Questions over Ofgem transparency in heat scheme inquiry

Questions have been raised over the “approach to transparency” of Northern Ireland’s gas and electricity regulator.

A public inquiry into a botched green energy scheme, which sparked political chaos in the region after its costs spiralled, has been examining the handling of an application from a Democratic Unionist special adviser.

Ofgem received anonymous allegations of fraud in the application by Stephen Brimstone for the Renewable Heat Incentive.

Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry
Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry

The RHI scheme, designed to encourage businesses to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, hit the headlines in 2016 after it ended up paying out more than it cost to fuel the burners – earning it the nickname “Cash for Ash”.

The result was an anticipated massive overspend, falling to the Northern Irish taxpayer to pick up.

Mr Brimstone applied for the scheme after installing a new biomass boiler in a shed next to his home which provided heat to both buildings.

RHI public inquiry
RHI public inquiry

A number of anonymous complaints were made about the installation, making allegations of fraud.

Ofgem audited Mr Brimstone’s RHI boiler and concluded he joined the scheme legitimately.

However the inquiry heard on Wednesday that Ofgem did not provide all the documentation it held about Mr Brimstone’s application to the Police Service of Northern Ireland when it launched an investigation into allegations of fraud.

Ofgem lawyer John Jackson told the inquiry in a written witness statement that there was “nothing in the documents, or the conclusions that they reached, that would’ve assisted the police in a criminal prosecution of Stephen Brimstone”.

No crime was detected by police during its investigation.

Junior Counsel for the RHI Inquiry Joseph Aiken
Junior Counsel for the RHI Inquiry Joseph Aiken

Junior counsel to the inquiry Joseph Aiken said it is “difficult” to look at the Data Protection Act as intended to “create some sort of guessing game… for law enforcement agencies trying to prevent or detect crime”.

He put to the panel: “The inquiry may want to consider whether that’s an illustration of wider cultural issue about Ofgem’s approach to transparency and information sharing.”

The RHI Inquiry led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin will make findings at a later date.

On Wednesday the inquiry returned to Stormont where Mr Aiken said closing oral submissions will be heard over three days.

RHI Inquiry has started its scheduled three days of oral final submissions. Amongst evidence heard today will include the investigation into former DUP Spad Stephen Brimstone's boiler

— Rebecca Black (@RBlackPA) December 12, 2018

These include from the three core participants – the Department for the Economy, Department of Finance and Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem).

Oral submissions will also be heard from some of the 27 individuals and organisations who were granted enhanced participatory rights.

Among those are Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster, former Democratic Unionist minister Jonathan Bell, a number of the party’s special advisers and some senior civil servants.

The inquiry will hear Ofgem’s closing statement on Wednesday afternoon.