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Summary

  1. MLAs on the Education Committee hear from education officials on new budget and area planning
  2. Public Accounts Committee continues inquiry into "flawed" Renewable Heat Incentive scheme

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all, folks!

    After a lengthy afternoon with the PAC, that's our Stormont Live coverage at an end for today.

    But we're back tomorrow, starting with the Health Committee at 09:30.

    It'll be hearing from Health Minister Michelle O'Neill and Prof Rafael Bengoa on a 10-year plan to reform Northern Ireland's healthcare system, as announced in the assembly yesterday.

    But from us folks up on the hill, it's goodnight for now!

  2. 'You've raised more questions than you've answered'

    "My impression of Ofgem has plummeted today," PAC chair Robin Swann tells the body's representatives as he draws the evidence session to a close.

    "The confidence that I have in Ofgem as an organisation has been definitely shaken by what I'm hearing from how you've managed this scheme to date.

    Jane Pierce, Chris Poulton and Dr Edmund Ward from Ofgem

    "Under this scheme you have not done yourselves any good whatsoever.

    "We've been sitting here for nearly four-and-a-half hours and I think you've actually raised more questions than you've answered."

  3. 'I'm apportioning degree of blame to Ofgem'

    "Do you think you should be here today," committee chair Robin Swann asks the Ofgem representatives.

    Chris Poulton says it "important that we come here and explain our role", and apologises "if we look under-prepared" to answer the questions that were posed.

    Ofgem witnesses

    DUP MLA Trevor Clarke accuses Ofgem of failing to share its experience of running the Great Britain scheme with the department in Northern Ireland.

    He adds that the committee is being asked to take some of Ofgem's claims about unminuted meetings with the department "at face value".

    "That is not the way to conduct a scheme to this scale," the DUP's Trevor Clarke says. "I'm clearly apportioning a degree of blame [for the failure of the scheme] to Ofgem."

  4. 'Dinosaurs in the roofspace'

    Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan asks Ofgem whether they've ever heard the phrase "skeletons in the cupboard".

    A dinosaur skeleton

    "Well, this one here is dinosaurs in the roofspace," he adds.

    "What we have heard today and this evening from yourselves is absolutely mindblowing."

  5. 'Evidence over abuses of system is misleading'

    If an applicant installed three boilers on the same heating system, those boilers would be considered as one boiler, Dr Wards tells the committee.

    But if the three boilers were installed on three separate heating systems, each would be ruled as a separate unit - that practice is "common" in Great Britain, he adds.

    DUP MLA Trevor Clarke asks if that "abuse of the system" was raised by Ofgem as a potential issue with the department at the start of the Northern Ireland scheme.

    Wood pellet burner
    Image caption: The preferred option for most who applied for subsidies was the installation of wood pellet burners

    Dr Ward says he believes the department would have been aware of that, having gleaned the knowledge from how the Great Britain scheme had operated.

    But he then goes on to say that "at the point that the Northern Ireland scheme was being devised in the first place, there not much early experience from the GB scheme".

    Mr Clarke says those two statements are "contradictory", and suggests that Ofgem's evidence to the committee is "misleading".

  6. 'Seems no-one can be expelled from scheme'

    "It strikes me anything goes, you can do what you want because you can't be expelled from the scheme," Trevor Clarke says.

    The Public Accounts Committee

    "It seems to be getting more and more like that as we go on," chair Robin Swann adds.

    And Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney says: "It almost seems as if there's an in-built facility for gaming the system within this scheme."

  7. 'Who does the buck stop with?'

    The DUP's Carla Lockhart asks: "Who does the buck stop with?"

    She commends Dr Ward for attempting to taking on most of the questions, but she says Mr Poulton is the senior figure.

    Carla Lockhart

    "You took over in 2014 and to be quite honest you're not able to give us the answers," she says.

    Mr Poulton says the role was newly-created when he he came into the organisation.

  8. 'Fewer than 1% of boilers inspected in 2015-16'

    Three cases of suspected fraud in the scheme have been identified, each discovered this year, Ofgem tell the committee.

    A third-party contractor was brought in to inspect sites in Northern Ireland that were using the scheme, Dr Ward (below) tells the committee.

    Dr Edmund Ward

    Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney asks about the inspections that were carried out, and whether or not they were "adequate and proportionate to ensure value for money". 

    He establishes that it had been agreed that 3% of sites under the scheme should be inspected.

    Mr Poulton says Ofgem carried out a 4.2% rate of inspections in 2013-14, 2.8% in 2014-15, and 0.89% in 2015-16.

  9. 'Zero users suspended from the scheme'

    Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan presses Dr Ward to tell how many of the participants deemed to be non-compliant were allowed to "carry on" receiving money from the scheme.

    He says getting answers from Dr Ward is "like pulling hen's teeth".

    Oliver McMullan

    "What you're telling us today is bordering on taking us for granted," he also says.

    Robin Swann intervenes and asks "How many are suspended from your scheme?"

    "My answer to that is zero," Dr Ward replies.

  10. 'Did you flag the non-compliance?'

    Mr Easton asks how many "non-compliances" Ofgem has uncovered in its inspections.

    Dr Ward says that in 2014-15 it registered 20 across 11 sites.

    Alex Easton

    "Did you flag that with the department?" committee chair Robin Swann asks.

    "Not all of these sites then eventually resulted in a material impact on payments," Mr Ward says.

