RHI scandal: Public inquiry to begin at Stormont

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There are about 2,000 boilers accredited to the scheme

The independent public inquiry into a flawed green energy scheme which helped collapse the Stormont Assembly is due to get under way later on Tuesday.

Retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin will open the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme.

The government scheme, started in 2012, encouraged businesses to switch from fossil fuels to biomass or woodchip.

But a lack of cost controls meant it could have an overspend of £700m over 20 years.

In the coming months the inquiry will hear from, among others, former first minister Arlene Foster, who was a minister in the former Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment that oversaw the scheme.

Civil servants, energy consultants and political advisers will also be called to give evidence.

Fraud allegations

One million pages of documentation have been gathered by the inquiry team.

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RHI inquiry

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Sir Patrick Coghlin is chairing the inquiry, which is expected to take several months

It is investigating the non-domestic green energy scheme, the overspend from which might have to be paid out of Northern Ireland’s block grant from Westminster.

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RHI was a government scheme, started in 2012, which encouraged businesses to switch from fossil fuels to biomass or woodchip.

The row over the handling of the crisis contributed to the collapse of devolution in early 2017.

RHI was a government scheme, started in 2012, which encouraged businesses to switch from fossil fuels to biomass or woodchip.

But the lack of cost controls meant firms were able to legitimately earn large amounts of public subsidy.

There were also some allegations of fraud.

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Many of the boilers, like this one, burn wood pellets

The inquiry will look at the introduction of the scheme, the oversight of it, the introduction of controls in 2015 and the suspension of the scheme the following year.

In particular, it will consider why the Northern Ireland scheme did not contain the same cost controls from the outset as the one in Great Britain, which it mirrored.

Key allegations it will address include that a spike of applications in Autumn 2015 was caused by firms being aware, in advance, of impending cuts to tariffs.

It will also investigate whether there was political interference by DUP special advisers to delay the introduction of cost controls. That has been denied by the special advisers.

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Firms could legitimately earn sizeable subsidy by burning the fuel

Much of the early evidence will be taken up with counsel to the inquiry, David Scoffield QC, setting out an opening statement.

Fourteen witnesses will give evidence between now and Christmas.

It is expected that Mrs Foster and her successor at DETI, the former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, will not give evidence until 2018.

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Many of the boilers are in agriculture businesses including poultry

Mr Bell was suspended from the party after he gave an interview to the BBC criticising Mrs Foster and some DUP advisers.

The RHI scheme was shut to new applicants in 2016.

One year cost controls have been applied by the Department for the Economy which have drastically reduced the 2017/18 in-year overspend.

But they expire at the end of the financial year.

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One-year cost controls are currently in place

The department has announced plans to extend them for a year, but that will require assembly approval or the decision of a direct rule minister.

The cost controls are also the subject of a legal action by boiler owners who claim the cuts in tariffs were illegal.

They claim the projected overspend is vastly inflated and could be in the region of £160m, not £700m, over 20 years.

Judgement in that case has been reserved.

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