Arlene Foster’s ex-aide denies any link to boiler applications by relatives
A former DUP special adviser has denied having “any role” in applications made to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) by three of his relatives who went on to benefit from the botched green energy scheme.
Stephen Brimstone, who was a Spad to First Minister Arlene Foster when the scheme became embroiled in scandal, is to appear at the RHI Inquiry today.
In the first of two witness statements published ahead of his appearance, Mr Brimstone revealed that he successfully applied to the scheme in August 2015, the same month his wife’s parents also made an application to RHI.
However, Mr Brimstone said he understood that his in-laws, John and Lilian Anderson, who run a poultry farm for Moy Park, applied under “a process” that had been established by the poultry giant.
Another RHI application made by an outdoor go-karting track business in Co Fermanagh run by his brother Aaron was also understood to have been made in January 2016, said Mr Brimstone.
He added that, by that stage, the scheme payments were subject to a tiered system.
He said that while he was “aware” that each of his relatives were installing biomass boilers for their respective businesses, he “did not have any role in their applications”.
However, he admitted that he may have directed his brother to online official information on the scheme, where he said he had learned himself about RHI funding.
“We would have discussed the reliability of the boiler I had just installed. He did not ultimately install the same make of boiler or use the same installer,” he said.
Mr Brimstone said he could not “specifically recall” in their discussion if he had been asked about either his own boiler installation or application process, stressing that he didn’t believe he shared any information in relation to RHI that had been gleaned in his capacity as a Spad to third parties.
Asked if he promoted the scheme to other third parties, he disclosed that his local church, around the end of 2014 and 2015, was at the early stages of planning a new hall, and he was aware that other places of worship had installed boilers and in “general discussion... types of heating were discussed”.
“Had the scheme remained open this may have been a consideration for the church, however the church has not reached such a stage as yet,” he added.
Mr Brimstone also categorically denied that in 2015 he influenced or encouraged Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell’s then special adviser Timothy Cairns to delay or in any way soften or reduce cost controls being introduced into the scheme at that time.
In June of that year flaws in the scheme were highlighted, however caps were not introduced until November. In his statement Mr Brimstone went on to claim that the extent of his interactions with other DUP Spads in relation to RHI extended only to two emails he had received from Timothy Johnston — who was a Spad to then First Minister Peter Robinson — sent within days of each other in February 2016.
The first of these carried the subject headling: “RHI closure” and Mr Brimstone said he had assumed they were for “information” purposes.
He also stressed that he had no role in the setting up RHI, nor its implementation from its “inception up to the present day” other than during the summer of 2015 when he received a paper on the scheme from Mr Cairns in relation to “urgent cost control and administrative changes” to RHI on July 16.
Mr Cairns, explained Mr Brimstone, had asked him for his views on the scheme, along with Andrew Crawford, who was Spad for the then Finance Minister, Mrs Foster.
He said he had responded to Mr Cairns by email four days later, telling him: “Hard to argue with in light of the suggested changes reflecting GB position.”
Mr Brimstone said he subsequently made Mrs Foster, after she succeeded Peter Robinson as First Minister, aware in or around January 2016 that he was a recipient of RHI, explaining that he made the disclosure “only for information purposes”.
At a RHI Inquiry hearing in June, civil servant Stuart Wightman said Mr Brimstone telephoned him to enquire about the possibility of getting a boiler registered. It was claimed Mr Brimstone gave his name to the official, but didn’t identify himself as a DUP Spad.
In his second witness statement, Mr Brimstone admitted that he had contacted Mr Wightman after speaking to Mr Crawford, but said he couldn’t “recall the conversation in any detail”.
However, he would have “asked about the scheme criteria and how the scheme operated”.
Regarding his conversation with Mr Crawford, he confirmed he was seeking a RHI contact within Deti.
He could not “specifically recall the request”, but assumed he made it in order to “speak to an official” familiar with the scheme.