Belfast Telegraph

UUP man Smith shocked by Arlene Foster's latest RHI 'back pay' revelation

By Staff Reporter

Shock has been expressed after revelations that former First Minister Arlene Foster wanted payments on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) backdated to 2010 - more than 18 months before its costs were even decided.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed on Saturday that the head of Mrs Foster's energy team told the Enterprise, Trade and Investment committee that the then minister wanted payments to people who installed wood pellet boilers to begin before her own department's analysis of the projected cost of the scheme had begun, and more than two years before the project was launched.

Mrs Foster said then she wanted to do this "to give certainty to the market".

At that time it was believed Westminster would pay for the full cost of RHI. The testimony was accepted as accurate and the minister's wishes were noted in the Assembly committee's report on renewable energy.

The DUP last week released an election leaflet on the debacle, saying that Mrs Foster's role in the scheme was "vindicated by an independent civil servant". But this claim has been strongly contested by the other Assembly parties.

Fiona Hepper, who was then head of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's renewable energy team, gave evidence before the enterprise committee in December 2010 and said that her department had published a research paper three months earlier that found there was a market demand for renewable heat across Northern Ireland.

She also recalled that Mrs Foster told the department's energy team that if the RHI scheme went ahead, she wanted its payments backdated to the publication of this report. The study did not include any details of costs, saying only that there was a demand for renewable heat.

"She said that if the RHI went ahead, we would backdate the support to the date of the publication of that report, which as I said was in September 2010," Ms Hepper told the committee.

"All that was designed to give certainty to the market."

Ulster Unionist Strangford candidate Philip Smith described the revelations as shocking.

"It is jaw dropping that Arlene Foster would have wanted Renewable Heat Incentive payments backdated before an analysis of the projected costs of the scheme had been carried out," he said.

"It is indicated that this would be to provide certainty to the market.

"What about certainty in how much this was going to cost the taxpayer?

"This is not the first time that questions have been raised over whether the DUP were unconcerned with cost controls because of their mistaken belief Great Britain's taxpayers were footing the bill."

Mr Smyth has called for the public to be provided with "an accurate timeline of the decisions that were taken that have led to the squander of £85,000 per day of public money".

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