MLAs to consider calling Foster to exceptional hearing over renewables scheme
A Stormont committee is to convene a special meeting to consider whether to call the first minister to give evidence on her role in a botched renewable energy scheme.
Arlene Foster has faced intense public scrutiny over her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) when she was economy minister.
The DUP leader has rejected calls for her resignation over her handling of an error-ridden scheme that has left Stormont facing a £400 million overspend in the next 20 years.
The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee is currently investigating the RHI furore.
Ministers do not usually appear before the PAC under Assembly conventions but, such is the scale of the fall-out from the RHI, its members are to discuss a proposal from SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan that Mrs Foster gives evidence.
The first minister, who has been accused of not doing enough to pursue whistleblower allegations that sought to expose flaws in the system, has indicated a willingness to answer questions on the matter.
Mrs Foster's acknowledgement that one of her former special advisers - Stephen Brimstone - was an RHI applicant, and confirmation from the DUP that the brother of Andrew Crawford, another of her former special advisers, was also on the scheme has led political rivals to assert that the first minister must have had an intimate knowledge of its workings.
There is no suggestion Mr Brimstone or Mr Crawford's brother were anything other than legitimate claimants.
The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people to move off fossil fuels but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.
It incentivised the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.
However, unlike in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to the size of boiler and the hours it was operated.
That resulted in the RHI tariff paid out being higher than the cost of fuel needed to run the boilers - meaning the more businesses burnt, the more they earned.
Thousands signed up to the RHI - a deluge that ultimately forced its closure, but not before Stormont had been left with a huge future bill.
Overall, more than £1 billion of public money will be paid by 2036 to Northern Ireland-based businesses which signed up to the scheme. Around £400 million of that will be paid out by the Stormont Executive.
On Monday Mrs Foster made clear she would not be standing down.
"I take the view that a mark of a politician is not made when times are good but when you are faced with challenges," she said.
"I intend to face this challenge and to deal with the issues in front of me and to bring about cost reduction for the scheme."
The PAC will meet at Parliament Buildings on Thursday.
Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA, said: "The Ulster Unionist Party has uncovered proof that First Minister Arlene Foster was responsible for the decision that will cost Northern Ireland’s public services £400 million over the next 20 years.
"At a meeting of the then Enterprise Trade & Investment Committee at Stormont, an official was questioned about the reason why Northern Ireland did not adopt the so-called Degression procedures which were applied to the GB heat incentive and could have capped the amount of public funds available for the local RHI scheme, saving the public £400 million.
"At the meeting on the 9th of February 2016, the official said Degression was discussed in the context of the Department’s intention to introduce a domestic RHI scheme. He went on to state:
"So the Minister decided that the priority should be on the introduction of the domestic RHI scheme.”
"Here for the first time is proof that Mrs Foster’s fingerprints are on the decision-making process that has resulted in the biggest financial scandal in the history of Northern Ireland.
"It is time Mrs Foster stopped blaming others and embraced the age-old principle of Ministerial Responsibility. She was not only aware of what was happening, she was making it happen, through a series of policy choices that resulted in the fatally-flawed RHI.
"Remember, this was all totally unnecessary. Mrs Foster had the option to adopt the successful GB model, which had the checks and balances that would have made this scandal impossible. Degression would have meant that the greater the number of applications for RHI, the lower the tariffs would have fallen, ensuring the total spend would remain constant, no matter how many applied.
"In fact, the consultation document from July 2013 makes explicit reference to the Department’s intention to introduce Degression at some point during the lifetime of RHI. Who decided otherwise? Mrs Foster! And at what cost? £400 million, literally up in smoke.
"So, now there is a smoking gun, the public will ask what is more important to Mrs Foster – her job or the reputation of the devolved institutions? We will know soon enough."