Belfast Telegraph

Former DUP spin doctor ‘regrets’ not declaring in-law a scheme recipient on taking Spad job

John Robinson with Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at Stormont in 2015
John Robinson with Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at Stormont in 2015
John Robinson with Nigel Dodds and Mr Robinson
John Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Mr Robinson

By Gillian Halliday

A former DUP special adviser who will appear at the RHI Inquiry today has claimed that while he knows a number of recipients of the controversial scheme, he never discussed the matter with them.

John Robinson also said that while one them is his father-in-law - Hugh Rutledge, a director of Highgate Poultry - "at no time was his judgment conflicted", and nor does he have any "financial interest" in his relative's business.

Mr Robinson, the former DUP director of communications, made the disclosure in a witness statement ahead of his appearance at the RHI Inquiry headed by Sir Patrick Coghlin today.

"My father-in-law was a recipient of the scheme. I regret not seeking an opportunity to declare this matter earlier in my employment," he said.

"I accept that some may have perceived this as a conflict of interest with my work as a special adviser in the DfE (Department for the Economy)."

He stressed that he never discussed the application with Mr Rutledge, nor did he do so with other RHI claimants he knows.

"I did not encourage anyone to apply to the scheme, advise anyone to apply to the scheme or assist anyone in their accreditation," added Mr Robinson.

"I worked with Stephen Brimstone, who is a recipient. I became aware of his involvement in the scheme subsequent to becoming a special adviser."

He continued: "Those who worked alongside me will testify that I always favoured more rigorous inspections, publishing of recipients' names and action to curb the costs of the scheme."

Mr Rutledge, in evidence published by the inquiry, has said: "I had no contact with John Robinson about applying to the RHI scheme.

"Any discussion about the scheme with John Robinson would have been as a result of news coverage about the RHI scheme."

RHI had been due to close on February 16, 2016 but the inquiry has heard this week how there was a two-week delay, and it eventually shut at the end of that month.

Poultry giant Moy Park, which benefited from the scheme, sent an email to company officials congratulating them on successfully lobbying to have it extended.

Asked if he was aware of any lobbying, or if he could recall any instance where he felt "influence or pressure" being exerted on himself in relation to cost controls, Mr Robinson said the firm had sought to speak with the then Economy Minister Simon Hamilton in 2017.

This was when tariffs were being amended, added the former Spad. However, he revealed that "conversation did not take place".

"The minister asked the permanent secretary to deal with the matter. Prior to that, Mr Mike Mullan from Moy Park had sought to reach me via telephone but a conversation never took place," he continued.

"I can recall suggestions being made to the minister as to how to reduce the cost of the scheme. This may have been through media comment or other correspondence." He also stressed that no one had "directly" raised concerns about the RHI with him, and if that had have happened, Mr Robinson insisted, he would have "passed the information to the DfE permanent secretary".

Mr Robinson specified that he first became aware of the scheme's flaws subsequent to becoming a Spad, through a "departmental briefing with the minister".

He added that he did not discuss RHI with Timothy Cairns, a special adviser to the Deti minister, beyond telling him about some criticism of the scheme he had received at a social function in early 2016.

Mr Robinson also denied "influencing or encouraging" Mr Cairns "to delay, soften or reduce cost controls at any time". And he denied asking anyone else to do the same.

Mr Robinson's brother-in-law and current DUP chief executive, Timothy Johnston, is due to appear at the inquiry on Friday.

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