Belfast Telegraph

Jonathan Bell gets DUP's back up again with RHI fresh claims

By Noel McAdam

The DUP has accused its former Enterprise Minister of "mud-slinging" after he claimed in the Assembly that two senior party advisers had "extensive interests in the poultry industry", which benefited from the controversial RHI scheme.

Jonathan Bell, who has been suspended by the party, dropped new bombshell claims in the chamber yesterday as a full debate on the botched scheme was postponed for a week.

The DUP said: "These are outrageous, untrue and unfounded allegations and nothing short of mud-slinging." Speaking under parliamentary privilege, Mr Bell claimed DUP advisers John Robinson and Andrew Crawford issued instructions to try to avoid former First Minister Arlene Foster being called to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

He also alleged that during his time as Enterprise Minister, his then adviser Timothy Cairns told him he "will not be allowed to reduce the tariff on the scheme".

That was because DUP advisers Timothy Johnston and Mr Robinson "have such extensive interests in the poultry industry".

Mr Bell said he has "kept the records in many, many formats", and his party has suspended him for "telling the truth".

But Mr Johnston, special adviser to Mrs Foster, said: "I have no family connections to the poultry industry and I have no connection to the RHI scheme. These are unsubstantiated allegations. I have two brothers-in-law in the poultry industry. They have no connection to RHI."

Mr Robinson, special adviser to Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, said: "I have no personal interest in the poultry industry. Two of my brothers are poultry farmers but they have no connections to RHI."

Mr Crawford, former special adviser in the Department of Finance, said his brother is the director of a company that successfully applied to the RHI scheme. He said: "I never sought to keep the RHI scheme open at the original higher tariff against the wishes of the minister."

In a statement, the DUP described the allegations as "unsubstantiated".

It added: "Timothy Johnston has no interests whatsoever in the poultry industry and does not benefit or have any family members who applied to or benefit from RHI.

"John Robinson has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm have chicken houses but are not part of the RHI scheme and never have been recipients or applicants."

The latest claims came as the DUP moved to lower the temperature on RHI, which sparked the crisis leading to the snap election.

Proposals to offset the envisaged expenditure of up to £490 million over the next 20 years were set out to the scrutiny committee that monitors Mr Hamilton's department yesterday.

But the attempt to defuse the row came too late to prevent an election.

The committee was told there are "quite a large proportion" of beneficiaries from the RHI scheme "who are getting a very high rate of return" - a profit level put at 12%.

Mr Hamilton and his departmental permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick set out their plan to mitigate the overspend, which they said would entail bringing in a tiered system of tariffs at the start of the next financial year in April.

The minister said the proposal is for a one-year period "to turn off the tap" in expenditure and to allow for a public consultation.

Asked about the "legitimate expectations" of those taking part in the scheme, Mr Hamilton said "no one should be in expectation of a super return".

But he also admitted that "as of now" his proposals did not have approval of Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir, who has insisted the plan must be rigorously investigated.

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