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  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Former DETI official Stuart Wightman returns for further questions
  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 into autumn 2018

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

That's all for today...

Stormont's Parliament Buildings

It's been a long, day of intense questioning for Mr Wightman but he'll be back for another session tomorrow morning.

Be sure to join us at 09:40 for full coverage of the proceedings.

Thanks for joining us today!

What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?


The risks of the RHI scheme were "significantly downplayed" by senior officials to a new Stormont as the energy scheme began to spiral out of control, the inquiry was told.

Language in a key submission to then enterprise minister Jonathan Bell in July 2015 was watered down in a series of drafts.

The RHI Inquiry

The submission aimed to set out the problems in the scheme and the cost controls needed to address them.

But an early version, which clearly stated the projected expenditure on the scheme was twice the available budget, was amended to remove the "stark" warning.

'Difficult to see how that passed the snigger test'

In calculating the value for money of the scheme DETI "monetised" the resulting employment benefits.

Dr Keith MacLean is bemused by one of the calculations.

A biomass boiler

"Seventy-four-and-a-half job years per megawatt equates roughly to four full-time jobs for every 12 boilers that you install for the lifetime of that boiler," he observes.

Dr MacLean says that comes from comparing a project that takes four years to design and construct with one that can be completed in four weeks.

"It's difficult to see how that passed the snigger test," he adds.

'Did you ever stop believing in RHI scheme?'

He questions Mr Wightman on his work in assessing the value for money of the RHI scheme in autumn 2015 - "the more you scratch the more you discover," the barrister tells the witness.

He says the budget issue surrounding the scheme that might have been "literally a close-the-doors problem".

Pound coins
Getty Images

He asks: "Is there any point along the journey where you stop believing in this... and the actual answer is: 'This isn't value for money'?"

Mr Wightman says he accepts that on reflection there were "question marks" and if he had concerns about them at the time he would've drawn them to DETI bosses.

Love Islander set to be inquiry's new star witness?

Now, here's an crossover we never thought we'd see - Love Island and the RHI Inquiry...

The Metro reports that contestant Zara McDermott could have her stay at the villa in Majorca cut short by a call to Stormont to give evidence on the heat scheme debacle.

View more on twitter

It appears that she worked for the Department of Energy and Climate Change on fraud prevention in the Great Britain RHI scheme for a while.

A Q&A session with Zara would certainly add a bit of minor TV celebrity glamour to the proceedings.

But we can safely say that she definitely won't have to worry about facing Sir Patrick & Co - we promise to eat our Speedos if she does end up in the witness chair...

Blast from the past...

BBC Radio Ulster

The Stephen Nolan Show

'You've got so much stuff in there'

A virtual poultry-shedful of documents was was sent out to civil servants ahead of the an internal DETI scrutiny committee assessment of the changes to the scheme.

Mr Aiken lists them and they include:

  • A June 2011 report by external consultants that formed the basis of the scheme
  • The 2012 business case for the scheme - all 107 pages of it
  • A further report by external consultants from June 2013
  • The public consultation document on the scheme's extension
  • A paper on poultry-shed heating requirements

If you've been with us from the start of the inquiry, you'll know all about them - they've been delved into many times by the barristers.

A man carrying folders

Panel member Dr Keith MacLean asks how he expected the people he sent the documents to understand them.

"You've got so much stuff there that people aren't actually going to be able to get in and get to the key information," he says, and Mr Wightman agrees.

Moy Park officials due before inquiry next week

Conor Macauley

BBC News NI agriculture and environment correspondent

'It's my ethos to be open and helpful'

Stuart Wightman
RHI Inquiry

Dame Una says she wants to know why it "was a normal day's work" for DETI officials to give energy industry insiders information about the RHI scheme ahead of public announcements.

She suggests that a message could've been put on an answerphone to say information would be made available in due course - that way, civil servants wouldn't have had to take calls and be put under pressure from those within the industry.

Mr Wightman says his "ethos" throughout his career in the civil service has been to be "open" and "helpful" with those in the private sector that he's had to deal with.

'People from industry were constantly complaining'

The changes to the subsidies on offer through the RHI scheme were approved by the enterprise minister on 3 September 2015.

Mr Wightman immediately contacted two renewable energy companies - Alternative Heat Ltd and Solmatix Renewables - to inform them that the decision had been taken.

