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Everyone knew energy scheme 'too good to be true' so why didn't officials? asks whistleblower

One of the whistleblowers at the centre of the botched £400m renewable heating scheme has said it was obvious to her and many others that the programme was "too good to be true" and asked how government officials could not see it.

The woman was speaking out after it was revealed millions were wasted encouraging people to ditch fossil fuel in favour of sustainable alternatives.

Whistleblowers had flagged the abuse of the system to government officials.

One of them spoke on the BBC's Stephen Nolan show, she said she contacted the then Minister for the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) Arlene Foster and then on three other occasions officials in the department.

She said she owned a home-grown company for saving on heating costs and first noticed problems with the scheme when she visited hotels, care homes and offices who appeared "not interested in saving on heat or energy costs".

The woman described care homes and hotels with heat "blasting" while windows were open and offices with "really warm" workers as the landlord continually ran the heating.

"So I went on to the DETI website to see the tarriffs they were getting and after five minutes of looking I realised it wasn't right.

"It was clear there was opportunity for fraud."

The Renewable Heat Incentive encouraged 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 effectively enabled a business to burn unnecessary heat 24/7 just to make money.

It has also been revealed that empty barns were heated just to generate more cash for business owners and also that business owners wood pellets, used to fuel biomass boilers, were paid to dry the materials and then paid to burn them.

The whistleblower said she contacted the department and received a response from Mrs Foster and then on three other occasions from department officials, the last being in March 2015, close to the date the scheme was ended.

"I felt ignored," she continued, "They either were naive or chose to ignore it.

"Business owners said they thought the scheme was too good to be true, I just can't understand how those running it couldn't see it.

The claims come as First Minister Arlene Foster has faced calls to resign over the scandal.

The woman said she felt naive after reporting her concerns, adding: "I just assumed I was going the right route and thought someone would be listening.

"When you talk of cash needed for roads, hospitals and people on waiting lists, it's heartbreaking.

"And biomass boilers are a good thing - they are a good source of renewable energy. But they are not good when you are wasting heat. Yes, you can grow more trees, but that's no good when you are just wasting heat.

"I just wish I had been more public about it."

Leader of the opposition Mike Nesbitt, who has called for the DUP leader to resign, has been asked why he voted in favour of the scheme to be kept open.

He said this was because the then minister - Jonathan Bell - described the scheme a "success".

He said: "People had been investing in kit and in boilers in expectation they could avail of the scheme in good faith and they were being cut off at the knees.

"Instead they wanted a phased withdrawal.

"The fault lay with the department. Almost everyone that applied was successful. This was down to the officials not being rigorous enough in assessing the applications.

"It was a proper scandal. People being born today, they will be parents before we have paid off the £400m."

The Department of Economy said "robust action" would be taken against those found to have abused the system.

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