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Civil Service chiefs 'didn't oppose scheme's extension'

By Noel McAdam

The DUP yesterday insisted that civil servants did not object to the two-week extension of the RHI scheme earlier this year.

The party said the extra time was needed because of fears that a lack of adequate notification could lead to legal challenges.

The development came after claims that officials from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the DUP attempted to put pressure on former Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell's department to extend the programme, which could cost taxpayers £400m.

On February 11 Mr Bell, who replaced Arlene Foster as Enterprise Minister, said he was extending the scheme until February 29. "I appreciate that closure presents difficulties for those who have invested in technology and are preparing for application," he said at the time.

On February 5 the Belfast Telegraph reported that Mr Bell intended to close the domestic and non-domestic RHI because there was no money left.

"It is with great reluctance that I have had to announce my intention to close both," he said.

"Both schemes have been very successful, with the non-domestic scheme seeing significant uptake during the last 12 months and more so in the run-up to the recent scheme changes.

"It is estimated that around 6% of Northern Ireland's heating needs are now provided through renewable technologies. The Executive's target to achieve 4% renewable heat has been exceeded. However, this increased demand means the budget for applications has been exhausted."

The DUP yesterday said that cost controls were introduced from November last year, and that civil servants expressed no objection to the extension "in light of the legal dangers".

"It should of course be noted that despite the extension of the scheme for a further two weeks, the Opposition parties nonetheless still voted against the closure," the party added.

However, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: "Arlene Foster had just become Finance Minister when permanent secretary Andrew McCormick was expressing concerns about RHI.

"It would be appropriate for the Finance Minister to be made aware of a scheme with such significant financial implications.

"If Mr McCormick was expressing concerns, it would have been to Jonathan Bell, Arlene Foster's colleague and successor. Are we to believe DUP ministers don't talk to each other?"

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