Belfast Telegraph

RHI: DUP Spads kept scheme running after flaws known, inquiry hears

By Allan Preston

Allegations that DUP special advisers (Spads) kept the botched Renewable Heat Incentive operating long after its failings became known were under the spotlight at a public inquiry yesterday.

On day three of the RHI probe, senior counsel David Scoffield QC continued to lay out the key evidence over the botched green energy scheme.

It had been intended to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to more eco-friendly alternatives.

A major mishandling of the cost controls, however, means the cost of the scheme may overrun by £700 million over 20 years.

Mr Scoffield said yesterday that former DUP Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell, who sensationally went public last year with his concerns about RHI, would make the accusations against the Spads when he appears before the inquiry.

Mr Bell took over from DUP leader Arlene Foster as Enterprise Minister in 2015.

He is expected to testify that his own Spad Timothy Cairns was being directed by other DUP Spads.

Mr Bell will claim that Mr Cairns had an influence on matters that could be raised at DETI issues meetings, and Mr Bell has told the inquiry that he deliberately excluded RHI from the agenda at times. One alleged instance was in July 2015, when Mr Bell's permanent secretary Andrew McCormick was prevented from putting RHI on the meeting list.

Mr Scoffield said Mr Bell had referred to other Spads who had worked to keep RHI off the agenda.

These include John Robinson, the DUP's head Press officer, former First Minister Peter Robinson's Spad Timothy Johnston, and Andrew Crawford, the adviser Mrs Foster when she was Finance Minister.

Mr Bell is to allege these individuals were part of a "concerted attempt" to stop action being taken to tackle the overspending concerns, said Mr Scoffield.

In addition, Mr Bell is expected to claim that Mr Cairns was being directed by Mr Johnston and Mr Crawford.

It's suggested that Mr Crawford anticipated a huge rise in RHI applications in autumn 2015 after the subsidy became higher than the price of fuel - and that poultry producer Moy Park was being encouraged to heat empty chicken houses.

Mr Scoffield also read evidence from Janet O'Hagan, a "concerned citizen" who consistently raised her concerns about the scheme as early as 2013.

Despite raising the issue with Mrs Foster and senior civil servants, she said she felt ignored.Ms O'Hagan had requested anonymity, but this was refused by the inquiry chair, Sir Patrick Coghlin.

The businesswoman owned a company that promoted energy efficiency. She became suspicious that the poor cost controls encouraged people to "burn to earn".

A "watershed moment", Mr Scoffield said, was when Ms O'Hagan's concerns were included in a handover note to civil servants taking over the RHI scheme.

Mr McCormick, the DETI permanent secretary at the time, said he was only shown the note in September 2016 and became worried about the "serious implications".

Ms O'Hagan had also sent multiple emails to Mrs Foster, including to her constituency office address.

Describing her as a "persistent voice of warning in the department's ear", Mr Scoffield said it was a "highly significant missed opportunity" that she wasn't listened to.

Mr Scoffield added that Ms O'Hagan's warnings were far from the only "red flag" over the RHI subsidies.

The inquiry heard how boiler installation firm Sheridan and Hood was one of the first companies to take up the RHI scheme.

Mr Scoffield said the firm had been approached by the Department of Justice when a new police, fire and prison officer training college was being planned for Desertcreat in Co Tyrone.

He added Sheridan and Hood was asked to estimate the energy costs needed for the site.

The inquiry heard the firm wrote to former Justice Minister David Ford to say the scheme could be used to make a profit, with the heating system at Desertcreat capable of raising £894,800 over 20 years through subsidies.

Mr Scoffield said the department ultimately turned down the offer, believing it to be "too good to be true".

Belfast Telegraph

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