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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Inquiry counsel David Scoffield outline evidence for the final series of hearings
  3. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  4. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  5. Public evidence sessions expected to last until well into 2018

Live Reporting

By Leanna Byrne and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today...

    Stormont

    That concludes today's proceedings. Heavy at times with a smattering of curry controversy, Mr Scoffield has dished out plenty of interesting avenues the inquiry will now investigate.

    Join us again next Tuesday for the start of phases three and four of the inquiry.

    Until then, have a great weekend.

  2. What happened at the RHI Inquiry today?

    Chamber

    The inquiry was told of a row at an Indian restaurant in London in June 2015 between former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell and his adviser, Timothy Cairns.

    The inquiry heard there was some evidence that emerging problems in the RHI scheme were "in the mix".

    At the time, the pair were part of a departmental delegation to meet Amber Rudd, then the minister with responsibility for energy and climate change.

    The inquiry was also told that there is a limited paper-trail between DUP special advisers during a key phase of the RHI debacle, when they were alleged to be thwarting attempts to delay cost controls

  3. 'Dysfunctional relationship'

    DUP logo

    Mr Scoffield returns to the stormy relationship between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns.

    He says the panel may wish to consider whether this "was so dysfunctional that it impeded the proper functioning of the department to the extent that it was wrong" for the DUP to insist that they continued to work together.

  4. 'The minister rarely read documents'

    long shot of inquiry

    Following the meeting, the deferral recommendation was presented to the minister, Jonathan Bell, for approval.

    Mr Cairns' evidence is that Mr Bell accepted the advice without protest.

    Mr Scoffield continues:

    "The fact that the minister made no protestations about the advice given was not surprising however as in Mr Cairns' experience the minster rarely read papers or briefing documents and accepted advice on most matters."

  5. 'Deferring the tariff changes'

    At an "issues meeting" on 24 August the date was set for the imposition of cost controls.

    The then DETI permanent secretary Andrew McCormick's evidence is that there was a discussion about how long the tariff revisions could be deferred "with a clear desire from Timothy Cairns that that should be as long as possible".

    Dr McCormick says officials "reluctantly" accepted deferral until 4 November.

    meeting

    Mr Cairns' account is that he inquired whether October was the latest date when cost controls could be implemented.

    He says no pressure was exerted on civil servants.

    The SPAD says DETI official John Mills (above) suggested that controls could be introduced in early November.

    Both Dr McCormick and Mr Cairns say they were surprised by this.

  6. 'No minutes taken at key decision making meeting'

    Mr Scoffield is listing more email exchanges between officials between Mr Cairns, Mr Mills, Mr McCormick and Mr Stewart.

    These exchanges lead up to a meeting near the end of August 2016.

    At this meeting, the decision is made to push back the introduction of tariffs from 1 October to 4 November.

    Documents

    Mr Scoffield makes the point that between this period of time, some of the highest spikes in applications occurred.

    He also observes that there was no minutes taken at this meeting and that the only piece of information the department could provide was a "relatively uninformative" agenda.

  7. 'Piecemeal information'

    Mr Scoffield turns to a Department of Finance (DF) statement to the inquiry prepared by an official called Emer Morelli.

    DF says DETI only provided piecemeal information on the RHI scheme.

    It says information not shared with DF included:

    • Information on the wider UK policy position and the GB scheme
    • Market intelligence
    • Information on usage rates
    • Whistleblowing concerns
    DFP logo

    DF says it is not clear why DETI was not forthcoming with this information in response to queries throughout the summer and autumn of 2015.

  8. 'Officials alive to the possibility of heating empty sheds'

    There is plenty of email exchanges between Mr Cairns, Mr Crawford, Mr Mills and other government officials under the spotlight now.

    One of particular interest to Mr Scoffield is one exchange between Mr Cairns and Mr Mills.

    Responding to an email from Mr Mills, Mr Cairns asks whether the tariff limits could be increased to 3,000 hours.

    Mr Scoffield

    Mr Mills says it would be more appropriate for the tariff rates to be in line with GB and writes: "What's the justification for NI being different?".

    Mr Mills also alludes to poultry farmers heating empty sheds, which Mr Scoffield says shows that "officials at this stage were alive to the possibility of those that were heating empty sheds".

    Mr Scoffield poses the question to the inquiry how this suspicion came into minds of the inquiry.

