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Former minister did not read regulations for scheme

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has said she didn't read regulations for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC yesterday asked the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minster if she would have read the regulations when she brought them to the Stormont assembly in 2012.

Mrs Foster replied: "No, I don't believe I would have read them at that stage. I probably would have only read the explanatory note, but not the regulations involved."

Under questioning yesterday, the DUP leader rejected any suggestion she was less concerned about the RHI scheme's cost because she had believed the Treasury in London was footing the bill.

"At the end of the day, it's still public money and it has to come from somewhere," she said.

Inquiry panel member Dame Una O'Brien asked Mrs Foster if she could have "asked more questions" about the RHI scheme and if "there might have been scope for being more curious".

Mrs Foster said with hindsight "one wishes one had asked more questions".

However, she said major cost increases in the RHI scheme weren't drawn to her attention by civil servants and she didn't believe it was unfair "to think there hasn't been any huge change and that's clearly what I thought at the time".

Mrs Foster told the inquiry she was directly alerted to an attempt to control costs of the Great Britain scheme but said it was not a "burning issue" in Northern Ireland.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said the government's then Energy Minister Greg Barker had written to Mrs Foster in the early stages of the RHI to inform her of the steps taken to limit spending on the model he was overseeing across the Irish Sea.

The retired judge asked why this correspondence had not prompted similar moves to clamp down on the cost of Northern Ireland's ill-fated boiler subsidy scheme.

"You knew it was being done in England within six months or so of their scheme going live," he said.

The DUP leader replied: "I accept that he wrote to the department and to me in particular and I have already indicated that if that came in I would have seen that correspondence coming in.

"It would then have gone off to the (energy) division to advise me as to what I needed to say and I'm sorry I can't recall what advice was given back to me on that particular letter or letters from Minister Barker."

Sir Patrick said there must have been a subsequent conversation about controlling costs within the department.

Mrs Foster returns to the inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday next week and her former special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford on Monday and Tuesday.

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