The head of Northern Ireland’s public spending watchdog has criticised civil servants for what he says is a poor grasp of how to handle public finances, and for failing to address problems in the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
The RHI scandal, which was partly to blame for the collapse of a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland in January 2017, showed a “massive change in behaviours” was needed in the civil service, Northern Ireland Audit Office comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly said.
“It is clear to me that value for money is not front and centre in the mindset of too many civil servants,” he told an independent inquiry into the scheme on Friday.
“Every public official should treat taxpayers’ money exactly the same as they treat their own money,” he added. “I think that needs to be ingrained in the mindset of a whole generation of civil servants.”
Friday’s session marked the 107th day of hearings in the inquiry into how RHI, which was set up in 2012 to increase uptake of renewable heat energy, was allowed to rack up a £490m subsidy bill.
The inquiry has heard the programme lacked proper cost controls, and that concerns had emerged on that it was being abused. It has emerged that some property owners were turning a profit by receiving payouts for heating buildings they had not heated previously.
Donnelly told the inquiry problems could have been dealt with sooner “if mistakes had been acknowledged” and if there had been better communication between government departments.
He also said he was “very annoyed” that notes were not taken in a number of important meetings about RHI. Earlier in the inquiry, civil servants had said minutes had not been taken because of fears they could be leaked to the media.
“This is something the civil service was traditionally good at, keeping the public record,“ he said.
He said the Northern Ireland civil service needed to go "back to basics" on administrative matters such as records and spending.
“As I have thought more and more about this particular case, I think we could make many recommendations about things like risk management and project management, all the rest of it,” he told the inquiry. “But unless there’s a step change in the behaviour, culture and leadership, we’re not going to make nearly enough progress.”
Michael Woods, head of internal audit at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who led an earlier investigation into the initiative, said there had been a lack of “openness, objectivity, honesty and leadership” in how RHI was dealt with.
Civil servants had failed to alert auditors to the fact that “there was a fire” over cost controls in the scheme, he said, adding that his investigation had shown there was “just no control” over public spending.
He said officials felt there was less risk involved in the project because it was funded by the Treasury and not the Stormont government. “You don’t just spend because the money’s there; you spend because it’s justified to spend it,” he said.
"To say I was frustrated during that audit would be an understatement," he said, referring to his 2016 investigation.