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Arlene Foster denies claims she ran 'dysfunctional' department at Stormont

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has rejected suggestions she was a "very passive" minister in terms of implementing policy at a key Stormont department.

Giving evidence to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry yesterday, Mrs Foster was questioned about working practices in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, with suggestions it was "dysfunctional".

The chair of the inquiry also suggested Mrs Foster had placed "an enormous amount of trust" in her special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford and the head of DETI's energy division Fiona Hepper "that doesn't appeared to be well-founded at all".

Sir Patrick Coghlin said it appeared that they had failed to draw vital material about the RHI scheme to her attention so she could make decisions on it.

Mrs Foster replied: "As far as I was concerned I was working with two very professional people."

She said she had expected to receive the information she needed. "I know this panel has been all about 'expectations' and what have you but that certainly was my expectation," she added.

It was the DUP leader's second day giving evidence at the hearing in Stormont.

Counsel for the inquiry, David Scoffield QC, suggested to her that "when it comes to implement the policy, or comes to delivering on representations or assurances that have been given to you, you're a very passive participant, if a participant at all".

Mrs Foster replied: "I don't think anybody would have described me as a passive minister."

Much of yesterday's proceedings focused on a key meeting in June 2011 examining two different ways to structure the RHI - an upfront grant for purchasing eco-boilers or a 20-year payment scheme to subsidise fuel costs.

Discussions at that meeting are disputed and no official minutes were taken. Mrs Hepper has claimed information indicating the fuel subsidy option wasn't the best value-for-money option was put to the minister.

Mrs Foster told the inquiry she had no clear recollection of the meeting, but it would have been "incredible" for her to select that model had she been presented with information highlighting its flaws.

Sir Patrick asked why Dr Crawford hadn't read key experts' reports related to the various RHI options and why Mrs Hepper hadn't endeavoured to record a note of the encounter.

"Does that not start to edge toward a dysfunctional department?" he said.

"If these are the two people you trusted and one of them didn't read any of the detailed documentation and the other one comes to you with an explanation that involves additional information, but no notes are made of it, no inquiry is made as to whether notes are being made and yet this is a unique project. You do wonder what is going on within this department."

Mrs Foster said she was surprised no minutes were taken and she was unaware that was working practice within the department.

She suggested that pressurised energy division staff may have taken "short cuts".

"I would have expected notes, if not taken at the meeting, at least after the meeting there would have been some sort of record of what I had said at the meeting, what she had explained to me," she said. "That's why it is disappointing, because of course if we had those notes there would be clarity around this."

The DUP leader said that given there were no notes of the meeting, Mrs Hepper appeared to have "a very clear recollection of all the issues that were discussed".

She continued: "I don't have that clear recollection and I'm sorry I cannot assist the panel because I don't have a clear recollection.

"I do think that if all of that had been laid out before me that it would be incredible for me to then sign off a submission that is different to all of that."

Earlier in the inquiry, the current head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, claimed a culture of no note-taking had developed within Stormont departments.

Mrs Foster said she was unaware of such a practice. "I have been surprised to learn and to listen to Mr Sterling's evidence around the note-taking issue," she added.

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