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Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today...

    Stormont's Parliment Buildings

    It's been a much slower, less eventful day at the inquiry than usual but we suppose they can't all be blockbuster material!

    Join us again from 09:45 tomorrow when we'll have more from Mr Mills.

    Until then, it's goodbye from us!

  2. What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    An attempt to stop a spike in applications to the RHI scheme led to a flood of people signing up to the lucrative initiative, the inquiry was told.

    The inquiry panel heard that Stormont's enterprise department got involved in informal sharing of information with the energy industry in the summer of 2015 about plans to cut the subsidies on offer.

    Wood pellets

    The industry passed that informaton on widely to potential applicants, leading to almost a thousand biomass boilers being accredited on the scheme in the three months before the cuts took effect.

    John Mills, the head of DETI's energy division, said there had been "naivety" about the extent of the information shared by his officials.

  3. 'Monitoring of scheme uptake was a weakness'

    Concerns were raised with Mr Mills in March 2015 about the "escalating costs" of the RHI scheme, he says in his witness statement.

    It was Mr Wightman - who we heard from in this morning's opening session - who drew that to Mr Mills' attention and that "triggered the start of efforts to clarify the budget situation".

    The Treasury

    But inquiry barrister Mr Scoffield says evidence as far back as May 2014 suggests that DETI should've realised earlier than it did that uptake on the scheme "was speeding up, was exceeding expectations" and that a budget concern was likely to arise.

    The monitoring of the scheme was a "weakness", admits Mr Mills, and civil servants wrongly assumed that the scheme was underperforming because it had been "handing back loads of money" to the Treasury.

  4. 'Contact with industry insiders clearly naive'

    The plan to belatedly introduce tiered subsidies in the RHI scheme in autumn 2015 was always likely to cause a spike in applications as people tried to get in before the changes came into effect, says Mr Mills.

    He says getting tiering in place as quickly as possible would've helped to minimise the impact of that spike on the scheme's budget.

    Of course, the inquiry heard yesterday that DETI civil servants had given advance notice of the changes to energy industry insiders before they had even been approved by the minister, which led to hundreds of applicants piling in ahead of the deadline.

    Burning wood pellets

    Inquiry panellist Dr Keith MacLean puts it to him that one way of avoiding that would've been for DETI to be "very, very careful about what information was provided to the industry".

    Mr Mills explains that developing policy requires contact with industry: "You don't get something for nothing in consultation with people.

    "But clearly... there was some naivety around the extent of officials' contact with the industry."

  5. "Alas, I didn't see whistleblower's email'

    On the subject of tiering, Mr Scoffield takes us to an email sent in June 2014 by the Janette O'Hagan (below), who's been referrd to as a whistleblower.

    Ms O'Hagan was a businesswoman who first raised concerns about the RHI scheme in 2013, warning the then DETI minister Arlene Foster about potential gaming of the scheme with participants burning fuel simply to earn money.

    In her June 2014 email she was trying to get in touch with DETI official Fiona Hepper.

    Janette O'Hagan

    She referred to "a tiered approach to funding whereby the first 1,314 peak load hours is funded at the higher amount and the remainder at a lower amount".

    Mrs Hepper had left DETI so the email was forwarded to another departmental official and copied to Mr Mills.

    "Alas, although it was copied to me I didn't see Janette O'Hagan's email," says Mr Mills.

  6. 'Need for tiering didn't leap out to me'

    Mr Mills claims it was "immediately obvious" to him that tiering should have been included in the RHI scheme, when it was drawn to his attention that the cost control mechanism was absent.

    Tiering is a way of controlling the cost of the scheme and works by dropping the subsidy 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.

    He says that was the "first time that this issue entered my consciousness" and it was clear that the the lack of tiering in the scheme "needed to be rectified as soon as possible".

    Pound coins

    But that was more than a year after he'd taken up his role as DETI's energy boss and the inquiry barrister points out that there had been opportunities long before than to have noticed it.

    It was referred to at DETI meetings that Mr Mills had attended but he says that due to "the weight of work" he was dealing with it "wasn't something that leapt out to me at the time, I'm afraid".

