Old-fashioned confession might have served DUP better than this RHI runaround…

An Evening with the Borgias was how one Facebook friend put it. Well, perhaps not quite that bad but since DUP on DUP action is such an uncommon sight on NI television, last night’s Nolan Special was revealing in parts.

One of the things it revealed is that former Minster Bell has been Stephen Nolan’s ‘Deep Throat’ for some of this story. Most of his revelations centre around his own brief tenure in the department at the core of the RHI affair, once the problem had been crystallised.

As such it’s more about who left the Titanic and in what order than why DETI hit a fiscal iceberg.

Bell’s tenure began when a joint review of the performance of the RHI scheme should have already taken place under Bell’s predecessor at Enterprise Trade and Industry, Arlene Foster.

Indeed it should have been part of Foster’s new department (Finance and Personnel) procedures for further approval of RHI.

The wobble appears to have come in June 2015 when Bell was told directly that scheme was not only flawed but growing rapidly and getting out of control, since it was already committed to paying out more money to claimants than it was costing them to feed their new biomass boilers.

As highlighted by the Comptrollers and Auditor General’s report in July this year, the policy design itself was faulty from the start:


The problem seems to spring from the Department’s own business case laid out and finalised in June 2012 when the tariff was set without the safety nets. So why did Ms Foster’s department not see the problem sooner?

Well, right up until last year, there was a larger underspend on the project: £3.5 million out of £4 million set aside in 2012-13; £5.35 million out of £7 million in 2013-14; and then it narrows right down to £4.08 million out of £12 million in 2014-15.

You can see why the panic bells must have been pretty loud as Minister Bell takes office since the take up of the scheme is now beginning to speed up exponentially. Most of the argument in the programme appears to be about how and when to fix the problem.

On the 8th of September last year, Bell announced an amended scheme to be brought in on 18th November. It was in this period that the scheme sharply spiked. The Comptroller and Auditor General explains:

…almost as many applications being received in those seven weeks as had been made in the previous 34 months since the scheme began. The expected cost of the applications made during this seven week period will be around £24 million annually for each of the next twenty years. 

Now that’s under Bell’s tenure.  It’s not clear to me whether announcing the amendment so far in advance to the changes was a strict necessity or just a precautionary measure. Either way, there’s very little doubt about the consequences.

It may be that he’s feeling guilty that it happened on his watch. But he might have saved himself the trouble, since there’s plenty of blame to go round. Despite protests from the First Minister this leaky NI policy boat left port with bow doors wide open under Arlene’s watch.

A good bout of old-fashioned Catholic confession might have served the DUP better than this runaround. Instead, Arlene finds herself intemperately repeating the fact that no one told her until it was too late. [Is that part of her day job? – Ed]

And she did herself no favours in accusing the relatively mild-mannered former social worker of trying to physically intimidate her. Nor did her party in obfuscating the nature and content of the whistleblower material mentioned in the NAO report.

The substantive whistleblower material was contained in an anonymous email received by OFMdFM in January this year. That material is the subject of a review jointly commissioned by OFGEN and the new Department of the Economy.

Meanwhile, RHI continues to be available in all parts of Britain.


  • the rich get richer

    Can someone just tell me who the crooks are…..I can’t really face the internal machinations of the Dup… Some stuff is just too grotesque ……

  • Declan Doyle

    I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we have a crisis that doesnt involve Sinn Fein, its quite a novelty.

  • file

    Mick there is another relevant piece of evidence in the Comptroller & Auditor general’s report. He states in his reasons for not being able to sign off the accounts that the Department of Enterprise ‘forgot’ to apply to the DFP for renewed approval for the scheme in April 2015, and thus spent £11.8 million which was not approved by DFP AND has still not been approved retrospectively by DFP. I forget now, who was the Minister for DFP in May- Oct 2015?

  • mickfealty

    Mentioned above. I think this may well have blown Bell’s gaskets when he saw this come down the line along with the estimates that the RHI boiler was about to blow. The BBC pin it in for January in their timeline, but anytime up to April would have done it. Unfortunately there’s no more detail at this time.

    But it would be useful to ask Arlene if she was aware this review was late, and if so why? And if not, why not? As a result Bell’s first expenditure would be marked in as ‘unapproved’ by DFP, and later ‘qualified’ by the C&AG.

  • mickfealty

    Please stick to details you can quantify/qualify. Links perferred if you are going to mention specific individuals/companies.