  9. 'Family treated like thieves'

    Mr Scoffield turns to a text exchange between DUP special advisers John Robinson and Richard Bullick on 28 December 2016.

    This was after the BBC Spotlight programme, Mr Bell's appearance on the Nolan programme and Arlene Foster's statement to the assembly

    As Mr Scoffield puts it, media speculation was "at fever pitch".

    Boiler

    Mr Robinson says Mr Crawford has told him he cannot leave his house, his family are being "treated like thieves", and Mrs Foster's statement has "hung him out to dry".

    He adds that Mr Crawford says he told Timothy Cairns in an email in July (2015) to close the scheme on 1 October.

    Mr Scoffield says this is an illustration of the type of difficulty the panel will have in trying to piece together what happened from fragments of information.

    He says that some retrospective views can give the impression of being "self serving or back-covering".

  10. 'It pays producers to heat houses'

    After his meeting with Mr Cairns and Mr Stewart, Mr Mills sent an email to to Mr Cairns recapping what had been discussed at the meeting.

    Mr Scoffield says that this email was forwarded to Mr Crawford, stating: "This is the latest on the RHI... Any thoughts?".

    Mr Crawford responded saying that changes would need to be made to the scheme and suggesting increasing the number of hours to move to a higher tariff.

    Fire

    Mr Scoffield also points to a line where Mr Crawford said that the scheme "pays [poultry] producers to heat houses when the houses are empty".

    Further on in the email exchange Mr Crawford said that there would be a massive spike in applications.

    Mr Scoffield observer that Mr Crawford seemed to suggest softening the change, that he was aware of the incentive to make money from the scheme and that there would be a massive spike in applications before October.

  11. Time for lunch

    Sandwiches

    There's plenty to digest from this morning's session.

    We're off for a bite of lunch - join us again at 14:00.

  12. 'Any controls need to be no more than what is necessary'

    John Mills

    Mr Scoffield describes a meeting between Mr Cairns, Chris Stewart who was deputy permanent secretary at DETI, and John Mills (above), the head of energy division.

    According to Mr Stewart's witness statement, Mr Cairns was resistant to making big changes to the RHI scheme.

    He says that Mr Cairns warned them not to "overreact" and reduce the tariffs too much in case it would lead to under performance.

    "During this meeting, Mr Cairns says that any controls should be no more than what was necessary and proportionate and that any action should not curtail the benefits of the scheme in carbon reduction and public investment in the NI economy," reads Mr Scoffield.

  13. 'We will get more than our fair share of the UK pot'

    The inquiry considers an email sent from Andrew Crawford (below) to Mr Cairns towards the end of July 2015.

    Dr Crawford received the July submission from Mr Cairns.

    He responds, saying that DETI had received a spike in the number of applications over the last number of months as a result of Moy Park suppliers buying biomass boilers for the RHI scheme before the end of the last tax year.

    What Mr Scoffield is most interested in is Dr Crawford's prediction that there will be a large spike in applications towards the end of 2015.

    "The word on the street is that there’s going to be massive changes in October and you’re going to get a spike in applications before this date. Basically, the vast majority of people who are going to convert will already have done so," reads the email.

    Dr Andrew Crawford

    He adds: "I’m a little confused what the problem is with the non-domestic scheme. The scheme is being funded from AME (annually managed expenditure from HM Treasury), therefore if we go over our 4% target we will get more than our fair share of the UK pot. I would have thought that this was to NI’s advantage, bearing in mind that we’re likely to opt out of the CFD (Contracts for Difference) scheme in a couple of years and may not incentivise renewable generation after this date.

    "I suspect the problem is that that we only have a guarantee of money for a couple of years and long term, we may have to pay for the scheme out of the NI block. We’ll check this out with DFP, but it’s something you might want to query."

  14. 'Curry house confrontation'

    Mr Scoffield gives an example of the "extremely difficult relationship" between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns.

    On a trip to London in June 2015, there was a "heated discussion" between the two men in an Indian restaurant.

    A delegation from DETI was due to meet DECC (Department for Energy and Climate Change) minister Amber Rudd the following day.

    Curry

    At a breakfast briefing ahead of the meeting involving DETI officials the two men had another "very heated" discussion.

    The officials were asked to leave the briefing and Mr Cairns did not attend the DECC meeting.