    He also defends the staff who were working under him, saying they may not have spotted it because of their inexperience on renewable energy matters, meaning they had a "mountain t climb" to get up to speed with how the scheme worked.

  7. Questions will cover key points in scheme

    Mr Scoffield (below) wants to cover a lot of ground with the witness over this afternoon and tomorrow.

    The topics on the agenda will span three of the four phases of the inquiry's work.

    David Scoffield QC

    The long list will include:

    • when DETI's energy division first realised there was a difficulty with the RHI scheme's budget
    • contact with the renewable energy industry about DETI's plan to change the scheme
    • the reason for the urgent closure for the scheme in early 2016
    • the reason for the delay in getting the scheme closed
  8. Witness John Mills returns to give evidence

    The inquiry returns after lunch and there's a change of personnel - the witness this afternoon is John Mills (below), who was DETI's head of energy division from January 2014 to May 2016.

    The inquiry's senior counsel David Scoffield QC is asking the questions.

    John Mills

    Mr Mills has provided a new witness statement since his previous inquiry appearance in May, at the request of the inquiry - you can find it here.

    Mr Mills will be here to answer questions until the close of play tomorrow afternoon.

  9. Time for lunch...

    Mr Wightman's many hours before the inquiry finally come to an end and he's thanked by the panel for the time he's given and the evidence he's provided.

    After lunch we'll hear from Mr Wightman's boss John Mills, the former head of DETI's energy team.

    Join us again from 14:00.

  10. 'No choice now but to close both schemes'

    On 13 November 2015, Mr Wightman issued a stark warning to DETI's deputy permanent secretary Chris Stewart, informing him that there had been 800 applications to the scheme in the previous six weeks.

    He wrote - in bold type and underlined - that regardless of the effect the amendments to the scheme's subsidies "there is no choice now but to close both RHI schemes from 31 March 2016".

    Burning wood pellets

    Mr Wightman added in his email that "it will be important for the minister to be aware that further unpopular legislative changes are needed early in the new year".

    Responding to Dame Una after she asks what was in his mind when he wrote the email, Mr Wightman says the "sheer scale of this was unbelievable".

    "I think it was just: 'We have to act.'"

  11. 'Comprehensive review of RHI scheme is needed'

    Finance officials gave approval for the continuation of the RHI scheme at the end of October 2015.

    In the letter confirming approval, reference was made to the original projected cost of the scheme - £405m over 20 years.

    Sterling banknotes

    It also referenced that the scheme was now go to close by the end of 2016 - much earlier than had been anticipated - but would cost £151m more than the original projection.

    The approval was granted on the basis that the changes would be made to cut the subsidies on offer as soon as possible and that regular scheme spending updates being provided to the finance department.

    It also demanded that a review of the scheme be carried out and would be a "comprehensive evidence-based assessment of all aspects" of the scheme.

  12. 'Applications already higher than in business case'

    DETI sent the finalised business case to Stormont's finance department on 27 October 2015.

    A covering letter outlined the level of applications to the scheme but warned that the figures given in the business case were already out of date.

    It explained that the numbers no longer held after new intelligence received from the scheme's administrator Ofgem.

    Wood pellets

    "Our most recent update from Ofgem is that October applications are now in excess of that forecast within the business case addendum, the current actually 400 versus forecast for October of 100," it read.

    It went on to explain that this would add costs over the 20 years of the scheme of £130m.

    The letter insisted that the scheme would still represent value for money.

  13. 'Inquiry must know origin of contradictory information'

    Sir Patrick questions how Mr Wightman could reconcile what he wrote in the business case about the GB scheme's cost controls with what had actually happened.

    "It just seems to me to be... incompatible," he says, adding that it is "so radically different and contradictory".

    Sir Patrick Coghlin

    He tells him: "If there was somebody who told you this, it's very important that the inquiry should know who that was and where it came from."

    The witness says he "can't recall" but he'll "do my best to get to the bottom of that".

  14. 'RHI business case doesn't reflect reality'

    The business case for the changes to the RHI scheme reflects "nothing like the reality" of what was happening with the initiative, says Mr Aiken.

    One section he picks out relates to an answer given to a finance department official, who asked the DETI team responsible for the scheme what had triggered the introduction of cost controls in the similar RHI scheme that was running in Great Britain.