    (Hmmm, the account now appears to have been deleted, along with a second post.)

  • mickfealty

    So far, I cannot find them. So no, you will just have to continue to suffer the usual painful levels of curtailed indignation along with the rest of us.

  • mickfealty

    Confronting your own prejudices is good for the soul Declan.

  • Blade Sprinter

    With SF confronting Unionism for over a hundred years, their souls must be bloody perfect!

  • Gopher

    I suggest you read the Sherlock Holme s Mystery “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”

    “Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
    Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
    Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
    Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

    I imagine when we see the list on the spike we will have a clearer picture why “The dog did not bark in the night”

  • mickfealty


  • Tochais Siorai

    I think we might have to cross the Sea of Incompetence before we land at Crook Island.

  • Blade Sprinter


  • Blade Sprinter

    Indeed. One would expect the Republican movement of say the 80s to see the obvious peril in this RHI corruption and abstain. This will be a great test to see how the membership has changed since then.

    Be interesting to see when people took up the scheme – were they clued in early in the process or were they part of the flock that applied at the end when word was free in the wild? All are corrupt, but those who have the early ear of the govt are the real systemic problem that needs to be addressed. The pile on at the end crew never gets involved if there is no corrupt scheme in the first place.

  • AndyB

    What I simply do not find credible is that Arlene Foster as DETI minister did not receive the Business Case to DFP or at least the background papers that fed into it.

    As such, she cannot escape the vicarious responsibility she holds for her then Department as Minister.

  • Declan Doyle

    You’re certainly getting lots of practice on that front these days.

  • Declan Doyle


  • Nevin

    “The wobble appears to have come in June 2015 when Bell was told directly that scheme was not only flawed but growing rapidly and getting out of control,”

    Perhaps someone should do a little deep-digging in the DETI Departmental Board minutes; despite my pleas to other government departments and agencies the board minutes are in a non-searchable format ie in breach of Office of the Information Commissioner guidance.

    Here is a DB minute link for 2015.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/eab4c88db1fc482fffdc49ddbaedac4cd5103af939470eb10818640e4f84b47c.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f24b24449493c5914702b60ae04b27122e949085fd7d5ee22fde7e4021fa16a7.png

    An RHI update is promised for the July meeting but isn’t recorded in the July minutes/action points. There was no meeting in August and there’s no mention of RHI in the September ‘non-minutes’. I wonder if any of the NEDs raised any objections; AFAIK the DB audit committee is chaired by a NED.

  • Gopher

    Of course it is not credible the Executive are regulation junkies yet the Minister who is a lawyer by trade puts absolutely no T&C’s in the RHI agreement that every business in the UK has to, to protect themselves from the public.

  • Gingray

    Wow Mick! Right on the button and no mention of SF. In the darkest of hours you came back to us

  • file

    One of the paragraphs that struck me below, and remember this report from Comptroller was published in July 2016:

    “10 The Department was due to seek re-approval of the scheme from DFP from 1 April 2015. However this was overlooked. It was only in May 2015 that the Department identified that DFP approval had expired and it then had to urgently begin the process of achieving approval and securing the necessary budget both for 2015-16 and the following years. Had the need to receive re-approval from DFP been identified when it should have been, then this would have provided an important opportunity to review the scheme and amend it to include cost control measures. As it was, this potential opportunity was missed.”

    Equally, when application was eventually made by the Department of Enterprise, surely this gave DFP the opportunity ‘to review the scheme and amend it to include cost control measures.’ And the relevant Finance Minister in May 2015 is … you guessed it: Arlene Foster. So she approves a flawed scheme in the beginning as Minister for Enterprise and then approves a renewal of an equally flawed scheme as DFP minister … at any stage is she meant to be responsible for any of these approvals? Or can we never expect Foster to be aware of any jot or tittle, given that she initially told Spotlight she passed on whistleblower’s concerns to officials, and then told Nolan that she never got the whistleblower’s concerns in the first place so did not pass them on to officials?

    AND AND … this crucial date of May 2015 see Arlene Foster moving from DETI to DFP, so she missed two opportunities in May 2015 to introduce cost control measure to the RHI scheme. She was also responsible for the DETI missing the original date to seek approval from DFP for the continuation of the scheme, and the scattergun excuses for missing that deadline outlined below in the Comptroller’s report sound very familiar, n’est-ce pas?

