12 September 2018

The Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry resumed last week after a two-month summer break and is back to grilling senior politicians. James Taylor says the investigators’ recommendations must look beyond the culpability of individuals and propose specific measures to ensure such scandals can’t be repeated.

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.

Political scandal has dominated discussion for too long

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 Inquiry should go beyond blame

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.

Based on the Institute’s previous work on making public inquiries effective, we suggest three things that will help the RHI Inquiry ensure no repeat takes place:

  • 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.

Comments

A good piece, but it needs noted that Arlene Foster did not resign, whether as a MLA, Leader of the DUP, or as First Minister, due to the RHI controversy. Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister in January 2017, and the subsequent refusal of Sinn Féin to nominate a replacement per the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 meant the Assembly collapsed and a snap election called by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. Arlene Foster was re-elected as a MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone following March 2017 election, but as the talks to reform the Executive repeatedly collapsed, she is known as the former First Minister.

The probing of the inquiry has revealed an inadequate and fundamentally flawed local government. The operation of the Northern Ireland government has been dominated by the need to have devolution in the interest of peace and stability in NI, literally at almost any cost, rather than being efficient and responsible and operating with integrity. It has been revealed that Stormont includes an inadequate and unprofessional civil service, a power structure, in which party interests dominate over the public interest and ministers who don’t feel responsible for the actions of their department. How else could civil servants have copied and pasted details of a renewable energy scheme from documents, which detail how it operates in Great Britain and somehow inadvertently ignored the checks and balances, which were inherent in the original scheme? Furthermore when persons point out the flaws in the scheme and suggestions were made to curb the scheme, this was delayed in a manner that beggars belief. It was also revealed that civil servants thought nothing of passing on sensitive information to family members. When an ex-minister talks about being presented with candidate special advisors, by his party, which he was merely required to endorse with his signature for employment, then the whole process of recruiting personnel must also be examined. And finally and perhaps most damming of all, when the minister ultimately responsible for the scheme simply stated that she was not responsible, didn’t look into details and wouldn’t stand aside during the inquiry, then her sense of duty and responsibility to her office is definitely somewhat lacking. I seriously doubt if any inquiry recommendations will mean much in this case because the torchlight shone upon Stormont on this occasion reveals that it needs to be fundamentally reformed. The whole culture and ethos from recruiting staff, to codes of conduct and ultimately the need for a sense of responsibility need to be instilled in the apparatus of the devolved government. Under the present circumstances this will not happen.

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