 28 December 2016, Mr Bullick is sent an email from David Gordon (above), the executive's press secretary. Mr Gordon was advising on the unfolding RHI scandal.

The subject is on whether Mr McCormick should give an interview to the BBC in light of the recordings.

Mr Gordon says that a statement released by Mr McCormick could deal with "the real story". He added that "in an idea world you would get the AC (Dr Crawford) story out this week and spike the BBC".

'Mr Bell is a liability'

Messaging
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Mr Scoffield reads out a text sent by Mr Cairns to Mr Johnston in December 2015.

Mr Cairns makes it clear he is supporting Mr Johnston and says: "Please be assured of my support for FM (First Minister) office".

He goes on to say that Mr Bell is "a liability" and that he will "do whatever is needed to expose lies".

Mr Scoffield observes that this exchange points to a very fractious relationship between Mr Cairns and Mr Bell.

'Totally without foundation'

Dr McCormick also suggested lines for Mrs Foster's speech, including the line:

"I accept that it was not minister Bell who wanted the delay. The permanent secretary has told that he was told during that period that others in the party were pressing for the scheme to be kept open longer."

Arlene Foster
Getty Images

In her speech as delivered, the DUP leader said:

"Let there be no doubt that the decision to amend the RHI scheme was a matter for the ETI minister, the timing of the cost controls was entirely a matter for him."

She said that ministers and DUP party officers took no interest or role in the RHI and the suggestion Mr Bell was instructed to delay changes to the scheme was "totally without foundation".

'Mr Bell was a passenger'

Mr Scoffield reads another text exchange, sent from Dr McCormick to Mr Bullick (below).

It is the night before Ms Foster is to give a speech to the Assembly on the RHI scheme.

"I feel I need to say one last time that my broken record point should be a show stopper," Dr McCormick sends, and goes on to say that Mr Bell might have had a point about events in 2015.

Richard Bullick
RHI Inquiry

Mr Bullick says he is drafting the speech on the basis that Mr Bell was a "passenger" who watched while discussions between Mr Cairns and officials took place.

"At our end, there was no ministerial role in the matter," Mr Bullick responds.

Dr McCormick agrees, but says the draft overlooks Dr Crawford's "influence" and that he felt making the argument that Mr Bell should have stood up to Dr Crawford would not be enough.

'Difficult to understand why she said that'

We are now getting an insight into communications between SPADs during the BBC Nolan TV programme, when both Ms Foster and Mr Bell gave interviews.

Dr McCormick sent a text to SPADs Mr Robinson, Richard Bullick and Mr Johnston.

He sends: "It is difficult to understand why she said she had no idea", referring to Ms Foster.

Text
BBC

He adds that he will have to tell the PAC that Mr Cairns and Mr Bell and others in the party wanted to keep the scheme open.

None of the recipients of this text responded.

'Hard to stomach pleas of professionalism'

Simon Hamilton
NI Assembly

Mr Scoffield turns to a WhatsApp conversation involving Simon Hamilton (above), who was by now the DUP minister at the Department for the Economy, the successor to DETI.

Mr Hamilton says he finds it "hard to stomach McCormick's pleas of professionalism when he has clearly been so indiscreet".

The conversation involved a number of DUP SPADs.

John Robinson commented that he had bumped into Dr McCormick: "He said he was unable to sleep over this. I sense he's worried. I think he's made a complete clown of himself on this tape".

'You breached my confidentiality'

After Mr Bell appeared on the BBC Nolan TV programme, Mr Scoffield says there was a lot of speculation around this time about what might have been said in the recording Mr Bell referenced in his interview.

Mr Bell wrote to Dr McCormick (pictured below) after the interview to inform him of a "record" of the meeting when the recording was made.

He asked Dr McCormick to go public with the "information we both have" - referring to the allegation that Mr Johnston had a hand in the cost control measures.

Dr Andrew McCormick
BBC

Dr McCormick responded to Mr Bell expressing his "disappointment" his confidentiality was breached and that he did not give consent to be quoted in a public forum.

He added that he was answerable to the minister and to the Public Accounts Committee and would not be making any public statements.

Secret recordings

The next piece of evidence comes with a health warning from Mr Scoffield.

It includes a recording by Mr Bell of two conversations in December 2016 with Dr McCormick on the introduction of cost controls for the RHI scheme.

This was ahead of Mr Bell's appearance on the BBC Nolan TV programme

Dictaphone
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Mr Scoffield says that Dr McCormick says in his evidence he was unaware he was being recorded at the time and that much of what he said was being led by Mr Bell.

Reading from a portion of the transcripts, Dr McCormick agrees with Mr Bell that special adviser Mr Johnston had a hand in delaying in introduction of cost controls.

'Any conflict of interest?'

Stephen Brimstone
BBC

We're looking now at the situation of DUP SPAD, Stephen Brimstone.

Mr Brimstone applied to the scheme in August 2015 and has connections to other RHI claimants.

Mr Scoffield says the inquiry will have to decide if there is any resulting or actual or implied conflict of interest.

'A peripheral figure'

Mr Scoffield turns to the evidence of another DUP SPAD, John Robinson (below), who is Timothy Johnston's brother-in-law.

According to former minister Bell's evidence, his SPAD Timothy Cairns referred to Mr Johnston and Mr Robinson as having "interests in the poultry industry" and that was why it was so difficult to get RHI on the agenda.

John Robinson
Pacemaker

In his written evidence, John Robinson denies having any involvement in the RHI scheme at all prior to June 2016 when he became SPAD at the Department for the Economy (DfE)

Mr Scoffield says this led to him "stepping back" from involvement in RHI.

He has told the inquiry he doesn't recall any conversation with his father-in-law about the scheme prior to his appointment to (DfE).

Mr Scoffield says Mr Robinson appears to be a peripheral figure to the inquiry.