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DUP leader to be called to RHI inquiry within weeks

DUP leader Arlene Foster will be called before the inquiry sooner than scheduled. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire ..

DUP leader Arlene Foster is to be called in front of the RHI inquiry within the next few weeks, after chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said yesterday he would require her evidence much sooner than originally planned.

Mrs Foster was due to give evidence in late spring but Sir Patrick said yesterday that her session, along with that of former special adviser Andrew Crawford, will now be brought forward.

Before she became first minister, Mrs Foster oversaw the department which introduced the flawed green energy scheme.

The head of the civil service, David Sterling, will also give evidence sooner than expected.

Sir Patrick said their early input was essential in addressing issues around the "design and implementation" of the scheme.

Yesterday Stuart Stevenson, a supply officer with the Department of Finance and Personnel when the RHI scheme was set up gave evidence.

Mr Stevenson told the panel he had been unable to trace documents detailing his role in the RHI scheme business case process, which should have been filed as routine by administration staff.

A senior official from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) Fiona Hepper also gave evidence yesterday, after being called back in front of the panel for the third time.

Ms Hepper was asked about warnings from scheme administrators, Ofgem that Northern Ireland's draft regulations were open to abuse.

Ofgem suggested the green energy scheme should be delayed so that cost controls on claims, already introduced in the UK, could be built into the Northern Ireland regulations.

However, as that would have delayed the Northern Ireland scheme by up to a year and meant Treasury money provided would have to be returned this was rejected.

The inquiry heard the warning was issued during a conference call with Ofgem in June 2012, but Deti officials said there was a "commitment" with their minister, Mrs Foster, to get the scheme launched by the end of September of that year.

Mrs Hepper said she had spoken to Mrs Foster about the warning from Ofgem, but the minister was happy to go ahead with the launch as long as a consultation on cost controls was brought forward.

The senior civil servant said that this replicated what had happened in the UK where the scheme had been started a year before cost controls were introduced.

Adding that when the cost control consultation was launched in 2013, there were only 16 businesses accredited to Northern Ireland's RHI scheme and limits on the scheme were not introduced as a result of the consultation.

The inquiry into the botched green energy scheme that lead to the collapse of power sharing is taking place at Stormont.

The most recent estimate put the projected overspend of the 'cash for ash' scheme at around £700m over 20 years unless measures to control the cost are introduced.

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