Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's officials 'suggested RHI cost controls in 2013' which could have prevented overspend

Civil servants suggested the introduction of cost controls on the botched Renewable Heating Incentive scheme just months after it was set up, it has been reported.

Thursday's News Letter reports Arlene Foster’s officials, when she was Department of Enterprise Minister, suggested the introduction of cost controls  in 2013.

That was just months after the scheme was opened.

Mrs Foster has said she followed the advice of her officials and was unaware of the flaws in the scheme which opened to businesses in November 2012. It has also been highlighted that during the now DUP leader's time in the Department of Enterprise there was an underspend in the scheme.

The documents revealed by the News Letter, state that officials did not "envision" budget limits being breached.

In December DUP leader Foster referred to the situation in 2013, telling the Assembly: “I did not receive any indication that cost control of the Non Domestic scheme was an urgent priority at that time.”

Flaws in the scheme were highlighted in June 2015, however, caps were not introduced until the following November and the scheme was closed in February 2016.

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The scheme is set to cost £1.2billion with the Northern Ireland taxpayer facing a bill of £490million. The DUP has pledged to reduce the overspend in the scheme to zero.

A consultation documents obtained by The News Letter show that in July 2013 proposed cost control measures and officials were aware of the possibility costs of the RHI scheme could balloon out of control and they proposed measures to prevent such a situation developing.

That proposal was included in a consultation document on the domestic scheme, which did have cost controls, but also included changes for the non-domestic scheme.

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It stated cost controls would be introduced to "ensure budgets are not overspent and will hopefully remove the need for emergency reviews”.

It went on to say the measures would "ensure budgetary levels wouldn’t be breached and to remove the need for emergency reviews or reductions in tariffs at short notice".

The document also said Whitehall officials were in the process of putting caps on the system in Great Britain, which were later implemented. 

"DETI must retain the right to suspend the scheme if budget limits could be breached; however this will only happen at a last resort and, at this stage, is not envisioned to happen,” the document said.

More: £68m already paid out to RHI recipients in Northern Ireland

Mrs Foster wrote the foreword on the consultation document.

"I am conscious that whilst this is a sector that requires significant support, budget levels are finite and cannot be breached," Mrs Foster wrote.

The Department for the Economy have been contacted for a response.

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A Department of the Economy spokeswoman told the News Letter: “The 2013 consultation document sought views on possible proposals for cost control. However, neither before the consultation nor afterwards was any recommendation put to the minister to introduce cost controls as outlined in the consultation document.”

A DUP spokesman said: “The questions raised are exactly the kind of matters that the public inquiry has been established to consider.  It is the appropriate forum to address these questions and should given be the space to consider the matters such as those that you have raised."

Questions have also been raised over Michelle O'Neill's knowledge of the scheme when it emerged her officials, when she was Agricultural Minister, promoted the scheme.

Mrs O'Neill said she had no responsibility for the controversial RHI scheme, and directed blame solely at the DUP.

The RHI scandal brought about the collapse of Stormont when Sinn Fein refused to nominate to the position of deputy First Minister.

Subsequently Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir established a public inquiry to investigate how the scheme was set up and allowed to get so out of control. He has promised there would be "no hiding place" throughout the process.

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