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DUP's Arlene Foster wanted to backdate RHI cash to 2010 before payouts even set

By Sean O'Driscoll

Arlene Foster wanted payments on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) backdated to 2010, more than 18 months before its costs were even decided, a transcript from the Assembly's committee on enterprise, trade and investment has shown.

The head of Mrs Foster's energy team told the committee that the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment wanted payments to people who installed wood pellet boilers to begin before her own department's analysis of the projected cost of the scheme had begun, and more than two years before the project was launched.

Mrs Foster said she wanted to do this "to give certainty to the market".

At that time it was believed Westminster would pay for the full cost of RHI.

The testimony was accepted as accurate and the minister's wishes were noted in the Assembly committee's report on renewable energy.

The DUP this week released an election leaflet on the debacle, saying that Mrs Foster's role in the scheme was "vindicated by an independent civil servant". But this claim has been strongly contested by the other Assembly parties.

Fiona Hepper, who was then head of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's renewable energy team, gave evidence before the enterprise committee in December 2010 and said that her department had published a research paper three months earlier that found there was a market demand for renewable heat across Northern Ireland.

She also recalled that Mrs Foster told the department's energy team that if the RHI scheme went ahead, she wanted its payments backdated to the publication of this report.

The study did not include any details of costs, saying only that there was a demand for renewable heat.

"She said that if the RHI went ahead, we would backdate the support to the date of the publication of that report, which as I said was in September 2010," Ms Hepper told the committee.

"All that was designed to give certainty to the market."

She also noted that Mrs Foster decided that after this report was published, "a Northern Ireland RHI would be the most appropriate form of support", and then ordered a detailed appraisal of how much the scheme would cost, including "the tariff levels we might set".

Ms Hepper's testimony was clear that Mrs Foster wanted payments to RHI recipients to begin before the tariff levels and pricing of the scheme had been decided.

It is included as an appendix to the committee's own report on renewable energy, published in January 2011.

This study noted that Mrs Foster wanted RHI payments backdated to September 2010, before the costing of the RHI had even begun.

The appraisal was eventually completed and its pricing ceilings were removed in early 2012 following a public consultation with farming groups and others who demanded greater payments.

The scheme was finally launched in November 2012, but Ms Foster's demand that the scheme be backdated was not included.

The DUP, the Department for the Economy and Ms Hepper have not yet responded to a request for comment.

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