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Charity Commission considers ‘misleading’ RHI claims

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Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said the “inescapable inference” from Michael Doran’s testimony was that Action Renewables had misled the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission is “carefully considering” claims that a leading renewable heat group may have misled a commission investigation linked to NI’s flawed green energy scheme.

It follows Wednesday’s evidence at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry.

Michael Doran runs Action Renewables, a charity promoting energy efficiency.

The RHI scheme was set up in 2012 to encourage uptake of eco-friendly heat systems, but overgenerous subsidies left NI taxpayers with a £490m bill.

The scheme’s failings led to the establishment of a public inquiry in January 2017.

Action Renewables, which helps businesses switch from fossil fuels to green energy, was involved in facilitating about a quarter of all applications to the RHI scheme.

In order to be eligible for the most lucrative subsidy, firms were better to install multiple smaller boilers instead of one large boiler, which would have been more energy efficient – but would not have provided as great a rate of return.

A similar scheme in Great Britain had cost controls included so that it could not be manipulated for profit: the Northern Ireland scheme did not.

On Wednesday, Mr Doran told the inquiry his organisation was aware of this flaw from the outset, but did not flag it with Stormont officials, in case it led to a delay in the introduction of RHI.

Cover-up denial

In early 2017, the Charity Commission began an investigation into Mr Doran’s organisation after an Irish News report pointed out that it had handled RHI applications, in spite of Mr Doran’s knowledge of the absence of cost controls.

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Timothy Johnston is a former special adviser to three first ministers: Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster

The commission closed the file after meeting the charity’s trustees, who said they did not know about the problems until December 2016.

But on Wednesday, the inquiry’s chairman, Sir Patrick Coghlin, said in light of Mr Doran’s admission that he knew about the flaws much earlier than he initially claimed, the “inescapable inference” was that Action Renewables was misleading the Charity Commission.

Mr Doran accepted that it seemed that way, but denied accusations of a “cover-up”.

The Charity Commission said it was now considering Mr Doran’s evidence at the inquiry.

It said it is an offence for charities to “knowingly or recklessly supply” false or misleading information.

On Thursday afternoon, the DUP’s chief executive is to return to the inquiry to finish giving evidence.

Timothy Johnston – who was an adviser to three Northern Ireland first ministers – appeared in front of the inquiry panel for the first time last week.

When problems with the RHI scheme became public knowledge in late 2016, he was advising then First Minister Arlene Foster.

Mr Johnston is one of the most high-profile witnesses to give evidence at the inquiry, as he was accused of being involved in a decision to delay cost controls to the ill-fated scheme; a decision that did major damage to the public purse.

‘Soften controls’

In summer 2015, officials in Stormont’s enterprise department, which had set up the scheme, had realised there were major budgetary problems and were looking at plans to bring it under control.

Ultimately, the proposed October introduction of cost controls was delayed by four weeks, meaning the tariffs did not come into force until November, allowing a huge spike in applications.

Mr Johnston has denied any knowledge of how that delay occurred, and has said he is “absolutely certain” he never instructed anyone to “delay, soften or reduce” cost controls.

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Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money could be wasted as a result of the RHI scheme

His evidence directly contradicts claims from Timothy Cairns, a former adviser to ex-DUP Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell, who said he was told by Mr Johnston in June 2015, to work with another adviser, Andrew Crawford, to find an alternative or to seek the latest date possible for implementing cost controls,

Mr Johnston said he had only “suggested as a practical, sensible thing to do” that Mr Cairns should refer to Mr Crawford – his predecessor as the ministerial adviser in the enterprise department – on general matters he needed help with.

Mr Johnston has also faced questions from the panel about how special advisers were appointed within the DUP and the relationship they had with ministers; claims of a “hierarchy” of advisers within the party and about that key period of summer 2015 when cost controls were being considered.

He has consistently denied any involvement in attempting to frustrate plans to close or keep the flawed scheme open.

The former chair of Stormont’s enterprise committee, SDLP assembly member Patsy McGlone, also appeared at the inquiry on Thursday to give more evidence.

‘Meetings at Moy Park’

He said members were kept in the dark by officials about huge problems with the scheme, and they might have been better informed had they held their meetings “at Moy Park”.

Mr McGlone was in charge of the enterprise committee, which was tasked with scrutinising the enterprise department – it held responsibility for the RHI scheme.

He said civil servants were never forthcoming about the problems in the scheme, even as they were drafting emergency changes to it.

“It appears that others outside the assembly were much better informed than elected officials were,” he said.

“Perhaps we should have had our meetings at Moy Park.”

That refers to evidence already heard by the inquiry that the poultry giant – whose suppliers made up the majority of RHI claimants – was getting regular updates from departmental officials about impending changes.

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Patsy McGlone chaired Stormont’s enterprise scrutiny committee, which did not spot that the enterprise department had failed to spot critical flaws in the RHI scheme

It was also being kept informed by former DUP special adviser, Andrew Crawford.

Mr McGlone told the inquiry that when he asked about the need for major changes to the scheme in November 2015, he was told there were a few “procedural, financial and legal issues to tidy up”.

At that stage, the department was frantically trying to bring the scheme’s major overspend under control.

Mr McGlone said the sense his committee got from everything it had been told, was that there was “nothing to worry about”.

Later, Mr McGlone conceded that with hindsight, the committee could have done “much, much more” in holding the enterprise department to account.

Inquiry counsel David Scoffield asked if he felt the committee had provided a “sufficiently effective oversight of the department”.

Mr McGlone said on reflection it could have done more, but said his view was “heavily qualified and tainted with a degree of cynicism”.

‘Paddling in disturbance’

He said that was because even when departmental officials gave the committee details of plans to introduce much-needed cost controls in autumn 2015, there was “no sense of urgency” communicated to the committee.

Mr McGlone said the picture being presented by the department was that “everything was calm above water, and everything was padding in disturbance beneath the water”.

Funding issues should have been brought to the committee’s attention much sooner, he added.

“Even if we had asked for more information, would that have been presented to us in a fulsome, proper and professional way?” he said.

“When I asked about the urgency of the situation in 2015, it was a fairly blasé response I got.”

He said the enterprise committee only had elected representatives and four staff members, in comparison to “400 at the department”, and said it appeared “they still can’t do the job properly”.

Extra resources would be of benefit to the committee to provide further scrutiny, he added.

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