Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: 'Better to come clean now' - Jim Wells urges MLAs to reveal links to energy scheme

By Noel McAdam

Former Health Minister Jim Wells has urged MLAs with connections to the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) to come forward.

The DUP Assemblyman was speaking after revealing that four family members have benefited from Stormont's botched multi-million renewable heating scheme.

It is the latest in a barrage of revelations connected to the scheme, which is now to be the subject of a public inquiry following an Assembly debate tomorrow.

South Down MLA Mr Wells went public, he said, within 24 hours of being told his relatives - including a brother - had installed wood pellet boilers. The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at over £1 billion over the next 20 years.

The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.

The relatives - whom he insisted did not want their names to be revealed - are all chicken farmers, and rear poultry for Moy Park in Dungannon.

Mr Wells said he had received the information from a relative and had no personal financial interest in any of the businesses.

"My brother installed one boiler in September/October 2015 to heat his broiler shed," he said.

"In August 2014, my two cousins and the husband of a third cousin installed a combined total of eight boilers at three separate farms to heat their sheds.

"All of these farmers have been involved in poultry rearing for well over a decade and the wood pellet burners replaced existing heating systems.

"I have no financial interest whatsoever in any of these businesses but I believe that it was important that I make this information public as soon as I became aware of it," he explained.

Mr Wells said he had only learned of the family links on Friday after the family members realised "if they didn't tell me and it came out, I would be in a difficult position".

He added: "Now it may be there are other MLAs out there who don't know that their relatives are in the scheme.

"Are their relatives extremely reluctant for this to be referred to publicly? You can never go wrong by telling everything you know as quickly as you hear it.

"Frankly, if you delay and it then comes out, people will then ask why did you hold back?"

Mr Wells' revelation came after a DUP special advisor, Dr Andrew Crawford, resigned after being named by a senior civil servant at the Public Accounts Committee as being suspected of wanting to keep the scheme running.

Dr Crawford said his resignation was an "appropriate" response to the allegations against him, claiming he did not want to be a "distraction". But he insisted the public inquiry would prove he "acted with complete integrity".

A second DUP special advisor, John Robinson, also stood aside from any duties related to RHI when it emerged his father-in-law runs two boilers. Mr Robinson said he wanted to avoid a perception of conflict of interest.

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey yesterday asked Economy Minister Simon Hamilton to state when he became aware that his special advisor's father-in-law was in the RHI scheme - and urged him to publish a full timeline on the RHI scheme as well as a full list of beneficiaries. "The revelations only serve to further undermine public confidence in the political institutions," Mr Maskey said.

"Questions now arise about what exactly Simon Hamilton knew about this and when he was made aware of it.

"We need to see the publication of the full list of beneficiaries, with dates of when they joined the scheme, in order to address concerns around any potential conflicts of interest in relation to the scheme," he added.

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