A biomass boiler

A press release announcing was changes was not published until 8 September.

"To be fair, we were getting a lot of phone calls from these people complaining that there was uncertainty in the industry," Mr Wightman says.

He says his junior colleague Seamus Hughes was constantly on the phone fielding calls from firms and other interested parties.

'Moy Park told of changes before minister's approval'

Major poultry producer Moy Park was given notice of the changes to the RHI scheme by DETI officials before they had even been approved by the enterprise minister Jonathan Bell.

Farmers who supply Moy Park make up a significant number of the claimants on the initiative.

Moy Park's David Mark was given the information in late August 2015 by DETI official Seamus Hughes, having seemingly been directed to do so by Mr Wightman, reveals the inquiry barrister.

Hens in a shed
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Advance notice of the changes was also given to the Ulster Farmers' Union and to renewable energy firms.

Civil servants should've done more to "manage the message" about the changes so that more people were not encouraged to sign up, suggests Mr Aiken.

He points out that DETI was facing major budget problems with the scheme at the time.

Mr Wightman says he felt there "was a courtesy on us" to inform interested parties but it "looks naive now", as he shakes his head.

'Delay to cost controls gave boiler firms lease of life'

Biomass boiler installers would've been given a "new lease of life" when they were found out that there was a delay in adding cost controls to the RHI scheme, says Mr Aiken.

It meant that instead of having fewer the five weeks to sell and install boilers that would be eligible for the most lucrative subsidies under the scheme, they would in fact have had nine.

Wood pellets

Mr Wightman says it was a "difficult balance" for DETI's civil servants between being "open and honest" about what was happening in relation to the scheme and keeping their cards close to their chest.

He admits that by conveying information about the scheme to those within the energy industry, it gave them "another window" of which they could take advantage.

And he accepts Mr Aiken's suggestion that there was "insufficient thought" given to what information should've been given to industry insiders.

Time for lunch

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"Perhaps now would be an appropriate time...," says Mr Aiken adopting the by now familiar formula that heralds the lunch break.

See you again at 14:00.

'Department was leaking like a sieve'

DETI was "leaking like a sieve", with crucial information about the planned changes to the RHI scheme being given to those with the renewable energy industry in advance of them being put in place, suggests Mr Aiken.

A decision was taken to nudge the addition of cost controls, which would've made the scheme less lucrative to claimants, back from 1 October 2015 to 3 November that year.

That information was provided to at least one scheme claimant by DETI official Seamus Hughes.

A biomass boiler

And less than 48 hours after that decision was taken a boss from the boiler installation firm Hegan Biomass Ltd emailed DETI, asking if a "rumour that I was made aware of" about the delay was true.

Mr Wightman says he has no knowledge of how Hegan Biomass became aware of the change.

And he says no advice was given to Mr Hughes about the sharing of internal information and he takes responsibility for not having done so.

"You would've wanted to say as little as you could but then the balance is you've got to be as honest, as transparent at the same time," he adds.

'Public would pay the cost of month's delay'

Inquiry panel member Dame Una O'Brien asks the witness whether he was ever asked to calculate the cost of putting back the changes by a month.

He says he doesn't recall "being asked to do numbers" but he would have expressed concerns at the cost.

Dame Una O'Brien
RHI Inquiry

In any case, he says, his calculations would've been based on previous forecasts of 100 applications in September and 150 in October - not on the approximately 800 that actually came in.

Sir Patrick puts it to him that his understanding was that the public would pay for the extra month as a cost of gaining the concession from the minister.

"Yes," says the witness.

'Date concession necessary to get proposals past minster'

Stuart Wightman
RHI Inquiry

It was agreed by DETI officials to put back the date for the changes to the subsidies on offer through the RHI scheme.

Mr Wightman says he was concerned that the delay was going to allow time for more applications to come through, given that those within the renewable energy industry knew that changes were on the way.

"I think that at a senior level it was accepted that that concession maybe was necessary to get the proposals past the minister," he adds.

'DUP advisers consulted on change to scheme'

Mr Wightman says he didn't know that there were conversations going on between two DUP advisers about changes to the RHI scheme.

Mr Cairns - the DETI minister's adviser - had been in discussions with Dr Andrew Crawford, who was advising the then finance minister Arlene Foster, about the plans.