  15. 'Document sent to other DUP SPADs'

    Mr Scoffield teases out Mr Bell's claim that the SPADs had been working together to keep the scheme open, which they deny.

    Mr Cairns forwarded the July 2015 submission to fellow DUP special advisers Stephen Brimstone (below) and Dr Andrew Crawford, who appeared at the inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday.

    According to Mr Cairns, he was seeking advice from Dr Crawford because of his previous experience working in DETI.

    Stephen Brimstone

    Mr Cairns says that his contact was not hidden from Mr Bell. In fact, he claims that Mr Bell was at a meeting where Mr Johnston (Mr Robinson's adviser) directed Mr Cairns to liaise with Dr Crawford on a "DUP position".

  16. 'When did the minister receive the submission?'

    Long shot of the inquiry

    There appears to be some difference between Mr Bell's and Mr Cairns recollection as to when the minister received the July submission.

    As Mr Scoffield explains, Mr Cairns says it was with the minister throughout the summer but Mr Bell says it wasn't until September that he learned officials had come up with a scheme proposing a reduction of tariffs starting in October.

  17. 'Urgent need for cost controls'

    The 8 July submission advised the minister that, given the budget pressures on the scheme: "We need to urgently implement cost controls measures to manage future RHI expenditure".

    Three options were offered to Mr Bell:

    • Do nothing
    • Introduce tired tariffs
    • Introduce a system of degression

    The officials advised against doing nothing as poultry firm Moy Park's growers would continue to convert to biomass boilers.

    Mr Bell was advised to follow the system in Great Britain - with the introduction of tiered tariffs.

    Boiler

    Tiering is a way of controlling the cost of the scheme and works by dropping the tariff on offer once a certain limit of usage has been reached, with the intention of preventing a claimant from overusing their heating system to collect more cash.

  18. The edited submission

    A submission from DETI to the minister in July 2015 is now the subject of much scrutiny.

    The submission, signed off by Mr Cairns, is about the RHI phase two proposal.

    Audit records show that he did not save it into the Northern Ireland Civil Service's electronic document library system, known as Trim, that there were significant changes made to the draft submission. The include the removal of a section on 'financial implications' and references to cost controls.

    Stuart Wightman

    Inquiry panel member Dame Una O'Brien points out that even the subheading what changed from "need to implement phase two cost controls" to seeking additional funding approval from DFP.

    The changes were made by Stuart Wightman (above), who was responsible for developing renewable heat and energy efficiency policies.

    Mr Scoffield says that it is possible that Mr Wightman believed that cost controls were less important than other issues with the scheme.

  19. 'We'll be putting SPAD-ology under a spotlight'

    Email

    Mr Scoffield says Mr Bell's claim that the closure of the RHI scheme was obstructed is of particular interest to the inquiry.

    The problem is, he says, is that the inquiry will mainly be relying on witness statements rather than formal communications to determine this claim.

    He explains that SPADs communicated with each other and the minister informally over the phone or in text messages, which are not all available to the inquiry. Some communications have been provided, however.

    Sir Patrick says that despite the lack of formal communication, the inquiry will look very carefully on the role these SPADs played and their duty to the minister and to advance government.

    "We'll be putting SPAD-ology under a spotlight," replies Mr Scoffield.

  20. 'Under the influence of other DUP SPADs'

    Mr Bell contends in his witness statement that when DETI permanent secretary Andrew McCormick attempted to raise the issue of cost controls for the scheme in June or July 2015 Mr Cairns said he did not wish it to be on the agenda.

    Mr Scoffield explains that Mr Bell's view is that his SPAD, at least for a time, tried to delay decision-making on the issue.

    Mr Scoffield

    Mr Bell contends that Mr Cairns listed Andrew Crawford (Arlene Foster's SPAD at the Department of Finance), Timothy Johnston (first minster Peter Robinson's adviser) and DUP director of communications John Robinson as people who did not want RHI on the agenda.

    Mr Scoffield says that Mr Bell describes "a concerted attempt to delay action being taking in relation to the RHI scheme".

    Mr Bell's contention is that this was carried out by Mr Cairns, not on his own, but under the influence of other DUP officials, in particular Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford.

    It's worth noting that both men have denied the allegation and Mr Scoffield said much of Mr Bell's evidence in respect of this period was "highly contentious".