Belfast Telegraph

Special adviser reform needed before Stormont return, says civil service chief

By Allan Preston

The head of the Northern Ireland civil service has said the role of Special advisers must be reviewed before Stormont returns.

David Sterling made the comments in his written evidence to the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive.

The power wielded by Spads has been centre stage throughout the inquiry, with questions emerging about the top-ranking advisers in the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mr Sterling told the inquiry today that Stormont finance officials should have been able to figure out the funding problems with RHI in 2015.

Civil servants in the Department for Enterprise (Deti) had asked the finance department for guidance on RHI, but it was months before they got an answer.

The DUP's Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell were the respective finance and enterprise ministers at the time.

Mr Sterling said he had no idea their advisers, Dr Andrew Crawford and Tim Cairns, had been told to work together in the summer of 2015 on plans to cut the RHI subsidies.

The order had come from the DUP's top spad Timothy Johnston.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said Andrew Crawford was pushing for less effective forms of cost control.

He said this showed a "worrying" lack of public accountability, given spads are paid from public money.

Mr Sterling replied: "If a special adviser doesn't tell us what they're doing it's difficult for us to know."

Dr Crawford warned Mr Cairns in an email that poultry farmers were exploiting the scheme by heating empty sheds.

He added cutting the subsidies could cause a huge surge in applications from claimants wanting to secure the top funding.

The DUP leader Arlene Foster had earlier claimed she should have been told about both problems.

Mr Sterling agreed, but denied Jonathan Bell's claim that the top civil servant had a major row with Andrew Crawford about RHI.

Mr Bell's claim was that he'd heard Mr Sterling say: "You kept this scheme open for the benefit of your family and you've caused significant budgetary crisis in Northern Ireland."

Three relatives of Dr Crawford had 11 biomass boilers using RHI.

Mr Sterling said he would have remembered any such exchange and said he couldn't recall Dr Crawford's family being raised as a significant issue.

In early 2016, Mr Sterling said Stormont ministers had hoped they could convince the Treasury to bail them out of the RHI funding crisis.

In contrast, civil servants had been told there was no chance as extra money had just been given after the Fresh Start Agreement.

Mr Sterling said he believed the Treasury was growing tired of how Northern Ireland "always does well when there are political negotiations".

This was confirmed by a letter from the Treasury in 2016, making it clear the Stormont Executive would be paying the bill.

Initially, it was believed this would overrun by £33m, something the Department of Enterprise could not afford

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