It had been Dr Crawford's suggestion to Mr Cairns that the subsidies on offer through the scheme should be reduced after 3,000 hours of a boiler's yearly running time, rather than 1,000 hours.

Dr Andrew Crawford

But the view within DETI was that it wouldn't work.

Deputy permanent secretary Mr Stewart told Mr Cairns that it wouldn’t bring the spending back under control and it would need a ministerial direction - a formal instruction to override concerns from civil servants - from Bell and Foster to put that in place.

What Mr Stewart didn’t know was that the suggestion had come from outside the department.

'Boiler installations accelerated to beat deadline'

On 23 July, DETI deputy permanent secretary Chris Stewart emailed Mr Wightman informing that he had spoken to the minister's adviser Mr Cairns.

The adviser had told Mr Stewart he was concerned that the introduction of changes to RHI scheme tariffs in October might lead to a further spike in demand for applications.

Wood pellets
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The special adviser had suggested that the changes might be delayed but Mr Stewart replied to tell him that there was already a spike.

Asked for his observations, Mr Wightman informed Mr Stewart that the industry was already aware that new measures were likely to be introduced in the autumn "so installations are already being accelerated to beat the deadline".

'Adviser sought party pointers before going to minister'

After sending the RHI scheme submission to the DETI minister's office in July 2015, Mr Wightman was told by Mr Bell's secretary that the minister's adviser Timothy Cairns had read it.

Mr Wightman wrote in an email to his boss Mr Mills telling him about that, and adding that Mr Cairns was "seeking advice, presumably from their party, before passing to the minister".

Two men in a meeting

Mr Bell was a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at the time.

The witness says that his experience of working under ministers from various Stormont parties is that their work would sometimes be "run past" party policy officers.

He says he didn't notice anything unusual in what he'd been told by the minister's secretary.

'Was minister well-served by officials?'

The RHI Inquiry
RHI Inquiry

Mr Aiken asks the witness whether the minister and his special adviser were well-served by the DETI officials in their provision of the RHI scheme submission in July 2015 and in its accuracy.

Mr Wightman says he'd "have to say no" in terms of the explanation of the funding.

He says he accepts the point and that there was "obviously a lack of clarity" in the department about how the scheme was funded.

'Didn't challenge superiors like I normally would'

Mr Aiken asks the witness why there was a "dilution of the level of risk that the minister may face" in relation to the RHI scheme.

Sir Patrick says that Mr Bell should've been told that the scheme posed a risk, rather than being given the impression that it could be handled with "sidestepping... in order to gain funds".

Stuart Wightman
RHI Inquiry

"There isn't any other way of reading this submission," the inquiry chair adds.

Mr Wightman says his job was "quite high-pressure at the time" and he took direction from his superiors about changes they wanted made to the submission without thoroughly challenging their suggestions.

"Normally I would challenge it," he says, "but... there was an awful lot of trains in motion."

'Minister got submission that was false'

Burning wood pellets

Sir Patrick sums up in a nutshell the situation regarding the edited submission that was sent to the then enterprise minister Mr Bell.

"The end result of this," he says, "is that the minister gets a submission which has been changed with the knowledge and/or the direction of the senior members of DETI in such a way that it is false."

'Significant downplaying of need for concern'

Jonathan Bell

Changes to the submission to Mr Bell (above) made for a "significant downplaying of the need for concern" about the RHI scheme, according to Mr Aiken.

And that point is accepted by Mr Wightman.

He says his initial drafts were "certainly a bit more stark and a bit more up-front" in the information they contained for the then DETI minister.

'Change removed key concern on financial penalties'

A passage that explained that DETI would have to cover any shortfall in funding for the RHI scheme was taken out of the final submission to the minister.

It stated that the money "may have to be... taken from other investment programmes".

A biomass nboiler

DETI had been warned in 2011 that there would effectively be a penalty imposed of about 5% in the case of an overspend.

Sir Patrick says that by taking that passage out it "removes... any concern" about the penalty - it's another point that Mr Wightman accepts.

'Minister not given true reflection of RHI risk'

Wording used in the July 2015 submission to the minister about the RHI scheme would not have given him a "true reflection of the risk that the department faces as known by the officials", says Mr Aiken.

