The BBC has a good summary of the headlines arising from the PAC meeting this afternoon. Remember, the PAC is the place where normally the heavy lifting is currently being done in interrogating officials. Permanent Secretary Andrew McCormick was today’s star witness:
- A meeting with former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell to review ministerial papers in December may have been recorded “without my knowledge or consent”.
- He is aware of at least one case in which energy consumer watchdog Ofgem has been talking to the PSNI over possible abuse of the RHI scheme.
- About 90% of 1,400 people had objected to a request by the Department of the Economy to be named as beneficiaries of the RHI scheme*. He said the department is now going through the individuals on a case-by-case basis to see if they can be named in line with the Data Protection Act.
- The department did not know about flaws in the RHI scheme in the summer of 2015, so conversations over closing the scheme or introducing cost controls were “not seen as sinister”.
The report also notes:
Mrs Foster set up the RHI scheme while she was minister in 2012. Dr McCormick told the PAC that no advice was given to Mrs Foster that she “really needs to get cost controls” into the RHI as the uptake was low when she was minister.
He added that she followed her officials’ advice on the scheme and that “ministers have the right to expect civil servants will get this kind of thing right”.
From memory, Foster left DETI in May and the problem did not manifest until the end of summer (whenever that was). That’s as close to an exoneration of Foster (as Minister) as it’s possible to get, under these circumstances.
Notwithstanding that, the problem is neither solved, nor gone away. The Permanent Secretary notes that information from inside the department got into industry circles via anonymous letters (in July) at about this time
This chimes with McCormick’s evidence to the Economy Committee on Monday that HR issues may follow his own department’s internal inquiries.
But if there is a political smoking gun it could be this:
Dr Andrew McCormick told Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he understood Dr Andrew Crawford was the adviser who influenced a decision to keep the scheme open. He told the committee that he had no direct evidence of this.
Crawford’s brother is a director on a company which benefited from the scheme: a fact he’d already disclosed before Christmas. He’s also a former employee of the Ulster Farmers Union (a significant player in the lobby).
Fellow spad John Robinson did not disclose was that his own father in law was on the scheme. At the very least, as a Spad, he’s become part of the story. For that reason, evidence or no evidence, it is very hard to see how he remains in the perilous gap after today.
Oh, yes. And who was recording those conversations with Minister Bell?
What a tangled web. Hard to see now what’s holding up that now much needed Public Inquiry to get to the bottom of this mess?