    “11 I asked the Department why it had not sought approval to continue the scheme from DFP well before the original approval expired. The Department has told me that their explanation lies in a combination of staff changes and an administrative oversight. Subsequent to the requirement for re-approval being put in place, there were multiple staff changes, and the key information was not passed on from departing staff to their successors. The Department recognises that administrative arrangements ought to have been in place to trigger an application for re-approval at the appropriate time. They were not; and the matter came to light only when budget confirmation was sought.”

  • the rich get richer

    Call London or is it London calling…..Ye did what……with the money.


  • Mark Anderson

    Just a quick note on the figures quoted above.

    Initial rate proposed by consultants – 4.5/kWh
    Final rate before inflation – 5.9/kWh

    Cost of pellets 2012 – 4.39/kWh

    Important to remember, pellets are bought and the above cost is the kWh price, claims are made on a heat meter after combustion, therefore the efficiency of the boiler must be taken into account.

    A number of reports and policy are quoting 85% efficiency for this scale of biomass boiler which is reasonable. Therefore the cost of the production of heat in 2012 is 4.39/0.85 = 5.16/kWh

    Without a doubt missing a cap was a mistake but with the figures above, costing 5.16 and receiving 5.9 I don’t think it would have been worth wasting heat to earn money. As I outlined in another post where the issue has arose is that RHI payment rose with inflation to 6.5, and I believe with competition pellets have reduce to approx 3.3p/kWh (I was quoted this price a while back) take efficiency into account 3.3/0.85 = 3.88 !!!!!! now it’s worth wasting heat….

  • Gopher
  • Gopher

    In the contracts is there anything about not being able to slap a tax on the pellets if there is not its problem sovled.

  • Mark Anderson

    Except not everyone with a pellet boiler has an over inflated RHI payment to rely on, so unfortunately that wont work.

  • file

    But there is a bit in the Comptrollers report where he points out that DETI spending on the spike in applicants was not approved by DFP at the time and has not been retrospectively approved. There may be a way out then for DFP to declare this as unapproved spending and bring it to an end rather than DETI continuing to pay it for 20 years? We will see on Monday – if we get to Monday!

  • mickfealty

    I’ve never been away.

  • Declan Doyle

    He was on his knees talking to the floor thru his hands with a couple of westboro baptist types feeling him up in the process. 1940s County Kerry would be mortified.

  • Gopher

    Well you know what I would do I would do if I was minister I would find out the numbers those that have and those that have not the robbery rate. Im betting not to many are not on the robbery rate. I would then simply put everyone on the robbery rate and slap a tax on the pellets. I would also get someome good at maths to workout a tax equation that will be flexible to cope with things like usage and volume.

  • Whogetstosay?

    Regardless of the burners making 17% or 100%. The biggest winner of stimulating more burners , and the biggest loser in closing the rhi scheme , will always be the fuel supplier. There’s an enormous one in Fermanagh

  • Nevin

    Much moaning re.Stormont’s failure to follow the Westminster RHI model; stupendous silence re.Stormont’s failure to follow the Westminster Departmental Board model ie Departmental Boards are chaired by Ministers.

    The Departmental Board is chaired by the Permanent Secretary, Andrew McCormick, and manages the Department within the strategic policy and resources framework set by the Minister. It supports the Permanent Secretary by providing collective leadership and taking ownership of the Department’s performance. .. About DfE

    Neither the Minister nor a Special Advisor sit on the Board. The Board includes the two Deputy Secretaries, the Finance Director and two Independent members.

    The Board meets on a regular basis and has established an Audit and Risk Assurance Committee which operates as a sub-committee of the Board.

    What about the role of the Independent members?

    The Independent members provide external advice, constructive challenge and business expertise to the Board in the efficient management and running of the Department.

    Did they provide a ‘constructive challenge’? Did they have access to key information? Were they approached by any whistleblowers?

    Here are some more snippets from the DB ‘minutes’:


    I hear no alarm bells ringing.


    Were Independent board members kept largely in the dark until February 2016? The Audit and Risk Assurance Committee is chaired by an Independent Board member.


    Would we have been in such a mess if Stormont had followed BOTH Westminster models and Independent members were adequately briefed and had an opportunity to advise and challenge Ministers as well as senior civil servants gathered together around the same table?

  • Nevin

    Here’s another DB snippet:


    It’s the first time I’ve seen RHI being named as a risk, never mind several risks.

    The minutes of the new department are also non-searchable.