NICS sets up project delivery profession after cash-for-ash scandal

Finance minister details response to public inquiry recommendations into £490m blunder
Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

08 Oct 2021

Eighteen months after a damning report into failings in the Northern Ireland Civil Service that led to the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, the Executive has set out how it is driving change across departments.

Measures include the creation of a project delivery profession, a new “people strategy” to build capacity and capability across the NICS, cross-department reviews of risk management and whistleblowing, and the revision of codes of conduct for ministers and special advisers.

Nicknamed “cash for ash”, the RHI programme 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.

The inquiry into the scandal, chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin, said officials at the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment failed to properly understand the scheme’s incentives and did not include budget controls that were a feature of a UK government version.

Coghlin’s 656-page report also found that an NICS policy of “deploying generalist civil servants” who did not have core knowledge of the energy industry exacerbated the problems with the scheme. 

In a progress report yesterday, Northern Ireland finance minister Conor Murphy said a “substantial amount” of work had now been carried out in response to the inquiry’s 44 recommendations for change.

He said the new project delivery profession would improve the management of complex projects within the civil service but cautioned that boosting governance would be a “continuous” process.

“Changing policies won’t in itself fully address the flaws that gave rise to the RHI scheme,” Murphy said.

“There also needs to be a change of culture within government and that requires leadership from ministers, senior civil servants and special advisers.”

His written ministerial statement accompanying the Northern Ireland Executive’s 58-page report on its work in response to the inquiry said the permanent secretaries of Northern Ireland’s eight main departments had a particularly important role to play.

The Northern Ireland Executive has committed to give an annual report on its work to implement the RHI Inquiry’s recommendations.

Yesterday’s report said disciplinary action in relation to the conduct of individual civil servants in the scandal was a separate process that had been led by interim NICS head Jenny Pyper. The new permanent NICS head, Jayne Brady, took up her role last month.

Last week, members of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Finance Committee heard that the conduct of 14 civil servants had been reviewed after an external panel scrutinised the RHI Inquiry report.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that the session had been told that so far, one official had received a written warning.

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