Belfast Telegraph

Foster denies lack of cost controls were to benefit DUP voters

By Mark Edwards

Arlene Foster has dismissed suggestions that cost controls were not introduced for the lucrative Renewable Heat Incentive because it was "benefiting DUP voters".

The party's 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 to his cousin confidential documents showing that the scheme was going to end.

In 2012 Mrs Foster was Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) Minister responsible for the botched scheme, which exposed the taxpayer 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 "rumblings" 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.

"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 party officers.

Mr Scoffield asked Mrs Foster whether, 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.

"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."

Earlier, when asked whether she felt she should have done more "rooting around", Mrs Foster said: "Through hindsight, of course one wishes that I had asked more questions in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

"But putting myself back at that period of time, as I think I've indicated on a number of occasions, it wasn't a personal priority of mine within the department. I had other personal priorities. It doesn't mean I wasn't interested - before somebody writes that tomorrow."

Mrs Foster said she was probably in a "false sense of security" that Britain was rolling the scheme out. "I had the sense that it was working in GB, therefore it was coming to Northern Ireland," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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