  11. 'Small amount of site inspections carried out'

    Alex Easton of the DUP asks Ofgem if it is fair to say that in the "vast majority of cases your work was a desk exercise and actual inspections on the ground were non-existent".

    Mr Poulton says there were a small number of site audits - a grand total of 57 over the last four years.

    A man operates a wood boiler

    Dr Ward says that was what was agreed with the department, and due to the spike in applications at a later stage in the scheme it requested to carry out more inspections.

    As the scheme is run over 20 years, he says, most successful applications could expect to be inspected in that time.

  12. 'Applicants could defraud system without telling lies'

    Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn criticises the application form, saying it is possible to "defraud the system without telling any lies on the form".

    Trevor Lunn

    "The whole thing seems so loose and badly managed - it's just wide open," he says.

    Ofgem says it took legal advice on the construction of the form.

  13. 'Twelve of more than 2,000 applicants turned down'

    Of the 2,128 applications to the RHI scheme in Northern Ireland, 12 were turned down, Ofgem's Dr Ward says.

    Wood pellets

    He adds that some other applications were cancelled or withdrawn where participants themselves "identified they were not eligible for the scheme", for example, he adds.

    In all, 59 applicants or potential applicants did not partake in the scheme, Dr Ward says.

  14. 'Someone has put words in your mouth'

    Ofgem has contradicted itself in its evidence to the committee, DUP MLA Trevor Clarke says, and did not point out potential dangers that existed in the scheme.

    He says that in an answer to an earlier question, Ofgem claimed it raised concerns over risks at an early stage, but subsequent answers have shown to him that that was not the case.

    Chris Poulton

    "In part of your rehearsal, someone has put words in your mouth," he says. "Someone has prompted you wrong."

    Mr Poulton says risks were pointed out in Ofgem's feasibility study, before the scheme was set in motion.

    But committee chair Robin Swann says: "That feasibility study is for Ofgem to pick up the business, not in the management of the scheme."

  15. 'This is probably the biggest scandal since devolution'

    "This is probably going to be one of the biggest scandals that we will face here since powers were devolved," the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan tells Ofgem.

    He says he is "sickened and shocked" by the lack of detail its representatives have given to the committee and says that it, as well as the department, was "asleep at the wheel in relation to this".

    Daniel McCrossan

    "No minutes, limited records, no responsibility, no ownership," he adds. "We can hardly afford to fund a health service and no we have to fork out for this - utterly ridiculous."

    Mr Poulton says that "as administrators, we don't set the policy" that ultimately led to the spike in demand for the scheme.

    His colleague Dr Edmund Ward says that when Ofgem spotted the spike in September 2015, it was "in daily discussions" with the department and it "was clear what the impact of that would be" on budgets.

  16. 'Left hand didn't know what right hand was doing'

    Declan Kearney of Sinn Féin says the situation that has been left by the crashing of the scheme is one of "quite catastrophic proportions".

    Declan Kearney

    The evidence he has heard on the lack of communication between Ofgem and the department has left him thinking "the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing".

    He suggests that both Ofgem and the department "sleepwalked into the scheme" and criticises the data-sharing between between the two.

  17. 'No confidence that you've delivered effectively'

    Ofgem received £1.5m to run the scheme, which Mr Poulton says covered its IT system, managing applications, meter readings and a general enquiries phoneline and other administrative elements.

    The spike in applications meant Ofgem had to increase the size of its team, he adds.

    Carla Lockhart

    DUP MLA Carla Lockhart asks whether Ofgem has "stood up" to its ethos, particularly on value for money and delivery of government schemes, adding: "What I'm hearing today, I certainly am not confident you've done that effectively."

    Mr Poulton says he is confident that it delivered on those terms.

  18. 'Were minutes suddenly taken to cover your backs?'

    Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan probes as to why the decision was taken in November 2015 to take minutes of meetings between Ofgem and the department.

    Ofgem E-serve banner
    Image caption: Ofgem E-serve administers government green energy schemes

    He asks if something had arisen that suddenly decided they needed to "cover your back", adding: "What was the fear, what was the worry?"

    Ofgem's Jane Pierce, who was present at some of those meetings, says there was a surge in applications to the scheme and "as the scheme grew we needed to have improved mechanisms for recording those discussions".

  19. 'How can we believe what you're telling us?'

    The DUP's Trevor Clarke poses a tricky one, asking Ofgem if it believes it should carry any of the blame for what went wrong with the scheme.

    Mr Poulton acknowledges that in terms of record-keeping there were things it "could have done better", but he says it has "done a reasonable job" in terms of pointing out risks to the department.

    Trevor Clarke

    "Have to say, I wouldn't pat you on the back," Mr Clarke says.

    "I'm appalled to hear you don't keep minutes of meetings.

    "I'm actually getting to the stage I actually don't believe that you've had some of the conversations you're suggesting you had because there's no records of them.

    "How are we in a position to believe anything?"

  20. 'We fell short on minuted scheme meetings'

    Meeting between Ofgem and the department between August 2014 until November 2015 were not formally minuted, and Mr Poulton admits that "we should've been better at keeping records of what was discussed".

    Ofgem officials at the meeting

    "We have internal reflection on the discussions in terms of what we spoke about," he says.

    "In hindsight, we should've been better at minuting those discussions.

    "Administratively, that was an oversight."