Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Foster's claim she wasn't properly informed on RHI disputed

By Allan Preston

A senior civil servant has disputed claims by Arlene Foster she had not been properly informed about the costs of the RHI scheme.

Fiona Hepper headed the energy team of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's (Deti) when the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was launched in late November 2012.

Mrs Foster was Enterprise Minister at the time, but their evidence to the inquiry has clashed on how the project would work.

The mishandled green energy scheme was supposed to encourage businesses to switch to a more environmentally friendly heating system.

But a lack of proper cost controls left it open to abuse, with some applicants able to make money by burning more fuel than they needed.

The failure sparked a political crisis at Stormont when the then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned, effectively collapsing the power-sharing Assembly.

Two options for how applicants would receive subsidies had been presented to Mrs Foster.

The better value option was an upfront payment for applicants, but an ongoing payout system set to last 20 years was chosen instead.

Mrs Foster said this was recommended to her as the best value for money by her energy team, something Ms Hepper denied in her written evidence. Yesterday Ms Hepper told the inquiry's senior counsel, David Scoffield QC, she had a "clear recollection" of a meeting with Mrs Foster at the time and maintained "I would hold to the information that I provided to the inquiry under oath".

That was that she did not state a preference, but left it up to the minister to decide which subsidy to choose.

No notes were taken in the two meetings Ms Hepper attended with Mrs Foster on the matter in June 2011 and mid-2012.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin criticised this as "not very good public policy", which made it hard to clarify the matter by consulting the minutes.

Ms Hepper said the error was a "big lesson" for the future.

Belfast Telegraph

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