Belfast Telegraph

Foster was briefed on need for RHI cost controls, inquiry told

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
Former DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

DUP leader Arlene Foster decided to proceed with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme without imposing cost controls, it was claimed yesterday.

Mrs Foster, as the then Enterprise Minister, was responsible for the ill-fated scheme that exposed Stormont to a huge overspend by paying out more in subsidies than it cost to buy fuel.

During one of her previous appearances before the panel investigating the botched scheme, she said she was not aware it was £200m more expensive than an alternative that she rejected.

Her evidence has also suggested that her officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) did not raise enough red flags to cause concern.

The former First Minister said she "read the information" given to her and took it "at face value" but that with hindsight she believed she should have received more information, and at the time she did not think she was signing a blank cheque.

However, at the RHI Inquiry yesterday it was claimed by a barrister representing Fiona Hepper, the former head of the renewable energy team in Deti at the time, that she had been briefed on the dangers of proceeding without cost controls during a key meeting in June 2012.

Peter Coll QC said while there were no minutes of the meeting, Ms Hepper told Mrs Foster that the scheme's administrators Ofgem had advised that interim cost controls should be put in place before it opened in November 2012.

The energy regulator has told the inquiry that Stormont officials in Mrs Foster's department were repeatedly reminded about the issue of RHI cost controls.

Mr Coll said Mrs Foster was also informed by Ms Hepper that cost controls had been introduced in Britain, which had been the model for the Northern Ireland scheme.

He added that his client and her fellow civil servants had "absolutely" no possible motivation or reason to mislead Mrs Foster.

He also rejected a suggestion by Mrs Foster's former special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford that officials withheld information from her, saying it "made no sense".

In his evidence Dr Crawford denied attempting to delay RHI cost controls and said he couldn't remember if he warned Mrs Foster that "a tsunami" of applications was about to hit in the weeks before cost controls were introduced in late 2015.

He has also accepted that some of his actions weren't appropriate, including the forwarding of confidential material about planned cost controls to a relative.

Later addressing the inquiry on behalf of other Deti civil servants who took over the running of the RHI scheme, Jeremy Johnson QC appeared to take a swipe at previous remarks by Mrs Foster that she is "accountable but not responsible" for her former special adviser.

On his clients' past errors in the running of RHI, Mr Johnson said: "None of them has sought in any way to shirk their responsibilities or accountability for their actions. They are not dancing about on the distinction between responsibility and accountability. They accept both."

The inquiry's 114 days of oral hearings drew to a close yesterday, bringing to an end months of revelations which offered an eye-opening insight into local politics.

The investigation into the botched green energy scheme has laid bare the inner workings of the Civil Service and Stormont's main parties, as well as revealing the key role of special advisers in the running of the devolved administration.

Over 60 witnesses have appeared and more than a million pages of evidence were presented.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said yesterday that he was "slightly amused" to hear the chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry announce that it is unlikely to resume for a year having received 200,000 documents, pointing out that was "less than a fifth" of what the RHI Inquiry has had to sift through.

The inquiry returned for three days this week for legal representatives of the core participants to make closing representations.

Sir Patrick also warned that it is "very likely that some individuals and/or bodies may be subject to quite significant criticism in light of actions or omissions relating to the scheme" but he reiterated his "complete determination" to ensure that no one is "treated unfairly".

He added that it was "not possible" to provide a publication date for his report as there was still "a great deal more work to do" but said it would be made available "as soon as conveniently possible". "This will obviously be a significant undertaking and a painstaking process in the light of the amount and complexity of the evidence we have received. It will not be (published) before Christmas but I won't commit myself to say which Christmas," Sir Patrick said.

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