Progress with NICS cash-for-ash reforms dubbed ‘disappointing’

Fewer than half of scandal inquiry’s recommendations have been implemented in full, says audit chief
Stormont. Photo: Iker Merodio/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Jim Dunton

23 Mar 2022

Northern Ireland’s auditor general has voiced disappointment at the pace of progress being made with implementation of reforms proposed by the public inquiry into the cash-for-ash scandal.

Two years on from the conclusion of the inquiry into the flawed programme – formally known as the Renewable Heat Initiative – just 18 of its 44 recommendations have been implemented in full, according to Kieran Donnelly, head of  the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

The RHI was set up in 2012 to increase uptake of renewable heat energy. But perverse incentives in the scheme caused it to rack up a £490m subsidy bill and fallout from the scandal led to the collapse of power sharing at Stormont in 2017.

All but two of the inquiry’s recommendations related to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. They included measures such as setting up a new project-delivery profession in the NICS and implementing reforms designed  to help whistle-blowers raise concerns.

Donnelly’s report said that while three-quarters of the recommendations had either been implemented or had arrangements in place for them to be implemented shortly, not enough action had been taken in relation to 10 of the inquiry panel’s recommendations.

The report said limited progress had been made to date with professional-skills related recommendations and those related to whistle-blowing.

Donnelly acknowledged  good progress had been made in relation to improvements in governance and financial controls, as well as those recommendations relating to ministers and special advisers.

But he said there was clearly more work be done and that the NICS could not rest on its laurels.

“Given that it is now two years since the inquiry reported it is disappointing that there are only 18 recommendations that we can regard as fully implemented,” he said.

“I look forward to seeing further progress on the implementation of the remainder in the near future.

“The Inquiry showed it is not enough to simply have rules and policies in place but rather it is much more important to have the proper culture to ensure that the intention of the rules are followed.

“Substantial and meaningful change is required, not mere tick box improvements. Future reports by my office will continue to look for real improvements based on the implementation of these recommendations.”

Disciplinary processes against individual staff

Fourteen civil servants were assessed for potential breaches of the NICS standards of conduct in relation to the RHI scandal.

A panel of three experienced former civil servants from across the UK and Ireland recommended charges of misconduct for 11 individuals and no action against the other three. Ultimately, just one individual received a written warning for misconduct.

Donnelly said the seriousness of the issues that were discussed during the RHI Inquiry would have led most people to believe that significant disciplinary consequences would have arisen from it.

“In that context it seems surprising in that only one individual has received a written warning for misconduct” he said.

“However, based on my review, I am satisfied that the disciplinary process appears to have been followed properly. It is important that this experience is closely considered to identify any lessons that can be learned and built into the ongoing review of NICS disciplinary processes.”

The NICS has committed to provide annual progress reports on the implementation of the RHI inquiry’s recommendations.

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