RHI scheme: Cash-for-ash to continue, says Sinn Féin

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Burning wood pellets
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A Stormont department must either close the RHI scheme or make further cuts to payments

Stormont's economy department has decided that the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme will continue, Sinn Féin has claimed.

The department has been considering what to do when temporary cost controls end next month.

The options are to close the scheme or make further big cuts in the payments to participants.

The Department for the Economy has said it will make an announcement about the RHI scheme "in the near future".

The RHI scheme was one of the primary reasons for the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 after the exposure of its flaws and a vast projected overspend of public money.

That caused a bitter row between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, the two biggest parties at Stormont.

The scandal surrounding the scheme was examined in a near-year-long public inquiry - its report is expected to be published this year.

Sinn Féin said the RHI has "become a byword for everything that was wrong in the political system in the north".

Image source, Pacemaker
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Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy has said the scheme should be closed down as soon as possible

The party has called for the green energy initiative to be shut down.

Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said: "A consultation was carried out on the future of the scheme and Sinn Féin made it abundantly clear in our response that it should be closed down as soon as possible.

"Even with reduced tariffs, the RHI scheme is comprehensively and irretrievably flawed and spending more public money on it is unjustifiable."

The consultation set out eight possible options for the future.

But the Department for the Economy said only two of them would result in the 12% rate of return that had originally been envisaged.

'Not entitled to compensation'

One of them would see a substantial cut in subsidies, with boiler owners expected to pay money back to the department to recoup what is regarded as prior "overcompensation".

The other could mean scheme closure with boiler owners compensated to reflect the fact that its 20-year term had to be cut short.

But the consultation document stated that due to higher than anticipated payments already received many scheme participants would not be entitled to any compensation at all.

Officials said the department would "endeavour to deliver an ongoing tariff structure" in line with the Northern Ireland Executive's commitment to hit a target of 10% of renewable heat by 2020 and would consider how the impact of any proposed change would affect it.

About 1,200 businesses are signed up to the scheme, many of them in agriculture, particularly poultry farms.

In the absence of a Stormont Assembly it will be up to the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to sponsor any necessary legislation at Westminster.