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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Former DETI official Stuart Wightman returns for further questions
  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 into autumn 2018

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today...

    Stormont's Parliament Buildings

    It's been a long, day of intense questioning for Mr Wightman but he'll be back for another session tomorrow morning.

    Be sure to join us at 09:40 for full coverage of the proceedings.

    Thanks for joining us today!

  2. What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    The risks of the RHI scheme were "significantly downplayed" by senior officials to a new Stormont as the energy scheme began to spiral out of control, the inquiry was told.

    Language in a key submission to then enterprise minister Jonathan Bell in July 2015 was watered down in a series of drafts.

    The RHI Inquiry

    The submission aimed to set out the problems in the scheme and the cost controls needed to address them.

    But an early version, which clearly stated the projected expenditure on the scheme was twice the available budget, was amended to remove the "stark" warning.

  3. 'Difficult to see how that passed the snigger test'

    In calculating the value for money of the scheme DETI "monetised" the resulting employment benefits.

    Dr Keith MacLean is bemused by one of the calculations.

    A biomass boiler

    "Seventy-four-and-a-half job years per megawatt equates roughly to four full-time jobs for every 12 boilers that you install for the lifetime of that boiler," he observes.

    Dr MacLean says that comes from comparing a project that takes four years to design and construct with one that can be completed in four weeks.

    "It's difficult to see how that passed the snigger test," he adds.

  4. 'Did you ever stop believing in RHI scheme?'

    He questions Mr Wightman on his work in assessing the value for money of the RHI scheme in autumn 2015 - "the more you scratch the more you discover," the barrister tells the witness.

    He says the budget issue surrounding the scheme that might have been "literally a close-the-doors problem".

    Pound coins

    He asks: "Is there any point along the journey where you stop believing in this... and the actual answer is: 'This isn't value for money'?"

    Mr Wightman says he accepts that on reflection there were "question marks" and if he had concerns about them at the time he would've drawn them to DETI bosses.

  5. Love Islander set to be inquiry's new star witness?

    Now, here's an crossover we never thought we'd see - Love Island and the RHI Inquiry...

    The Metro reports that contestant Zara McDermott could have her stay at the villa in Majorca cut short by a call to Stormont to give evidence on the heat scheme debacle.

    View more on twitter

    It appears that she worked for the Department of Energy and Climate Change on fraud prevention in the Great Britain RHI scheme for a while.

    A Q&A session with Zara would certainly add a bit of minor TV celebrity glamour to the proceedings.

    But we can safely say that she definitely won't have to worry about facing Sir Patrick & Co - we promise to eat our Speedos if she does end up in the witness chair...

  6. 'You've got so much stuff in there'

    A virtual poultry-shedful of documents was was sent out to civil servants ahead of the an internal DETI scrutiny committee assessment of the changes to the scheme.

    Mr Aiken lists them and they include:

    • A June 2011 report by external consultants that formed the basis of the scheme
    • The 2012 business case for the scheme - all 107 pages of it
    • A further report by external consultants from June 2013
    • The public consultation document on the scheme's extension
    • A paper on poultry-shed heating requirements

    If you've been with us from the start of the inquiry, you'll know all about them - they've been delved into many times by the barristers.

    A man carrying folders

    Panel member Dr Keith MacLean asks how he expected the people he sent the documents to understand them.

    "You've got so much stuff there that people aren't actually going to be able to get in and get to the key information," he says, and Mr Wightman agrees.

  7. 'It's my ethos to be open and helpful'

    Stuart Wightman

    Dame Una says she wants to know why it "was a normal day's work" for DETI officials to give energy industry insiders information about the RHI scheme ahead of public announcements.

    She suggests that a message could've been put on an answerphone to say information would be made available in due course - that way, civil servants wouldn't have had to take calls and be put under pressure from those within the industry.

    Mr Wightman says his "ethos" throughout his career in the civil service has been to be "open" and "helpful" with those in the private sector that he's had to deal with.

  8. 'People from industry were constantly complaining'

    The changes to the subsidies on offer through the RHI scheme were approved by the enterprise minister on 3 September 2015.

    Mr Wightman immediately contacted two renewable energy companies - Alternative Heat Ltd and Solmatix Renewables - to inform them that the decision had been taken.

    A biomass boiler

    A press release announcing was changes was not published until 8 September.

    "To be fair, we were getting a lot of phone calls from these people complaining that there was uncertainty in the industry," Mr Wightman says.

    He says his junior colleague Seamus Hughes was constantly on the phone fielding calls from firms and other interested parties.

  9. 'Moy Park told of changes before minister's approval'

    Major poultry producer Moy Park was given notice of the changes to the RHI scheme by DETI officials before they had even been approved by the enterprise minister Jonathan Bell.

    Farmers who supply Moy Park make up a significant number of the claimants on the initiative.

    Moy Park's David Mark was given the information in late August 2015 by DETI official Seamus Hughes, having seemingly been directed to do so by Mr Wightman, reveals the inquiry barrister.

    Hens in a shed

    Advance notice of the changes was also given to the Ulster Farmers' Union and to renewable energy firms.

    Civil servants should've done more to "manage the message" about the changes so that more people were not encouraged to sign up, suggests Mr Aiken.

    He points out that DETI was facing major budget problems with the scheme at the time.

    Mr Wightman says he felt there "was a courtesy on us" to inform interested parties but it "looks naive now", as he shakes his head.

