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Nesbitt urges Foster to consider position over botched renewable energy scheme

By Claire Williamson

First Minister Arlene Foster has been urged to consider her position following more revelations over Northern Ireland's expensively botched renewable energy scheme.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI, now the Department for the Economy) designed the scheme and appointed Government utility regulator Ofgem to administer it at a cost of £1.5m. The scheme has left Stormont facing a bill of hundreds of millions of pounds.The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people away from fossil fuels, but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.

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It encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.

But unlike in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland no cap was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to boiler size and the hours operated.

Effectively, this enabled a business to burn unnecessary heat 24/7 just to make money.

BBC Spotlight on Tuesday night revealed a whistleblower sent an email warning of serious flaws around the RHI - which was ignored by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

At the time Mrs Foster was the department minister.

However the email's warnings were not acted on and the scheme continued.

Mrs Foster has not commented on whether she made any effort to follow up on the whistleblower's claims.

Thousands signed up to the RHI - a deluge that ultimately forced its closure, but not before Stormont had been left exposed to a huge overspend.

It closed early in 2016.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has called for Mrs Foster to consider her position.

However economy minister Simon Hamilton has said the DUP leader dealt with the issue "entirely appropriately".

Mr Hamilton told the BBC it was "very, very unfair" to claim Mrs Foster had done nothing over the claims.

He said: "They were certainly not ignored.

"If you look at the evidence of the now permanent secretary for the Department of the Economy (formerly DETI) to the Public Accounts Committee on 9 November, he said that Arlene Foster handled the issue of the whistleblower entirely appropriately by taking that on board and by passing that on officials.

"Which is exactly what any minister, anybody in public life should do when somebody comes forward with serious allegations."

Calling for Mrs Foster to consider her position UUP leader Mike Nesbitt called it a "scandal".

He said: "The mismanagement of the Renewable Heat Incentive and consequent squandering of hundreds of millions of pounds is another scandal, up there with Nama and the Social Investment Fund.

“This happened on Arlene Foster’s watch in the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. To date, her only defence is that she cannot be across ‘every jot and tittle’ of her Department’s operations, but this is no jot or tittle.

“This is the biggest financial foul-up in the history of the country. We will be paying for this for the next 20 years so there are children not yet born who will become mothers and fathers before this debt is paid off.

“What is now in the public domain proves hundreds of millions of pounds were wasted needlessly, the Department was dysfunctional, unaware of the rules, and hapless in seeking solutions.

“This is a scandal prone Executive and on this occasion, it comes to a fundamental tenet of democratic government called ministerial accountability. If Arlene Foster believes in it, she must consider her position.”

Mr Hamilton said Mr Nesbitt's resignation call was "stuntery".

"I think that Mike, and some others, are more transfixed with the politics of this and are not concerned, don't give two hoots quite frankly, in terms of the implication on the public purse.

"That's what my focus is on, that's what Arlene's focus is on, not some of the stuntery that others will try to perform over the coming days."

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