Mr Wightman admits that it wasn't made clear to the minister that the overspend on the scheme would have an impact on DETI's overall budget.

Joseph Aiken
RHI Inquiry

In fact, the minister was told that it would not have a direct impact on the budget.

The witness says he made the changes "on instruction from somebody else" and he agrees that what the submission contained could be "misleading".

'Were changes influenced by guilt?'

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin is concerned about why the "convincing reason" for seeking extra funding for the RHI scheme - the fact it was running twice over its allocated budget - was removed from the submission to the minister.

He says its hard to understand why Mr Wightman doesn't remember why it was removed.

Sir PAtrick Coglhin
RHI Inquiry

"It's just such an obvious omission, unless it is in some way influenced by guilt or concern that this has got to this stage, from Mils or Stewart or whoever it was," Sir Patrick says.

Mr Wightman says he'd be "very surprised" if he'd made the changes without speaking to his superiors.

'Quite a complicated couple of hours'

Mr Aiken runs through the amendments made to the draft on on 7 July.

"Why not communicate to the minister that we've only got half of the money we need?" he asks, referring to a change to the document that appears to have been made to Mr Wightman.

A man using a computer

The witness says the changes were made in "quite a complicated couple of hours".

He says he was speaking to his superiors and he can't be sure whether it was DETI energy boss Mr Mils or Chris Stewart, the minister's adviser, who suggested the amendment.

'Overcompensation not spelled out to minister'

Sterling banknotes
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It was not "spelled out" in the submission to the DETI minister that the RHI scheme was paying out more to claimants than had been intended, says Mr Aiken.

The department had started work on how to address the issue of overcompensation and the inquiry barrister asks why that wasn't drawn to Mr Bell's attention.

Mr Wightman accepts that there was an opportunity to tell the minister that the department was looking at review whether the scheme was value for money.

'We were on goose chase over RHU funding'

Mr Wightman's team had been pursuing the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which operated a similar RHI scheme in Great Britain, for clarification of how the initiative was funded.

As he puts it, they were still "going on a goose chase with DECC".

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Mr Aiken turns to the second draft of the submission sent to senior DETI management by Mr Wightman on 7 July 2015.

It included a copy of the email Mr Wightman's boss John Mills sent to DECC that day asking for an explanation of scheme's funding arrangement - that email didn't get a reply until a month later.

'Strength of language changed in paper for minister'

First on the agenda today is a submission sent to the then DETI minister Jonathan Bell on 8 July 2015, which highlighted that there were problems with the RHI scheme and its budget.

The first draft of the submission was drawn up by Mr Wightman two days before and it outlined that expenditure on the RHI scheme in 2015-16 would be £23m, "almost twice" what the department had available to spend on it.

A document that reads: Strictly confidential
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But by the time the submission got to the minister, the language was "very different", as Mr Aiken puts it, with the "strength of the language" changing - a theme that continues throughout the document.

It stated: "We are currently seeking extra funding as forecast scheme expenditure exceeds previous funding allocations."

Mr Aiken points out that it doesn't convey the same message as the first draft and Mr Wightman accepts that's a fair point.

Witness Stuart Wightman returns to give evidence

Stuart Wightman takes his seat for another all-day session - his fifth appearance before the inquiry.

He headed DETI's energy efficiency branch from June 2014, meaning he had oversight of the RHI scheme.

Stuart Wightman
RHI Inquiry

He first appeared before the inquiry back in March and his most recent visit was this month.

He's reassured by the inquiry's junior counsel Joseph Aiken that today and tomorrow will be the last times he'll have to answer questions in front of the inquiry panel.

You can have a look at Mr Wightman's written statement on the inquiry's website.

What is the RHI Inquiry?


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

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

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, a year-and-a-half 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

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

Welcome to Stormont for the return of the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry after a week without evidence sessions.

The sky over Parliament Buildings is a little bit more grey than we remember it during the heatwave when the inquiry was last sitting but it's still pleasant up here on the hill.

Stormont's Parliament Buildings

Back in the inquiry hotseat today is Stuart Wightman, who oversaw the running of the RHI scheme when he was the head of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's (DETI) energy efficiency branch.

It all kicks off shortly and we'll have live updates and the video stream throughout the day - stick with us.