  10. 'Delay to cost controls gave boiler firms lease of life'

    Biomass boiler installers would've been given a "new lease of life" when they were found out that there was a delay in adding cost controls to the RHI scheme, says Mr Aiken.

    It meant that instead of having fewer the five weeks to sell and install boilers that would be eligible for the most lucrative subsidies under the scheme, they would in fact have had nine.

    Wood pellets

    Mr Wightman says it was a "difficult balance" for DETI's civil servants between being "open and honest" about what was happening in relation to the scheme and keeping their cards close to their chest.

    He admits that by conveying information about the scheme to those within the energy industry, it gave them "another window" of which they could take advantage.

    And he accepts Mr Aiken's suggestion that there was "insufficient thought" given to what information should've been given to industry insiders.

  11. Time for lunch

    Sandwich

    "Perhaps now would be an appropriate time...," says Mr Aiken adopting the by now familiar formula that heralds the lunch break.

    See you again at 14:00.

  12. 'Department was leaking like a sieve'

    DETI was "leaking like a sieve", with crucial information about the planned changes to the RHI scheme being given to those with the renewable energy industry in advance of them being put in place, suggests Mr Aiken.

    A decision was taken to nudge the addition of cost controls, which would've made the scheme less lucrative to claimants, back from 1 October 2015 to 3 November that year.

    That information was provided to at least one scheme claimant by DETI official Seamus Hughes.

    A biomass boiler

    And less than 48 hours after that decision was taken a boss from the boiler installation firm Hegan Biomass Ltd emailed DETI, asking if a "rumour that I was made aware of" about the delay was true.

    Mr Wightman says he has no knowledge of how Hegan Biomass became aware of the change.

    And he says no advice was given to Mr Hughes about the sharing of internal information and he takes responsibility for not having done so.

    "You would've wanted to say as little as you could but then the balance is you've got to be as honest, as transparent at the same time," he adds.

  13. 'Public would pay the cost of month's delay'

    Inquiry panel member Dame Una O'Brien asks the witness whether he was ever asked to calculate the cost of putting back the changes by a month.

    He says he doesn't recall "being asked to do numbers" but he would have expressed concerns at the cost.

    Dame Una O'Brien

    In any case, he says, his calculations would've been based on previous forecasts of 100 applications in September and 150 in October - not on the approximately 800 that actually came in.

    Sir Patrick puts it to him that his understanding was that the public would pay for the extra month as a cost of gaining the concession from the minister.

    "Yes," says the witness.

  14. 'Date concession necessary to get proposals past minster'

    Stuart Wightman

    It was agreed by DETI officials to put back the date for the changes to the subsidies on offer through the RHI scheme.

    Mr Wightman says he was concerned that the delay was going to allow time for more applications to come through, given that those within the renewable energy industry knew that changes were on the way.

    "I think that at a senior level it was accepted that that concession maybe was necessary to get the proposals past the minister," he adds.

  15. 'DUP advisers consulted on change to scheme'

    Mr Wightman says he didn't know that there were conversations going on between two DUP advisers about changes to the RHI scheme.

    Mr Cairns - the DETI minister's adviser - had been in discussions with Dr Andrew Crawford, who was advising the then finance minister Arlene Foster, about the plans.

    It had been Dr Crawford's suggestion to Mr Cairns that the subsidies on offer through the scheme should be reduced after 3,000 hours of a boiler's yearly running time, rather than 1,000 hours.

    Dr Andrew Crawford

    But the view within DETI was that it wouldn't work.

    Deputy permanent secretary Mr Stewart told Mr Cairns that it wouldn’t bring the spending back under control and it would need a ministerial direction - a formal instruction to override concerns from civil servants - from Bell and Foster to put that in place.

    What Mr Stewart didn’t know was that the suggestion had come from outside the department.

  16. 'Boiler installations accelerated to beat deadline'

    On 23 July, DETI deputy permanent secretary Chris Stewart emailed Mr Wightman informing that he had spoken to the minister's adviser Mr Cairns.

    The adviser had told Mr Stewart he was concerned that the introduction of changes to RHI scheme tariffs in October might lead to a further spike in demand for applications.

    Wood pellets

    The special adviser had suggested that the changes might be delayed but Mr Stewart replied to tell him that there was already a spike.

    Asked for his observations, Mr Wightman informed Mr Stewart that the industry was already aware that new measures were likely to be introduced in the autumn "so installations are already being accelerated to beat the deadline".

  17. 'Adviser sought party pointers before going to minister'

    After sending the RHI scheme submission to the DETI minister's office in July 2015, Mr Wightman was told by Mr Bell's secretary that the minister's adviser Timothy Cairns had read it.

    Mr Wightman wrote in an email to his boss Mr Mills telling him about that, and adding that Mr Cairns was "seeking advice, presumably from their party, before passing to the minister".

    Two men in a meeting

    Mr Bell was a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at the time.

    The witness says that his experience of working under ministers from various Stormont parties is that their work would sometimes be "run past" party policy officers.

    He says he didn't notice anything unusual in what he'd been told by the minister's secretary.

  18. 'Was minister well-served by officials?'

    The RHI Inquiry

    Mr Aiken asks the witness whether the minister and his special adviser were well-served by the DETI officials in their provision of the RHI scheme submission in July 2015 and in its accuracy.

    Mr Wightman says he'd "have to say no" in terms of the explanation of the funding.

    He says he accepts the point and that there was "obviously a lack of clarity" in the department about how the scheme was funded.