Belfast Telegraph

RHI: DUP advisor Brimstone says civil servants were in the dark over his Stormont role

Stephen Brimstone speaking at the RHI Inquiry yesterday
Stephen Brimstone speaking at the RHI Inquiry yesterday
Pictures shown to the RHI Inquiry of both the interior and exterior of Stephen Brimstone’s agricultural building
Pictures shown to the RHI Inquiry of both the interior and exterior of Stephen Brimstone’s agricultural building
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Former DUP special adviser Stephen Brimstone has admitted that he didn't tell the civil servant managing the RHI scheme about his position at Stormont when he phoned him to enquire about getting a boiler registered.

The RHI Inquiry yesterday heard how fellow DUP Spad Dr Andrew Crawford had given Mr Brimstone the contact details of Stuart Wightman, the head of the energy efficiency branch in the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment (Deti).

Asked by inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin if he had told the civil servant managing the scheme that he was a DUP special adviser, Mr Brimstone replied: "I don't believe that I would have."

Mr Wightman told the inquiry in June that Mr Brimstone had given his name but hadn't identified himself as a DUP adviser.

He said he remembered the call as "quite unusual" because it began: "I believe you're the man to talk to about RHI."

The inquiry yesterday heard there were "in excess of 30 lever-arch files" of material relating to the former DUP Spad's application to the RHI scheme and ensuing investigations into it.

The scheme's administrator, Ofgem (the Office of Gas and Electricity Market), has confirmed that Mr Brimstone's application was completely valid under RHI rules.

The former DUP special adviser's application to the RHI scheme was successful. His brother Aaron is also an RHI claimant.

Stephen Brimstone was a Spad in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to DUP junior Minister Michelle McIlveen in 2016.

Mr Brimstone told the inquiry he first heard about the RHI scheme when he was a Spad in the Department of Social Development for DUP minister Nelson McCausland.

He didn't remember how the scheme came to his attention. "In the department, the minister had been faced with increased heating costs, especially in high-rise tower blocks in social housing. We had been looking at pay-as-you-go oil solutions which hadn't existed at that point," he said.

The high cost of heating was "a particular issue for those social tenants" relying on the old Economy Seven heating system, so efforts were made to explore alternatives. He recalled a ministerial visit to social housing in Germany where biomass boilers were used.

Asked if fellow Spad Dr Crawford had brought RHI to his attention, Mr Brimstone replied: "No, in fairness to Andrew, I don't think I can pin that one on him. I genuinely can't remember how I came across it whether it was a simple internet search or what it was."

Mr Brimstone had installed a biomass boiler to heat his home in 2007. He said it had acted up over the years despite his "meticulous maintenance" of it. He recalled sometimes having to take it apart and rebuild it. "Anyone (with) a biomass boiler needs to be prepared to get their hands dirty," he added.

Mr Brimstone stated that he had been considering replacing his biomass boiler with an oil boiler. However, he opted to go for another biomass boiler under the RHI scheme. "I wish I had gone back to oil now," he told the inquiry. He also stated that he wished he had never come across the RHI scheme.

Mr Brimstone said he never entertained the idea "for one minute" that the boiler would last for the RHI's 20-year lifetime. From his eight-year experience of his old boiler, he believed they needed a lot of maintenance.

He applied for the non-domestic RHI scheme because he believed that heating two domestic properties with a non-domestic boiler was allowed under the rules.

The inquiry heard that he was not running the boiler to heat his home and shed 24 hours a day. Rather the inquiry had established that it was running four to four-and-a-half hours a day.

Mr Brimstone said he knew RHI was a "good" scheme but he never considered running his boiler "100% of the time".

He was not "out to milk the system". The former DUP Spad said that maybe it was "naive" of him, but he had "never heard of anyone attempting those means to generate more income".

Two site inspections by energy officials were carried out on his installation but it was found to comply with the non-domestic RHI scheme.

The inquiry heard that Mr Brimstone's house and shed was built on land gifted to him by his wife and her father. His RHI application was approved in April 2016, when he was in OFMDFM, but he received payments backdated to the previous August when he had applied.

Junior counsel to the inquiry Joseph Aiken stated that Land and Property Services had determined in 2008 that for rates purposes the shed was an agricultural building. That was important because under RHI regulations if a boiler was installed in an agricultural building there was likely to be "no question of its eligibility".

Sir Patrick questioned Mr Brimstone on what farming work was conducted in the shed. He said it was used for "working on machinery" such as tractors.

The inquiry heard that the DUP Spad's original 25kw biomass boiler had been installed in 2007 in the shed with the help of a £3,000 grant from Action Renewables. Mr Aiken noted that Mr Brimstone was an "early adopter" of renewable heating technology.

In his evidence, Mr Brimstone said he deeply regretted not withdrawing from a conversation with other DUP Spads about RHI in the summer of 2015.

He stated: "I would like to point out that probably next to applying to the RHI scheme, I thoroughly regret not putting my hands up and withdrawing myself from even the initial conversation I had with Timothy Cairns and Andrew Crawford back in July 15 which led this submission being sent to myself and Andrew Crawford.

"I think I replied in the correct way back to it but that doesn't excuse me in full knowledge that I had a boiler ordered and was going in on the first week in August.

"I should have said, 'Guys I need to step back from this conversation. There is a real perceived conflict of interest here'."

Mr Aiken said: "That's what you should have done and you didn't do."

Mr Brimstone replied: "Absolutely."

Mr Brimstone continues giving evidence today. DUP chief executive Timothy Johnston is due to appear tomorrow.

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