    The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which ran the GB scheme, had put cost controls in place because it had experience of a spike in demand in a previous energy scheme.

    Burning wood pellets

    But the business case records that it was high uptake on the GB scheme that had led to DECC putting budget protection measures in place.

    But that's not true - cost controls were introduced in the GB scheme when DECC had only spent 3% of its budget for the initiative in 2011-12, with uptake "significantly lower than they had projected".

    It was Mr Wightman who wrote that section and he says he "can't recall where I would've got that information from".

  15. 'Took five months to sign off key meeting minutes'

    We've been hearing a lot about preparations for the DETI casework committee meeting at which the changes to the RHI scheme were assessed and now Mr Aiken turns to the meeting itself, held on 21 October 2015.

    On the casework panel were seinor DETI officials Eugene Rooney, Trevor Cooper and Shane Murphy.

    Finance department officials and members of the DETI team that was running the RHI scheme were also present.

    Files marked: Meetings and minutes

    The minutes of the meeting were finally signed off by Mr Rooney in March 2016.

    Sir Patrick is astounded: "If people discuss what was said/what was not said for five months what are the prospects of having an accurate record of what was said at the time?"

  16. 'What will you do with your life after this?'

    Stuart Wightman

    It's on to the home straight for Mr Wightman - he's into the last hour of questioning he'll have to face from the RHI Inquiry.

    This is the sixth time he's been in the witness chair and Sir Patrick jokes with him: "It'll be difficult to know what you're going to do with your life after this."

    The witness smiles and says he's "panicking" about the amount of work that'll be waiting on his desk whenever he gets back to working life...

  17. 'Worth taking time on creating scheme suspension power'

    Ahead of the DETI casework committee assessment of the changes to the RHI scheme, Mr Cooper told Mr Wightman that he would be expected to explain what could be done to stop spending on the initiative.

    That prompted Mr Wightman to suggest to his boss that it would be worthwhile to delay the changes and take the time to draw up a power to suspend the scheme.

    A hand pushing a emergency stop button

    But time wasn't on the department's side - it urgently needed to get the scheme's subsidies reduced and cost controls in place.

    And because the suspension power would've needed clearance from the minister and approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly's Enterprise Committee - which would've been time-consuming - a decision was taken to leave it until early the next year.

  18. 'All hands to the pump to get approval'

    Two of the members of DETI's casework committee - a panel that was supposed to fulfill an independent review function of the department's projects - were not coming to the business case for the RHI scheme fresh.

    Mr Cooper and Shane Murphy had prior involvement in how it was drawn up, and Sir Patrick is unimpressed.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin

    "We get Mr Murphy talking about nitpicking and presentational - he's going to sit on the committee. Mr Cooper is drafting the material - he's exchanging it with DFP."

    He says there's nothing to suggest that the casework process could be seen as challenging.

    "What was happening here was all hands to the pump to get this past casework, to get it past the DFP," says the inquiry chair.

  19. 'Finance director completely misunderstood what happened'

    At the end of September 2015, DETI and Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) officials held a meeting that included a discussion of what should be in the business case.

    DETI's finance director Trevor Cooper (below) followed that up with an email to colleagues.

    It's clear that Mr Copoper had a fundamental misunderstanding regarding a review of the RHI scheme he believed was held in 2014.

    Trevor Cooper

    A review was a stipulation of the original financial approval of the RHI scheme but it never happened.

    In his email Mr Cooper says DETI needs to explain why the decision was taken not to make changes following this review.

    "He completely misunderstands what has happened," inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin observes.

  20. 'Short-term approval to make key changes to scheme'

    Matters open today with discussion on the business case process for the changes to the RHI scheme in July 2015.

    As the spend on the scheme grew over the first half of the year - to twice the budget that had been allocated for it - DETI had drawn up cost controls that it would add to keep a rein on the money that was flowing out.

    A biomass boiler

    The department needed approval from Stormont's finance department to put the controls in place and had initially sought approval that would continue through until the planned end date for the scheme in 2020.

    But DETI decided that a short-term approval until September 2016 would be sought instead, allowing it to make changes to the subsidies on offer through the scheme, add cost controls and complete a review of the scheme.