Belfast Telegraph

Foster 'should've been told about RHI scheme abuse in GB'

By Allan Preston

Arlene Foster should have been told about newspaper reports highlighting failings in the Renewable Heat Incentive in Great Britain, a public inquiry has heard.

A version of the botched green energy scheme was running in GB at the same time as in Northern Ireland.

A lack of effective cost controls in Northern Ireland led to concerns the scheme would greatly exceed its budget.

The Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) set up the scheme in 2012, with energy regulator Ofgem running it. Mrs Foster was Enterprise Minister at the time, but was not told about articles in the Mirror and Guardian in 2014 and 2015 claiming wealthy applicants were abusing the GB scheme for profit by burning more fuel than they needed.

Yesterday, a manager of RHI in NI, Stuart Wightman, told the inquiry he couldn't recall being told about the articles, which should have been flagged up with Mrs Foster.

Inquiry counsel Joseph Aiken said he was surprised to find no indication that civil servants had even saved the articles into the record-keeping system.

Mr Wightman was also questioned about being contacted by a DUP adviser for advice about the scheme in November 2014. Stephen Brimstone, a DUP adviser in the Department for Social Development at the time, phoned Mr Wightman.

He said he believed Mr Brimstone was just another applicant looking for advice but that he would "have been on my guard a bit more" if he had known who it was.

But Mr Wightman added "there was nothing in the call I was suspicious about". It was later reported that Mr Brimstone and his brother Aaron were benefiting from the RHI scheme. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.

Mr Wightman was also asked about cost controls. In March 2015, one official contacted Ofgem to suggest reducing the subsidy in 2017 and again in 2018. Ofgem resisted, fearing it would leave the scheme open to abuse. Instead they suggested tiering, where the higher rate would only be paid for the first 1,314 hours of use.

Deti officials soon realised the scheme would overspend and Mr Wightman was told to stop entering into commitments immediately to prevent the cost spiralling out of control. He said the situation soon became "manic" with staff struggling to cope.

As the GB RHI scheme had underspent, Mr Wightman said there was a false hope Deti could apply to the Treasury for more money to fill the gap. Ofgem told Deti officials at the time they had no power to pause new applications and Mr Wightman said it wasn't until December 2015 he was certain that Deti knew they would have to cover the shortfall from their own budget.

Belfast Telegraph

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