Arlene Foster increased RHI eligibility despite surge in demand
ARLENE Foster acknowledged two years ago that demand for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was surging ahead of expectations but changed legislation to allow even more claimants into the botched scheme.
In December 2014, the then enterprise minister amended the rules of the non-domestic RHI to enable dozens of farmers and businesses that had previously been excluded under state aid regulations to avail of the lucrative energy subsidy.
As she addressed the assembly ahead of seeking support for changing the legislation, Mrs Foster told MLAs that applications for the non-domestic RHI were "well ahead of expected" by up to 25 per cent.
At that stage the scheme had been open for nearly two years and although uptake had initially been slow, applications had begun to increase significantly over the previous months.
The DUP leader's remarks about what she describes as the "very successful" scheme indicate familiarity with its workings. In October last year when questioned about her oversight of the scheme, Mrs Foster told The Irish News that she could not be expected to be across "every single jot and tittle" that went on in her former department.
The first minister has since admitted responsibility for the "fundamental flaws" of the green energy scheme. The DUP leader described the failure to cap RHI subsidies like a corresponding scheme in Britain as the "deepest political regret" of her time as an MLA.
Her amendment to the legislation two years ago was designed to help farmers and businesses who had previously borrowed from the Carbon Trust to claim the RHI. Up to that point, applicants with interest-free loans for renewables technology were excluded from the Stormont scheme because they were already in receipt of state aid.
Mrs Foster's amendment paved the way for them to repay the loans early and sign up for the RHI. The change took place as legislation for the RHI domestic scheme was passed by the assembly. According to Invest NI, around 50 Carbon Trust loans had been taken out by businesses in the north up to December 2014.
"I am indebted to officials for allowing me to include that (the amendment) in the regulations," the DUP leader told her fellow MLAs.
"I felt that that was the best way to give clarity, because there had been a bit of toing and froing over whether it was state aid and how to deal with it. So I am pleased to have been able to help businesses that have had difficulty with that issue."
She said applications at the time were running at four per cent of all UK applications – " well ahead of the expected 3 per cent".
What Arlene Foster said about RHI:
Ulster Unionist economy spokesman Steve Aiken said Mrs Foster's initial defence of her RHI oversight was that she set the policy direction and officials to implemented the detail.
"Increasingly, however, it is clear that the 'I knew nothing' line will not wash," he said.
"We have had revelations about her personal intervention to write to the main lending banks in January 2013 about looking favourably on loans for investments in renewable energy, including RHI."
Mr Aiken said whatever the "rights and wrongs" of amending legislation for Carbon Trust borrowers, it showed a "personal intervention" in the workings of the RHI.
"It is abundantly clear that she was fully aware of the inner workings of the scheme, which she identified as over performing with a higher than expected uptake – even in 2014," he said.