Belfast Telegraph

Wife of former MLA used RHI to install new solarium for her equine business

By Noel McAdam

A former Assembly member's wife used the Renewable Heat Incentive to install a horse solarium, it has been revealed.

Yesterday, the Ulster Unionists and DUP both issued statements about several prominent members who had links to Stormont's botched heating scheme. The UUP said Neil Somerville, who served as an Ulster Unionist MLA for just seven months in the last Assembly before standing down, has a wood pellet boiler accredited under the RHI scheme in his family's business, Clogher Valley Horses Welcome.

Mr Somerville said: "Given accusations that some applicants have abused the RHI scheme, I want to be open and transparent about my family's interest in it.

"All information about Clogher Valley Horses Welcome is freely available on the internet and via Facebook. My wife runs the business which also includes the grooming and clipping of horses, but due to the type of work she does, it wasn't possible to carry it out all year round.

"We inquired about a wood pellet boiler in July 2015 and a 99kW boiler was installed in August 2015.

"The installation of the wood pellet boiler has meant that my wife is now able to carry out her work on a year round basis and a horse solarium has been installed. We are happy for an inspection to take place."

The UUP also said an aunt and uncle of Sandra Overend have a business which benefited from RHI payments, although the Mid Ulster MLA had been unaware of this.

Her uncle is married to a sister of the party's MEP Jim Nicholson.

The UUP statement added: "We asked all elected representatives on December 13, 2016, if they directly benefited from the RHI scheme. No-one indicated that they did.

"However, a small number of councillors did not respond. As we don't wish people to take any inference from a non-response, we will be contacting the remainder by the end of today.

"We are aware that many who applied to the RHI scheme feel they are being unfairly vilified because of a catastrophic failure with the Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment.

"Given Mr Somerville served however briefly as an MLA, we call on (regulator) Ofgem to fast-track an audit of his boiler alongside those belonging to relatives of elected representatives. That is only fair, and the best way to ensure public confidence."

Last night, the DUP also said it had carried out an audit of all its MLAs "in order to achieve transparency and to help build public confidence".

The party said Upper Bann MLA Carla Lockhart had indicated that her sister-in-law's husband is a farmer in the RHI scheme.

It said she had only recently become aware of this.

And Newry and Armagh MLA William Irwin has a son-in-law who is a farmer and is in the scheme.

"Neither MLA was involved in lobbying for these individuals and neither has any financial or other interests in the farms concerned," the DUP said.

"We would again want to point out that in the main those in the non domestic RHI scheme applied absolutely legitimately to what was a government approved scheme and should be viewed as such."

There is no suggestion that any of the relations of Ms Lockhart, Mrs Overend, Mr Irwin or Mr Somerville operate the boilers inappropriately.

Meanwhile, it has been claimed that Economy Minister Simon Hamilton did not snub an Assembly scrutiny committee over the RHI debacle. The DUP minister had been invited to attend the committee which monitors his department - but had not agreed to attend, it said.

A spokesperson for the department said: "The minister had been invited. However, he had not confirmed his attendance."

Instead, Mr Hamilton was in the main Assembly chamber where regulations aimed at thwarting projected spending of up to £490m over the next 20 years were being debated.

But his predecessor as minister, Jonathan Bell, claimed his former department had failed to provide him with information he has asked for.

Mr Bell - who is suspended from the DUP after claims he made in a TV interview before Christmas about how the RHI scheme had been handled - said he wanted information linked to the heating scheme during his time as minister to be made available to him before the debate, but the department had not responded. "You may hide information from me," he said, "but you will not hide the information from judge-led inquiry."

Warned by deputy Speaker Danny Kennedy to take "due care", Mr Bell said a fellow DUP MLA told him the RHI scheme was being kept open because Spad Timothy Johnston's brother was one of the people installing the biomass boilers that were funded by the scheme.

The DUP later hit back and stressed: "For the avoidance of doubt, Timothy Johnston's brother does not, nor never has installed boilers, does not work in this sector and has not been involved in any RHI issues whatsoever. We challenge Mr Bell to produce a shred of evidence outside the chamber."

Meanwhile, the Economy Committee heard a plan to reduce the overspend on the scheme was the idea of a political party special adviser (Spad), not a civil servant.

However, Dr Andrew McCormick, the senior civil servant at the department, made clear it was not the adviser working within his department, the DUP's John Robinson.

Dr McCormick insisted there was "nothing untoward" about a special adviser feeding ideas into internal departmental decision-making processes.

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