I was joined on BBC Talkback during the week by Professor Rick Wilford, who perhaps made the most important point of the whole Renewable Heat Incentive crisis – it is essential to distinguish between the Executive and the Legislature (Assembly).
We have not been inclined to do this properly in the past because the same parties have made up both. However, the distinction is essential.
The Executive consists of Ministers who, to quote the current First Minister, “decide”. The Ministers decide on policy programmes and individual policies, and on legislative priorities and individual laws and regulations. This is central to democracy, because Ministers are accountable to the electorate and thus responsible for the outcomes of what they “decide”.
The legislature, in the case of Northern Ireland, consists of MLAs, who “scrutinise”. They do this primarily through committees aligned to each Ministry, though also in plenary session. It would of course be impossible for MLAs to be across every detail, not least because even when they ask for that detail they are not always given it by Ministers who recognise they are accountable and may not wish to be too closely challenged. Realistically, the best MLAs can do is assess the broad policy direction of the Executive versus stated objectives, and then ask why stated objectives are not being met. That is why again it is for Ministers specifically, with all information open to them, that (again to quote the current First Minister) “detail matters”.
It is worth noting in this case that MLAs were told, from 2012, that the scheme had to be different in Northern Ireland due to consultants’ advice on the state of renewables in Northern Ireland; (implicitly) that any financial risk would be reviewed annually and met by the Treasury (explicitly they were told “parity would not be affected”, which in context has this meaning and was indeed what civil servants advising believed); and that the scheme was largely (actually 98%) the same. Notably, there were MLAs at this time raising concerns about the quality of general advice in such areas given the absence in NI of an independent Environmental Protection Agency (uniquely in the UK); and when one MLA (Steven Agnew) raised a specific concern in a Written Question about the exact nature of the incentive in September 2013 the Minister, frankly, fobbed him off in response. So actually MLAs did raise general and even specific concerns – they did their job as scrutinisers and continue to do so now (for example through the Public Accounts Committee).
Where it went wrong was at Ministerial level, the level at which the Minister looks at the detail and decides. The detail told the Minister that the removal of cost controls meant there was a perverse incentive, though this would be reviewed annually. The detail told the Minister that the funding was not in fact subject to Annually Managed Expenditure (the type to which “parity” is relevant) and any risk was therefore to be met from Northern Ireland’s devolved budget. And the detail told the Minister that her advice was in any case flawed, as it was not sufficiently independent (and subsequently not sufficiently regular, as she failed to ensure the annual reviews actually took place).
In other words, it is the Minister who needs to recognise that “detail matters” and the Minister who “decides”, and this Minister decided to implement a flawed scheme and fund it from the devolved budget excluding cost controls without reviewing it regularly. Thus it is the Minister alone who is to be held responsible for the consequences of ignoring the detail and making poor decisions.
The Executive is thus responsible for decisions such as moving a Department against the Business Case, continuing to train too many teachers in segregated institutions, overspending on the Social Investment Fund, announcing an Air Ambulance without sufficient medical staffing and so on (over and above this latest scandal and others) – financial waste which means cancer drugs go unfunded, further education courses are cut and crucial youth intervention programmes are slashed.
Ultimately who is to blame? Well, unfortunately, the electorate. It was the voters who returned this Executive. Those who want competent government can only hope they choose more carefully next time…
Wishing all readers, no matter how they voted or even if they didn’t, a very merry Christmas.