What is the RHI Inquiry about?
The RHI Inquiry has been established to investigate a particular government scheme – the non domestic renewable heat incentive scheme – which was set up to assist in complying with obligations imposed by the law of the European Union in the area of renewable energy. The Northern Ireland scheme, which has similarities to a scheme in Great Britain, was devised and implemented by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (now the Department for the Economy).
The scheme’s purpose was to provide a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy. However, how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern. The RHI Inquiry will investigate the circumstances surrounding this scheme.
Who set up the RHI Inquiry?
The RHI Inquiry was set up in January 2017 by the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance. He made a statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly about the RHI Inquiry on 24 January 2017. This included publishing the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.
Who is chairing the RHI Inquiry?
The RHI Inquiry is chaired by a recently retired judge of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, the Right Honourable Sir Patrick Coghlin.
How was the Chair appointed?
This appointment was made by the Minister of Finance.
Who sits on the RHI Inquiry’s Panel?
The Inquiry Panel presently consists of the Rt Hon Sir Patrick Coghlin and Dame Una O’Brien. Dame Una was a former Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health in London. Consideration may be given in due course to the appointment of a third Panel member. The Inquiry has also appointed Dr. Keith MacLean OBE, someone with extensive experience in the energy industry, as an assessor. The Panel may also seek assistance from expert witnesses.
Who appointed the Inquiry’s Panel member?
The Panel Member was appointed by the Minister of Finance in consultation with the Chair of the Inquiry.
What legislation underpins the RHI Inquiry?
The RHI Inquiry has been set up under the Inquiries Act 2005 (referred to here as ‘the 2005 Act’). While that is a United Kingdom wide piece of legislation, it makes specific provision for public inquiries to be set up by Ministers of the devolved institutions, such as Northern Ireland Ministers.
Section 41 of the 2005 Act provides power for statutory rules to be made to assist the operation of public inquiries. While such rules have been made in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, specific Northern Ireland rules have not yet been made under the 2005 Act. However, this will not be an impediment to the RHI Inquiry because section 17 of the 2005 Act gives the Chairman the power to determine the procedure and conduct of the RHI Inquiry.
Why has the RHI Inquiry issued various protocols on its website?
Most inquiries will issue protocols to assist the public, and those involved before the inquiry, to understand how they will operate. They are guides that explain the procedures that the inquiry has adopted to conduct its work. They are subject to change.
The RHI Inquiry has so far published:
- A Procedural Protocol. This sets out a summary of the way in which the Inquiry intends to gather its evidence, conduct its oral hearings, and prepare its report.
- A Costs Protocol. This addresses how the Inquiry will deal with applications to it for public funds to be provided in respect of expenses and legal representation before the Inquiry. The Inquiry must pre-approve any use of public funds.
- A Disclosure Protocol. This addresses a particular requirement in the Terms of Reference and explains how the Inquiry will make its work as accessible as possible.
What are the RHI Inquiry’s Terms of Reference?
All public inquiries have Terms of Reference. The Terms of Reference set the parameters of what the inquiry must investigate. View the RHI Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.
A public inquiry has to carry out the tasks required by its Terms of Reference. It cannot go outside them, or beyond them. That being said, it is up to every public inquiry to interpret its own Terms of Reference, and then to explain to the public what the Inquiry considers is required of it. This Inquiry will publish further information on this issue in due course.
However, it will be apparent that the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry are very widely drawn. The Ministerial Statement of 24 January 2017 explained that this was “in order to give latitude to the Inquiry Chair in his work”.
Will the RHI Inquiry find anyone guilty?
The RHI Inquiry, like all public inquiries, is not a trial of any particular body or individual. Section 2 of the 2005 Act specifically says that: “An inquiry panel is not to rule on, and has no power to determine, any person's civil or criminal liability.”
The RHI Inquiry will establish the facts surrounding the scheme it has been tasked to investigate. It will do so in an inquisitorial way through obtaining documents, witness statements, and holding oral hearings. The oral hearings will be open to the public. Where the Inquiry feels it should criticise individuals or organisations, because of things they did or did not do, it will do so in its report.
If the RHI Inquiry discovers behaviour that it regards as potentially criminal in nature, then it will refer those matters to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has responsibility for the investigation of crime.
What is the timeframe for completion of the RHI Inquiry?
Public inquiries have a duty to carry out their work fairly and thoroughly, and to produce a reliable evidence-based report of their findings. Every public inquiry has a series of stages that must be gone through. They include:
- setting up the inquiry;
- gathering the relevant evidence;
- considering it;
- providing material to those who need to be asked questions about it;
- questioning the relevant individuals about the evidence gathered;
- giving relevant individuals an opportunity to explain relevant events and an appropriate opportunity to make representations where they may be subject to criticism;
- reflecting on all the evidence gathered, including evidence provided at oral hearings;
- drafting a report; and
- finally, publishing its report.
It will be obvious that a public inquiry therefore takes time. At this early stage of the Inquiry it is simply not possible to give a precise timescale as to how long it will take. At present the RHI Inquiry considers it will take longer than 6 months to report.
Where will the public hearings take place?
The RHI Inquiry will hold its public hearings in the Senate Chamber of Parliament Buildings, Stormont.
