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Arlene Foster could face watchdog grilling next week over botched RHI scheme

by noel mcadam

Arlene Foster is prepared to face the Assembly's spending watchdog over the cash for ash scheme - if invited.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is to convene a special meeting to consider whether to call the First Minister to give evidence over her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Under Assembly conventions, ministers do not usually appear before the PAC.

However, such is the fallout from the row PAC members are to discuss a proposal from the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan that Mrs Foster should give evidence.

The DUP has four members on the committee, but they could be outvoted if the three Sinn Fein, two Ulster Unionist and sole SDLP and Alliance members join forces.

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said Mrs Foster was "absolutely right to say she will go in front of the relevant committees and give answers".

Mrs Foster previously indicated she believed the economy committee was the more relevant body for ministerial appearances, but the DUP said yesterday the First Minister "wants to be as helpful as possible".

The PAC is to meet tomorrow to consider Mr McCrossan's request. If passed, Mrs Foster could appear next week.

In a separate development yesterday, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt claimed his party had uncovered proof that Mrs Foster, while Enterprise Minister, was responsible for the decision that could cost up to £400m.

He said that at a meeting of the then enterprise, trade and investment committee an official was questioned about why a cap on payments present in England was not applied here.

This, Mr Nesbitt added, could have limited the amount of public cash available.

At the meeting on February 9 this year the official said that degression - where the amount of subsidy paid changes in response to demand - was discussed.

He added: "The minister decided that the priority should be on the introduction of the domestic RHI scheme."

Mr Nesbitt said: "Here for the first time is proof that Mrs Foster's fingerprints are on the decision-making process that has resulted in the biggest financial scandal in the history of Northern Ireland.

"It is time Mrs Foster stopped blaming others and embraced the age-old principle of ministerial responsibility.

"She was not only aware of what was happening, she was making it happen through a series of policy choices that resulted in the fatally-flawed RHI.

"Remember, this was all totally unnecessary. Mrs Foster had the option to adopt the successful GB model, which had the checks and balances that would have made this scandal impossible. So now there is a smoking gun, the public will ask what is more important to Mrs Foster - her job or the reputation of the devolved institutions? We will know soon enough."

But Mr Stalford said the UUP leader was "more interested in chasing headlines" than facts.

"The comments Mr Nesbitt refers to were made at a committee meeting over 10 months ago," the DUP man added.

"Notably, a few short weeks after these 'smoking gun' comments were made, Mike Nesbitt and his colleagues voted against the closure of the renewable heat scheme.

"That was despite being told that opposing its closure would be to support an open-ended commitment to fund renewable heat, no matter what the cost.

"Perhaps Mike Nesbitt is so obsessed with a smoking gun because he hopes it will obscure his party's record."

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