RHI scandal: Companies can be named, judge rules

Image source, tchara
Image caption, The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is approximately £490m over budget

Corporate companies receiving Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) subsidies can be named by the Department for the Economy, a judge has ruled.

However, details of individuals getting the money can only be revealed after their concerns over the implications of publication are properly considered.

Five hundred boiler owners went to court to stop the publication of their details.

The court heard some were companies, but others were listed as individuals.

'No impediment'

At a hearing on Thursday afternoon, a barrister for the boiler owners said they would not be seeking an extension of the temporary injunction barring the publication of their details.

The judge said there was now "no impediment" on the department publishing the names of firms in receipt of the subsidy.

A spokesperson for the department said they welcomed the judgement and "will publish information as soon as is practical and all details are checked and released in line with the court decision".

Former first minister Arlene Foster set up the RHI scheme in 2012 when she was enterprise minister; it was an attempt by the Northern Ireland Executive to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

But flaws in setting the scheme's subsidy rate left it open to abuse as claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned; the lack of cost controls led to an overspend that could cost taxpayers £490m over the next 20 years.

Thursday's snap election was called after a coalition led by Mrs Foster's DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed after deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned over Mrs Foster's refusal to step aside during an inquiry into the debacle.

'Media feeding frenzy'

A barrister for the boiler owners claimed there would be a "media feeding frenzy" after the publication of their names and businesses would suffer from the publicity.

However, Mr Justice Deeny said publication of the names would help prevent abuse of the scheme and prevent damage to the economy through "excessive payments".

He highlighted the case of one well-known company which, he said, had earned £302,000 in subsidy since July 2015 from seven 99kw boilers.

He said there might well be legitimate reasons for that and similar installations and they could be explained to any "inquiry, journalist or member of the public".

A barrister for the department had argued that the "public interest" in stemming the flow of money from the scheme superseded applicants' privacy rights under contract and data protection laws.

The judge ruled that the application for RHI subsidy did not amount to a legally binding contract.

He said the department had the right to vary the terms.

It was claimed by the boiler owners lawyer that a drive by Economy Minister Simon Hamilton to publish the names was an attempt to deflect criticism from the DUP whose "cronies" had allegedly benefitted.

Mr Justice Deeny said the court could not "draw that conclusion".

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