Arlene Foster 'regularly' asked about RHI applicants while minister because 'Northern Ireland is a small place'

The former Deti minister Arlene Foster "regularly" asked about who had applied to the RHI scheme, an email from one of her officials claimed. Picture by Mal McCann

THE former enterprise minister Arlene Foster "regularly" asked her officials about applicants to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme because "Northern Ireland is a small place", according to an email between her department and Ofgem.

The claim was made in correspondence disclosed yesterday at the latest hearing of the public inquiry into the botched green scheme.

The former head of the energy division with the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Invesment (Deti), Fiona Hepper, returned to give evidence at the inquiry.

The hearing was told of a dispute between Deti and Ofgem, the energy regulator which was administrating the scheme in Northern Ireland, about the sharing of detailed data on applicants to the scheme.

According to Ms Hepper, when Deti asked for names, postcodes, addresses and industry classifications of RHI claimants, Ofgem refused, citing a potential breach of data protection legislation.

Ofgem said that the reasons presented by Deti for wanting the data did not include the monitoring of the scheme.

In an email sent to Ofgem by Ms Hepper in July 2013, arguing for the release of the data, she listed several reasons, including: "For the briefing of our minister - Northern Ireland is a small place and our minister regularly asks about individual companies."

Ms Hepper said that she made the remark as "it would have happened that people would have said to the minister at an event that they had applied or were accredited".

The former Deti energy boss also told the inquiry that her team had been receiving calls from companies and groups asking "does the minister want to come and see our boiler".

Asked whether she could recall the names of companies the minister had enquired about, Ms Hepper mentioned one, Sheridan and Hood, whose director Brian Hood has already given evidence to the inquiry.

Ms Hepper said: "It is more than curiosity. I think it is a legitimate reason if it is relevant to a visit she is going to make."

The former senior Deti official said it was "absolutely not" the case that the minister had an "unusual interest" in any particular company.

"The minister would not have been involved in (applications and accreditations) in any part at any time. Let's clear that up. That would have been the role of Ofgem," said Ms Hepper.

The inquiry was also told of conflicting accounts of how Mrs Foster was informed of the options relating to the RHI scheme, and regarding what was said at a meeting between Ms Hepper and the minister.

The minister said she made her decision based on a written submission from the Deti officials, while Ms Hepper said she expressed no preference and left it to Mrs Foster to decide.

There was no note or written record taken of the meeting, with Ms Hepper stating that "there are lessons to be learnt".

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said: "Not very good public policy, is it?"

Not only was there no record of the meeting, but there was also confusion about who else was there and whether it was face to face or "by telephone".

Panel member Dame Una O'Brien noted: "When it comes to a decision about a large amount of public money....there has to be a record of that."

Sir Patrick Coghlin asked: "How could it be that a decision like this was done in detail over the phone... she (Mrs Foster) was happy to make a decision over the phone? That is your evidence?"

Ms Hepper replied: "She was given all the options...that is my evidence."

The former head of DETI's energy division is to return again this morning to give further evidence to the inquiry.

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