The Inquiry looked at a series of available hearing venues and this was the most suitable, bearing in mind the Inquiry’s obligation to keep costs to a minimum. The Senate Chamber is capable of being adapted to facilitate the layout required by the Inquiry. It has a substantial public gallery. It also has excellent media facilities already in place and can provide the necessary independent and private space for use by the Inquiry.
The Inquiry recognises that the Stormont Estate may be viewed as the seat of government, and therefore associated with many politicians and officials, some of whom are likely to fall within the ambit of the Inquiry’s investigation. The Inquiry does not consider this to be an impediment to it making use of the Senate Chamber by arrangement with the Assembly Commission. The Inquiry considers that this venue is also likely to add considerable efficiency to its work.
When will the oral hearings take place?
The oral hearings of a public inquiry are normally the culmination of an inquiry’s investigative work, rather than its commencement. The RHI Inquiry has much investigative work to do before it will be in a position to hold substantive oral hearings.
The Inquiry does intend to hold an initial preliminary procedural hearing in due course at which further information on the work and timescales of the Inquiry will be provided. Further information will be available in relation to this preliminary hearing when the arrangements for it have been settled.
When will a schedule of who is giving evidence be provided?
At the time of the oral hearings the RHI Inquiry will issue a weekly timetable setting out who will be giving evidence in that week. A timetable for each week will be published on this website approximately one week in advance of the relevant hearing week.
Will the hearings be held in public or closed session?
It is intended that all of the RHI hearings will be held in public session. In exceptional circumstances the Chair may direct that a closed session be held where he considers that to be unavoidable.
What is a closed session?
Sometimes, for legal reasons, it may be necessary for evidence to be heard in a closed session. This means that only legal representatives and the Chair and Panel members may be present when a witness is giving evidence.
Will the hearings be broadcast live?
Yes. It is proposed that as far as possible the oral hearings will be broadcast live.
Where can I view the live broadcast?
A web-link will be provided on the Inquiry’s website, in due course, to enable the public to watch the broadcasts live.
Can I make a request to the Inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act?
No. A public inquiry is exempt from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by virtue of section 32 of that Act. The Inquiry will seek, however, to conduct its business as openly and transparently as possible.
Who are the key staff?
Aside from the Chair of the Inquiry and the other Panel member, the key staff are:
- David Scoffield QC, Senior Counsel to the Inquiry;
- Joseph Aiken and Donal Lunny, Junior Counsel to the Inquiry;
- Patrick Butler, Inquiry Solicitor; and
- Andrew Browne, Inquiry Secretary.
How many staff are there in the Inquiry team?
Initially 18 posts have been created for administrative and legal staff to support the Panel. This requirement will be kept under review.
How many are in the RHI Inquiry legal team?
Senior Counsel is supported by two Junior Counsel and the Inquiry Solicitor is in the process of appointing two other solicitors. Other legal support staff will follow.
Who appointed the Inquiry’s legal team?
Counsel were appointed by the Chair of the Inquiry. He and the Departmental Solicitor’s Office were involved in appointing the Inquiry Solicitor, who will be responsible, in consultation with the Chair, for further legal appointments to the Inquiry.
How were the secretariat staff selected?
The majority of administrative staff are on loan from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, selected on the basis of their experience of working in other public inquiries.
What are the Inquiry’s powers?
The RHI Inquiry has all the powers provided by the Inquiries Act 2005. The Chair of the Inquiry can, for instance, compel a person to provide evidence or produce documents. Failure to comply with the requirements of the Inquiry can amount to a criminal offence or a civil contempt of court.
Is the Inquiry independent of Government departments?
Yes. The Inquiry is completely independent of Government departments.
If I have information that I believe will be of assistance to the Inquiry, what should I do?
If you have information that you believe may be of assistance to the Inquiry, you should contact the Inquiry’s Solicitor, Patrick Butler, on the RHI’s main office telephone number 028 90408833. Alternatively, you can send an email to the RHI Inquiry’s office mailbox at email@example.com
What is the RHI Inquiry’s email address?
The RHI Inquiry’s email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is the approximate total cost of the RHI Inquiry?
A business case has been prepared for the Inquiry but at this early stage a number of variables may yet impact on the estimated budget. Every effort is being made by the Inquiry to keep costs down, without compromising the work of the Inquiry. As is normal practice, all costs of the Inquiry will be disclosed and accounted for when the Inquiry concludes.
How can the media obtain information about the work of the Inquiry?
The RHI Inquiry recognises the intense public interest in its work. When the Inquiry has something to say, it will do so: either in the form of a press release, a publication on this website or a public statement at a convened oral hearing. The Inquiry Panel and members of the Inquiry team will not be available for interview; they are focused on the detailed investigation they must conduct. For the present, any press queries should be directed to Paula Dawson, who is a deputy to the Inquiry Secretary, by email at email@example.com or by telephone on 028 90408940.
Who do I contact if I have a query or complaint?
If you have a query or complaint you should contact the RHI Inquiry’s main office on telephone number 028 90408833 or you can send an email to the RHI Inquiry’s office mailbox: firstname.lastname@example.org A complaint should be marked for the attention of the Inquiry Secretary.