Peter Robinson’s ministerial “hokey cokey” could cost Stormont £180m

Posted By: December 19, 2016

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John Manley. Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, December 14, 2016

THE DUP’s controversial “in-out minister”‘ policy led to the stalling of curbs on the Renewable Heat Incentive’s (RHI) and cost the executive an extra £180m.

The autumn 2015 political move saw Peter Robinson pull his ministers out of the executive in protest at the IRA’s killing of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast’s Short Strand.

Only the then Finance Minister Arlene Foster remained in office, acting as “gatekeeper” on behalf of the DUP.

But The Irish News has learned that the much-derided in-out policy led economy minister Jonathan Bell to delay introducing curbs on the highly lucrative RHI scheme.

And crucially during the weeks that the legislation was stalled – while DUP ministers resigned and reappointed themselves – applications for the botched green energy scheme surged.

Figures from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment show that in October 2015 applicants to the RHI scheme reached an all-time high of 502 – representing nearly a quarter of all claimants. In the following month, there were 374 applications.

The legislation introducing a cap on tariffs and a limit on the amount that could be claimed was announced in September and scheduled to go before the assembly in early October.

However, Mr. Robinson’s policy meant the necessary curbs were not put in place until November 18, by which time the department was swamped with applications that it had to honor.

Stormont’s RHI spending over-commitment for around 2100 claimants totals £400m over the next 20 years. However, had the legislation capping tariffs been put in place it could have saved the executive up to £180m of this.

Arlene Foster speaking to the Irish News in October about the RHI scheme:

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said the DUP’s “ministerial fiasco” had left the north with a “crippling financial legacy”.

“While the other DUP ministers were practicing their in-out regime, who was the minister who stayed in as gatekeeper?” he said.

“None other than Mrs. Foster, yet she failed to act – maybe she was too busy keeping an eye on her other executive colleagues whom she famously described as rogues and renegades.”

The SDLP’s Patsy McGlone said the revelation was a further blow to Arlene Foster’s credibility.

“Now we know that while the DUP was playing political hokey cokey, the public purse was taking a hammering,” the Mid Ulster MLA said.

He noted how “ten-minute minister” Mr. Bell returned to the assembly briefly on September 28 to introduce a variation to the Northern Ireland renewables obligation scheme but failed to bring the legislation capping RHI claims.

“We already know by that stage that Ofgem (the regulator in Britain) were in daily contact with his department to outline the scale of resource pressure that the RHI spike was causing – so why didn’t he take action to address the critical pressure at that stage?”
Mr. McGlone said.

“Given that he was making changes to a similar scheme in the same policy area, it seems incredible that RHI applications were allowed to continue to gather pace.”

The Department of the Economy did not respond on Tuesday night.