Belfast Telegraph

'No malice' in deleting term from RHI paper, says ex-DUP Spad Crawford

DUP adviser with links to chicken industry deleted poultry reference from a key RHI paper, inquiry told

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster's former Spad (special adviser) has said there was "no malice" in his decision to remove a reference from a key Stormont paper blaming the poultry industry for the RHI spike.

Dr Andrew Crawford, who has family links to the industry, admitted under questioning at the RHI Inquiry yesterday that he should not have deleted the term.

He insisted it had nothing to do with his family connections and "no malice" was intended in what he did.

The actions of Mrs Foster's long-standing special adviser, who still works for the DUP, were placed under intense scrutiny at the hearing.

Dr Crawford had three close relatives who produced chickens for poultry giant Moy Park, and had a total of 11 RHI boilers between them.

The inquiry has heard how he sent a confidential Stormont document recommending RHI cost controls to his cousin Richard.

The inquiry was told yesterday that the Department of Trade and Industry (Deti) prepared a draft letter to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) seeking urgent approval for cost-cutting measures to the RHI scheme.

The paper was shared with the Department of Finance and Personnel where Dr Crawford was Mrs Foster's Spad.

The document referred to the "wholesale uptake" of RHI boilers by the poultry industry and how it had contributed financial pressure.

Dr Crawford hadn't believed that one sector should be singled out as it was "not solely the poultry industry" responsible for the spike. "The issues for the scheme were wider," he added.

But inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin asked the former DUP spad: "Why remove a true fact?"

Dr Crawford replied: "My concern was the narrative it was creating".

He said he had wanted to protect the poultry industry because it was important to Northern Ireland's economy.

He was asked if he considered that he was withholding information from OFMDFM. "I don't believe it did cross my mind," he said.

At yesterday's hearing, Dr Crawford was accused of making a "sales pitch" for poultry giant Moy Park. He had suggested a change to tiered cost controls due to be introduced in autumn 2015 to RHI which would have advantaged heavier users.

Deti officials wanted a 1,314-hour threshold for running biomass boilers before payments would be reduced. Dr Crawford suggested 3,000 hours.

Sir Patrick suggested the former DUP Spad had been involved in "a sales pitch for Moy Park", which Dr Crawford denied.

The inquiry chair said: "You are the man who originally recommended the meeting with Moy Park. You are the man with the relations all of whom worked for Moy Park. In this email of yours, Moy Park are the only people who are identified as requiring 3,000 hours."

Dr Crawford said he was just trying to put a suggestion on the table that would result in the submission going through and ending the spike in applications to the scheme. His proposal was rejected by DETI officials.

The inquiry heard that the managing director of the Hastings hotel group, Howard Hastings, emailed Dr Crawford telling him about abuse in the RHI scheme due to the lack of cost controls.

Mr Hastings had been warned about this by boiler installer Brian Hood.

But the former DUP special adviser said he didn't inform anyone in Deti about this email because he had already expressed concern to officials about abuse of the scheme.

Asked if he could have done anything more to alert Deti officials about allegations of fraud in the summer of 2015, he said: "With hindsight we can look at things differently. Yes, it probably would have been better if it was passed on and I apologise that I didn't do that."

Dr Crawford denied there had been a row between him and David Sterling, the current head of the civil service, over his family RHI connections.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell claimed a loud verbal altercation took place between the pair with Mr Sterling accusing the former DUP Spad of having kept the scheme open to benefit his relatives.

Another witness suggested to the inquiry that the argument had been between Dr Crawford and another senior civil servant Mike Brennan.

The former DUP adviser said no row had taken place. "I do recall one conversation with David Sterling... where (he) alerted me to the fact that Andrew McCormick was blaming me for the delays to the scheme. I remember I was quite taken aback at that time," he stated.

The inquiry heard that former Deti Permanent Secretary Dr Andrew McCormick believed Dr Crawford was pushing for a delay in RHI tariff reductions.

The ex-DUP Spad said he has been "very clear that I had no part to play in that delay".

He said he worked alongside Dr McCormick for several years and that the senior civil servant could have spoken to him about any role he believed that he had played in delaying the introduction of cost controls at the time.

Dr Crawford added: "The one thing that stands out to me and disappoints me and causes me the greatest concern is the catalogue of mistakes at various different levels and by various different people.

"I accept there were things that I done and shouldn't have done, but it is very clear I was not responsible for the delay in the tariffs. I acted as well as I could to give the best advice to the minister I was working with at that period of time."

Sir Patrick asked Dr Crawford if there was a hierarchy of Spads at Stormont. The former adviser acknowledged it might have been the case - particularly regarding former OFMDFM Spad Timothy Johnston - but only because of his proximity to the First Minister.

The inquiry has previously heard that Mr Johnston, who is now the DUP's chief executive, exercised enormous control of the party, including over elected politicians.

"Issues that are controversial, that you would need First Minister involvement, you would discuss that with advisers working for the First Minister," Dr Crawford said.

He added that he had never received a "diktat" from Mr Johnston or fellow Spad Richard Bullick."Diktat is a new one I have to say," said Sir Patrick.

The RHI Inquiry hearings continue next week. Mrs Foster and Mr Johnston are expected to give evidence later this month.

Belfast Telegraph

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