Belfast Telegraph

'Whistleblower' told Arlene Foster of RHI abuse fears in 2013, inquiry hears

By Eamon Sweeney

A woman described as a 'whistleblower' told Arlene Foster in September 2013 that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) "pays participants to use as much heat as they can", a public inquiry has heard.

Janette O'Hagan, who ran a company selling technology to improve the heat efficiency of businesses, also emailed Mrs Foster's personal email address saying the incentive was "leading to misuse in some cases".

But Mrs Foster, who was Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry minister (DETI) at the time, has said Ms O'Hagan's concerns "weren't escalated to ministerial level".

Counsel to the inquiry Joseph Aiken said the inquiry panel will look at whether receiving Ms O'Hagan's communication at her personal email address constituted an escalation of concern to ministerial level.

Stormont's Department for the Economy - then DETI - says it first saw the email in March 2017 - three-and-a-half years after Mrs Foster received it.

Ms O'Hagan requested a meeting with Mrs Foster but it was refused. Instead she met Fiona Hepper, Peter Hutchinson and Joanne McCutcheon who were working directly on the scheme.

Ms O'Hagan, who will appear before the inquiry tomorrow, has said in her witness statement that she felt the department didn't share her concerns that the system was potentially being abused and "it was clear that my concerns would not be further investigated".

The inquiry also heard yesterday that little consideration appeared to be given to budget management or cost control whilst the scheme was being widened out. The inquiry was told that at the end of June 2013 the DETI head of energy, Fiona Hepper, sent a proposal to Mrs Foster about the public consultation for the next phase of the RHI scheme's development. It was envisaged this stage would see the expansion of the non-domestic scheme but also the introduction of the domestic scheme.

However, the only occasion the term 'cost control' was used in the submission to the minister was in the contents page of the document.

Mr Aiken suggested the inquiry panel should consider to what extent Ms Hepper and her team at DETI "saw budget management and cost control as a priority".

It was also revealed that there were no details in the 2013 submission to Mrs Foster considering whether or not the RHI scheme was actually affordable.

Neither were there any details about why cost controls were being proposed for the public consultation on the next phase.

Mr Aiken added that in fact, there was no record in any documentation given to Mrs Foster about that issue.

Inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien said these revelations raised new questions about how Mrs Foster received financial information about the RHI scheme.

Ms Hepper left her job as head of DETI's energy division in November 2013. Her replacement, John Mills, took up the position on January 6, 2014, and was given a handover pack briefing him on ongoing projects.

The pack included just three pages on the RHI scheme and Mr Aiken noted "there are no problems recorded in this programme, there are no mentions of cost controls, there is no mention of a review" of the initiative.

Dame Una, an expert in the workings of the Civil Service, says what was discussed in the handover meetings is crucial to what happened and needed to be examined.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coughlin said that the first thing someone starting a new post would want to know would be if there were any problems. Agreeing with Sir Patrick, Mr Aiken said "you want to know where the bodies are buried", but "you certainly won't find that reading this document."

The inquiry continues.

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