The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme has torn the Northern Irish government apart and leaves the taxpayer with a bill currently estimated at half a billion pounds. It was rolled out in 2012, modelled closely on a similar scheme in Great Britain, but with a critical flaw. The idea was to encourage businesses to reduce their carbon emissions by offering a subsidy on fuel costs to those that installed biomass boilers, but the subsidy was greater in value than the cost of the fuel being used and no cap was put on the amount of energy that the government would pay for. Savvy businesses were quick to realise that RHI meant cash for ash and interest in the scheme picked up at pace. As more and more signed on, cost exceeded budget by £700m.
A public inquiry, now entering its eighteenth month, has just reconvened after its summer break. Given the extent of the political and fiscal mess, we can and should expect a good deal of apportioning of blame among senior politicians and civil servants. The inquiry must do more than fan the flames of crisis, however. It must bring about significant change in the way the devolved government plans and reviews projects.
Discussion of RHI has been characterised by a lot of finger-pointing and mudslinging over the past two years, to little public advantage. The spotlight of public condemnation has focused consistently on former first minister Arlene Foster, mostly in relation to claims that she and some of her most senior advisors conspired to keep the scheme going despite clear evidence that it was financially unsustainable. She has also attracted criticism for refusing to repent, stating that she ‘would not have done things differently’ even though her department appointed just two dedicated civil servants to the RHI project, compared to 77 working on the British equivalent. Most recently, controversy has been sparked by a claim that the-then First Minister Peter Robinson ignored complaints of bullying made against Jonathan Bell, a senior minister involved in planning RHI.
The resignations of Foster and her deputy Martin McGuinness were undoubtedly appropriate, but they did little to resolve the immediate crisis that caused them, nor in themselves did they contribute to longer-term progress.
The establishment of a public inquiry in February 2017 was the first move in the right direction. So far much time is being spent on putting together a comprehensive narrative of the scheme, and evidence has focused on the serious failings of some key individuals.
Crucially, though, the inquiry can and should also lay foundations for positive systemic change. Jason Beer QC, a leading expert on public inquiries, outlines three questions any inquiry must answer: What happened? Why did it happen and who is to blame? What can be done to prevent this happening again?
With terms of reference exceeding a thousand words and outlining 14 specific questions for investigation, as well as its principles, methodology and time frame, the RHI inquiry is encouragingly well thought-out. Sir Patrick Coghlin, the inquiry’s chair, has delivered on his promise of a ‘detailed and extensive evidential investigation’, having presided over more than 500 hours of oral hearings so far. Now it needs to be as clear and concise as possible in advising government on how to ensure that the third of Beer’s questions are answered - to ensure that necessary change really happens.
- It should make only a few suggestions. A long list of cumbersome recommendations is more easily sidelined as impracticable than three or four punchy points.
- The inquiry should attach responsibility for its recommended changes to specific public bodies and office holders, so as to avoid shirking.
- The chair should not be afraid to put pressure on Stormont to implement them. Though judicial chairs have in the past been reluctant to do this on the basis that challenging the executive lies beyond their purview, Coghlin retired in 2015 and should not shy away from making his voice heard in a debate that will no doubt continue for some time.