“The department did not know about flaws in the RHI scheme in the summer of 2015…”

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?

  • Dreary Steeple

    Fair play to you for going to the trouble of working it out. You are right, the owner of an engineering works heating the factory floor told me he would have the investment paid for in 4 years, don’t forget he will not have it on during our so called summers, if he were to run it 12 months of the year it would be paid for in 2 years. Likewise the chicken farmers will have it paid for in over 2 years because the more heat they give the chickens the faster they fatten (if the chicken does not have to use energy to heat itself then it fattens quicker). However, what pisses of a lot of country people is the chicken houses are been heated even when there are no chickens in them. When a house is emptied it has to be cleaned out and disinfected so the house could be laying for several weeks with no chickens in them.

  • Nevin

    Addition:

    Having highlighted missing as well as poor quality minute taking I’d now link to draw attention to the Public Accounts Committee webpage. Interested citizens should be able to advise and challenge all aspects of governance, without having to rely on MSM selective and sometimes inflammatory reporting.

    If a Hansard report of the plenary sessions can be available within hours so could the PAC Minutes of Evidence as well as Listen Again. The most recent Minutes of Evidence are dated November 30 and the most recent Listen Again is January 11.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    We don’t know what they knew exactly and when exactly they knew it. However, if there is a smoking gun there it will all come out in the wash. Up to now they appear all clear, with all the media digging going on its hard to believe that they wouldnt have uncovered something at this stage if there was genuinely something to uncover.

  • Gingray

    And defining the terms of reference of that inquiry was being taken forward by AF, SH and their Spads – given the revelations of this week, can you not accept her having a role in it would have been prejudicial?

  • Gingray

    Lionel – apologies, I am not saying that Sinn Fein should be let off the hook, I am saying that there is a deliberate attempt to try and move the blame for RHI onto Sinn Fein.

    They have a multitude of flaws, and have been awful in Government, but they are not to blame for the mess RHI is in.

  • mickfealty

    On what grounds exactly? The PS just gave her a clean bill of health yesterday. That much was evident early on in the process.

    Most of this is an unnecessarily upscaled controversy, which ‘Arlene’s Simon’ has pretty much fixed before it rolled out.

    The fact that SF spokesmen like Mairtin are still referencing half Billion in media interviews shows what a puff of smoke it’s proven to be.

    https://audioboom.com/posts/5510623-mairtin-on-calling-the-election-on-the-today-programme

    I won’t defend her poor grace, but unless someone can prove she or any of her spads and ministers did anything illegal, she’s coming back.

  • Gingray

    Mick, how can you claim that Simon has fixed it – aint happened yet and there is no guarantee it will address the issue at all.

    Sorry, it just looks like you are going out of your way to excuse Foster and absolve her of all guilt, and before any investigation, while still pushing the narrative that this is all some secret Sinn Fein masterplan.

  • steve white

    the problem occured when it was set up not later

  • mickfealty

    That’s right, it hasn’t. But nor has the 1/2 Billion. You have to look at it in projected terms over twenty years in order to make it a humungous issue. On what grounds exactly do you not expect her back?

    Because, provided the fix works, this will go down much better than most of us liberal media types imagine in the DUP’s own backyard.

  • Granni Trixie

    This is getting daft(er) – substitute “everybody” for “most people who know me”. End of.

  • file

    Granni, I am an editor and proof-reader by profession and by choice: loose use of language floats my boat, stirs my soul and pricks up my pedant’s antenna. I can’t resist it, and the only thing to do with temptation is to give in to it.

  • Steptoe

    Is the ‘smoking gun’ not contained in the very fact that they knew about this almost a year ago (at least).

  • Gingray

    Mick, you are claiming it is fixed and absolving Foster – the mind boggles as to why you are so adamant that there is nothing to see here

  • mickfealty

    There’s a year long fix, with a seven stay. Mairtins ‘top experts’ in Finance waved the ‘sticking plaster solution’ through without objection, and so therefore did he. Now re Arlene, read what the PS said yesterday? I know you guys are pumped on this, but he’s given her a solid bye.

    Not so his own officials.

  • Gingray

    Mick, she allowed her party to release a factually incorrect statement this week in regards her SPADs and their family involvement. The PS has not given her a solid bye at all, but interesting that you see it that way.

    You appear to be intentionally forgetting what her successor at DETI had to say (some of which HAS been backed up by the former DETI Perm Sec) – that her Special Advisor in DFP, Dr Andrew Crawford, had influenced the decision to keep the scheme open.

    So to clarify, at the time the scheme was kept open:

    Arlene Foster was Finance Minister.
    Her SPAD was Dr Andrew Crawford.
    They had worked previously together in DETI and approved the design of the scheme.
    The DETI PS has accused him of influencing the decision to keep the scheme open.
    The DETI Minister at the time claims that Crawford and Foster told him to keep the scheme open.

    You would have us believe that Foster knew nothing, saw nothing and heard nothing, when it is apparent that several prominent DUP members had an interest in the scheme.

    Oh, and that its all somehow part of Sinn Feins masterplan.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Yes indeed it could well be. It depends on how much they knew.

  • Nevin

    Update. The Listen Again video will be available tomorrow. The webpage now indicates an audio version but it has failed to load.

    Still no update of the Minutes of Evidence which would be so much more useful.

  • townieman

    That’s £36500 net profit per annum, which roughly equates to £52000 gross, over twice the NI average and on a 20 year contract to boot. Not too shabby.

  • Pigeon Toes

    ACH sure they have form in this regard as per the ” I know of him” remarks of Ian Óg …

  • Dreary Steeple

    Very good, I know it is hard to remember everything that has happened over the past month but you forgot about A Foster sending a letter to the banks recommending that they should fund those business’s which wanted to partake of the RHI scheme. Would you recommend something you didn’t know about?…’every jot and title’.

  • Gingray

    Civil Service papers to minister generally have a front cover with a summary, SPAD advice and maybe media advice and a recommendation.

    So either she just took her SPADs advice and approved it, without looking in detail at the content (quite common) or she read all the detail and approved it.

  • aquifer

    What is good for the farmers is good for Northern Ireland.

    I just thought a quick restatement of DUP policy was needed, to get some perspective.

  • Nevin

    Economy Minutes of Evidence are as recent as Monday; last MoE for PAC are November 30. Not good enough.