Northern Ireland

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme: DETI boss denies 'ducking responsibility'

Burning fuel Image copyright TCHARA
Image caption David Sterling was permanent secretary at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment when the initiative was set up in 2012

A senior civil servant has denied "ducking responsibility" for a huge overspend on a green energy scheme.

The Non-Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme has left taxpayers with a multi-million pound bill.

David Sterling was permanent secretary at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment when the initiative was set up in 2012.

But generous subsidies and poor regulation meant it ran away from officials.

It could cost taxpayers up to £20m annually for 20 years to make up the funding shortfall.

'No satisfactory answer'

Image caption David Sterling left the department in July 2014

That is money that will have to come out of the block grant.

Mr Sterling, who is now the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, appeared before the assembly's Public Accounts committee this afternoon.

He said the subsidy rate and the failure to review the scheme after 18 months were the key issues and he had "no satisfactory answer" for why a planned review in January 2014 did not happen.

He left the department in July of that year.

Massive bill

DUP and Sinn Féin MLAs said he appeared to be attempting to "pass the blame" for the mismanagement of the scheme.

But Mr Sterling said he was not trying to "duck responsibility".

"I'm not seeking to pass the buck," he said. "I accept responsibility for failures which occurred during my time."

Mr Sterling said he was "not conscious" of the need to carry out the review in January 2014.

He said his recollection of the scheme was that it had been under-performing and had meant his department handing back money it could not spend.

Applications to the scheme subsequently increased when plans were announced to change the subsidy rate in 2015.

A 20-year commitment to make subsidy payments meant a spike in applications left officials with a massive bill.

It is estimated the scheme could now cost up more than £1bn. It was originally estimated to cost about half that.

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