Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: MLAs vote to call Arlene Foster to give evidence on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme amid angry exchanges

Members of a Stormont committee clashed in angry exchanges after voting to call Arlene Foster before them to give evidence on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Mr Bell has vowed to "tell the truth" on Nolan Live tonight over the £400m scandal saying the revelations will end his career.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) agreed unanimously to call Mrs Foster and two DUP colleagues - former economy minister Jonathan Bell and former finance minister Sammy Wilson - and the former SDLP chair of the Assembly's economy committee Patsy McGlone.

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Under Assembly conventions, current and former ministers do not usually give evidence to the PAC.

The committee's work is more focused on value for money than policy decisions, so officials rather than politicians are called to give evidence.

Such has been the level of contention around the Renewable Heat Incentive that members have departed with convention and requested the four politicians appear before them.

The decisions were taken during a 75-minute behind-closed-doors hearing of a specially convened committee hearing at Parliament Buildings, Belfast.

Shortly after the outcome was revealed in public session, the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan and DUP's Trevor Clarke were involved in an acrimonious spat.

Noting that Mrs Foster was giving evidence in relation to her past role as economy minister, Mr McCrossan said it was important her involvement as first minister was also examined.

Mr Clarke responded: "It's not hard to see that politics is being played in terms of the victimisation against one individual.

"It's unfortunate that some members want to play politics with it. It's unfortunate some members have leaked papers."

After committee chair Robin Swann said there was no confirmation any papers had been leaked, Mr McCrossan responded.

"I am not politicking," he said.

"When it comes to the waste of public money to the extent of £400 million, I think it is ridiculous that any member accuse me of politicking.

"It's about getting answers and accountability.

"This is about public money - £400 million when we can't pay teachers 1% (of a pay rise).

"That's the reality people are very angry about."

Mr Clarke said Mrs Foster was on the public record saying she was willing to appear before the PAC.

"She's nothing to hide," he said.

"I know and I trust that Arlene will be forthright in everything that she brings forth to the committee."

He then accused Mr McCrossan of not taking his job on the committee seriously and questioned his attendance rate.

The SDLP man replied in robust terms.

"This is about the DUP's misconduct in this whole thing, the cover up of the thing," he claimed.

"This is not about me."

Mr Swann intervened as the men trading accusations.

"Right gentlemen, that's enough - the two of you - that's enough," he said.

Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded

November 2012 - Arlene Foster, then Enterprise Minister, announces the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme for businesses.

October 2013 - A whistleblower emails Mrs Foster to express concerns over the scheme.

Autumn 2013 - The woman is referred by Mrs Foster to officials from her Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and she urges them to address the problems.

May 2014 - The whistleblower emails again, after the civil servants appear to do nothing. She explicitly outlines how the scheme was being abused, was paying out exorbitant sums of money, and could not be ignored any longer.

December 2014 - The scheme is extended to domestic customers by Mrs Foster.

November 2015 - With the realisation the funding available for applicants is uncapped, Stormont tightens the rules.

But a massive late surge of 900 applications is received before changes can be made.

January 2016 - Another whistleblower civil servant tells the Executive the scheme is being abused.

February 6 - New Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell (above) makes a shock announcement that the RHI scheme to be scrapped.

February 9 - Michael Doran of Action Renewables warns it will force renewables from "boom to bust."

June - Auditors begin investigating concerns.

July 5 - A damning Audit Office report states a farmer will make £1m of government money just for heating an empty shed. It reveals that more than £1 billion of public money will be paid to Northern Ireland-based businesses by 2036 after they installed new appliances under the RHI scheme.

October - Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) call the mishandling of the RHI scheme "one of the biggest scandals" since devolution. SDLP Assembly member Daniel McCrossan tells officials from government utility regulator OFGEM, which administered the scheme: "It was very clear the department was asleep at the wheel but I am horrified that you too were asleep at the wheel in relation to this."

November - The Public Accounts Committee is told that a £405m hole will have to be plugged over the 20-year lifetime of the RHI.

Dr Andrew McCormick (above), permanent secretary for the Economy Department, says he can't think of any government scheme being worse value for money.

December 2016

12 December: First Minister Arlene Foster says she won't quit over the fiasco following allegations that she did not act appropriately when concerns were first raised about the scheme. It also emerges the brother of a DUP special advisor and a Ferrari showroom have benefited from the error-ridden scheme.

13 December: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt claims to have uncovered the "smoking gun" of Arlene Foster's involvement in the decision-making process in connection with the flawed RHI scheme.

14 December: The SDLP says it will table a motion of no confidence to exclude Arlene Foster as First Minister. Sinn Fein says it won't back the motion. Meanwhile the UUP says the UK Government can no longer ignore the "national scandal".

The DUP's Nigel Dodds hits out at a "scurrilous attempt" to blame Arlene Foster for the botched energy scheme. The party releases what it says is a copy of the 2013 email sent from the whistleblower to Mrs Foster, saying that it raised no specific concerns about RHI.

15 December: Arlene Foster says she has nothing to hide from a BBC interview with former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, who vowed to tell the truth about the scandal, adding the revelations will end his political career.

19 December: Arlene Foster is to make a "full statement" to MLAs as the devolved assembly is recalled for a special setting to discuss the growing political crisis in the run-up to Christmas.

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