Belfast Telegraph

RHI: DUP plan to recoup 'cash for ash' money faces legal hurdles

First Minister warned emergency legislation to tackle ‘cash for ash’ scandal must not leave Executive open to litigation as Nesbitt reiterates his call for her to resign

By Suzanne Breen

TUV leader Jim Allister has said that any emergency legislation that the DUP may introduce in the Assembly next week to scrape back the £500m lost in the 'cash for ash' scandal will have to be "litigation proof".

Mr Allister was speaking as it was revealed that farmers who installed boilers under the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme could take legal action if the Executive stops their payments.

The TUV leader last night said: "I will be intrigued to see what proposals DUP Economy Minister Simon Hamilton brings before the Assembly next week.

"Any emergency legislation will have to pass the test of being litigation proof. It will be argued that any attempt at back-pedalling now is a clear breach of contract.

"Claimants will point to the letters Arlene Foster wrote to the banks guaranteeing the scheme. The DUP are suddenly rushing to take action now when for two years they have been happy to brush the RHI scandal under the carpet."

Mr Allister said it was "damning" that the DUP was finally trying to introduce tiered payments more than three years after having been advised to do so.

The SDLP and Alliance are also deeply sceptical of the viability of the legislation which Simon Hamilton has said could reduce the £500m overspend to "zero".

Mr Hamilton is working on emergency proposals which the DUP hopes to bring before a recalled Assembly next week.

Sinn Fein Finance Minister, Mairtin O Muilleoir, said he was "bemused" that the DUP had announced the plan in the media while not contacting him.

Mr Hamilton plans to seek Sinn Fein's support for the legislation. He said: "I hope we would be able to get from my department a paper to the Executive in the next number of days for approval. It would be my hope then that we might bring that to the Assembly as early as next week."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that her party would be "carefully scrutinising" the DUP legislation.

"While any credible attempt to save £500m of taxpayers' money is welcome, our fear is that these proposals are a smokescreen to save Arlene Foster's political career and the DUP's ever dwindling credibility," she said.

Mrs Long warned that any proposals would have to meet the legal test in court.

"RHI boiler owners have formed a group to defend their interests and are sure to resist attempts to curtail their payments through a class action or individual cases," she said.

"While we must explore every avenue to recoup the money that the DUP has lost, we must not waste more public money paying lawyers to pursue proposals that have no hope of success."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said: "If the DUP had a magic wand to wave to absolve public liability, they would have done so long before now.

"I can't see how they will restore these funds to the public purse without breaking contracts. This sounds more like a face - and career - saving gesture than a genuine attempt to save money."

Mr O Muilleoir last night expressed concerns. He said: "I'm alert to the dangers of allowing the person who was the architect of the RHI scheme - the DUP leader - to come up with a solution to this debacle. That is why I will ensure my officials rigorously test any plan which comes from the DUP."

Mrs Foster and DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds held talks with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness and Health Minister Michelle O'Neill yesterday.

Mr McGuiness repeated his call for Mrs Foster to step aside pending a preliminary report of an independent investigation into the RHI scandal. But the First Minister insisted that she won't be standing down.

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