Arlene Foster denies cost controls not introduced for RHI scheme because it 'benefited DUP voters'
Arlene Foster has dismissed suggestions cost controls were not introduced in to the lucrative RHI scheme because it was “benefiting DUP voters”.
The DUP leader, giving her fourth day of evidence before the RHI inquiry, also said she was “surprised” that her special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, had sent confidential government documents showing the scheme was going to end to his cousin.
Mrs Foster, as enterprise minister, was responsible for the ill-fated scheme which exposed Stormont to a huge overspend by paying out more in subsidies than it cost to buy fuel.
David Scoffield, senior counsel to the inquiry, said it would be “impossible” for many people to believe, given the DUP’s links to the farming community, that she would not have picked up any rumbling that the scheme was “too good to be true.”
Mrs Foster replied: “I certainly didn’t pick up anything of that nature because if I had I would have raised it, not only with my special adviser, but with my officials as well.
"Why in heaven’s name would I want to be associated with a scheme that was overcompensating and doing what we now know what it was doing. It is not something I would have wanted to be associated with, I can assure you.
"I have a record in government of trying to deliver but not to do so in a way that this scheme worked out and of course this scheme is a huge regret for me in my political life.”
Mr Scoffield said that many members of the public who are cynical about the scheme may suggest Mrs Foster did not intervene to introduce cost controls because those who benefited from the scheme may have been DUP voters.
Mrs Foster said: “I don’t accept that at all. I think if you look at the recipients of the RHI scheme they are wide and varied and across all communities in Northern Ireland and they are certainly not just restricted to supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party.”
The DUP leader also said she was not aware that her adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, had sent documents relating to the scheme to his cousin.
“I certainly didn’t have any knowledge of it at the time,” she said. “I do acknowledge that Andrew has accepted it was the wrong thing to do, it was inappropriate and he has apologised and I recognise that. It is quite clearly something that he should not have been engaged in at that time. Or indeed at any time.”
Mrs Foster said that if Dr Crawford had told her what he had done, she would have referred him to then permanent secretary David Sterling before referring him to DUP party officers.
Mr Scoffield asked Mrs Foster that if, given the fact Dr Crawford still works for the DUP, this showed the party does not take what he did seriously.
She replied: “He is not working for me directly. He is conducting some research in terms of Brexit for our member of the European Parliament. It is very much a backroom role.
“He is using his expertise in relation to that. It’s not a full-time job by any means.
“I think given everything that happened in late 2016 early 2017, and I hear very clearly what you are asking me around the emails and that was inappropriate, it was disappointing from my point of view, but I don’t think that should bar a person from having part-time research employment for ever and a day and I am quite sure he has learnt his lesson in relation to that.”
She added: “For a man who never sought the media spotlight, he has been greatly thrown into the media spotlight and has suffered as a result of that.”
Sir Patrick Coghlin, chair of the inquiry, replied: “It is hardly surprising, with what happened, that the media took an interest in that.”
Mrs Foster added: “One doesn’t expect some of the more outrageous commentary around it.”
The inquiry heard that Janette O’Hagan, who runs an energy-efficiency firm, had contacted Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) as early as August 2013 to express her concern that the way the RHI was set up was encouraging participants to burn as much fuel as possible.
Mrs Foster did not meet Ms O’Hagan but DETI officials did, but her concerns were dismissed.
The former first minister said: “I don’t think she [Ms O’Hagan] was believed in terms of the fact that people would just have put in an installation to get a subsidy. I don’t think that it was believed within the department. As a result of that her meeting was not taken as seriously as it should have been.”
The inquiry heard Ms O’Hagan was “upset and frustrated” by how the DUP dealt with press queries about the scandal when the story broke in December 2016. One of the emails that Ms O’Hagan sent to Mrs Foster was released by the DUP at this time.
Mrs Foster said: “Looking at this in the cold light of day, one can understand why Ms O’Hagan would be upset at that time and indeed now. This was a storm that was going on at the time and there was a lot of firefighting going on to try and deal with the allegations that were being made around the RHI scheme and that is where this all comes from. People had made allegations, the deputy leader was trying to deal with those allegations, wrongly as it turned out.”
Mrs Foster agreed that Ms O’Hagan was caught in the “political crossfire” when the news broke about RHI.
“Certainly, as party leader, I am sorry that Ms O’Hagan got caught up in the middle of all this,” Mrs Foster added.
Belfast Telegraph Digital