Arlene Foster never saw minister's letter on 'burning issue' of cost controls
THE minister who launched the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) in Britain wrote to Arlene Foster flagging up the need to put cost controls in place but the DUP leader never saw the key correspondence, the inquiry into the botched green energy scheme has heard.
During the former first minister's evidence yesterday, inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin quizzed Mrs Foster on a letter from former environment minister Greg Barker – now Lord Barker of Battle – about the need for budget protection measures.
The DUP leader had said "there was very little conversation at all that I can remember" about the requirement for cost controls ahead of the launch of Northern Ireland's bespoke RHI scheme in November 2012.
The RHI scheme was closed in 2016 amid concerns that its cost was spiralling out of control.
Sir Patrick said Lord Barker had written to Mrs Foster soon after a corresponding scheme has been launched in Britain in November 2011.
"You knew it (interim cost controls) was being done in England, within six months or so of their scheme going live," the inquiry chairman said to the former economy minister.
Mrs Foster said she accepted that her Whitehall counterpart had written "to the department and to me in particular". However, as the DUP leader had outlined earlier in her evidence, she did not necessarily get sight of all correspondence addressed to her.
"I've already indicated that if that had come in, I would have seen that correspondence coming in and it would have then gone off to the (energy) division for advice back to me as to what I needed to say," she said.
"I'm sorry I can't recall what advice was given back to me on that particular letter or letters from minister Barker."
Mrs Foster said she could no recollection of "any burning issue" about cost controls.
However, Sir Patrick appeared dissatisfied with the response.
"Whatever way you look at it, you as the minister and the department were alerted to the fact of what was happening in GB," he said.
Mrs Foster conceded the inquiry chairman's assessment was "correct".
The DUP leader said she had also been under a wrong impression that the Northern Ireland scheme included an "emergency brake" that would enable it to be suspended if costs spiralled.
"It turns out this is the wrong understanding but I had an understanding that Ofgem (scheme administrators) could suspend the scheme," she said.
Mrs Foster said she was not made aware about concerns flagged by Ofgem.
It had highlighted the potential ways the scheme could be abused and stressed the need to only subsidise boilers that could be proved to be generating "useful heat" – thus negating the possibility of applicants burning fuel unnecessarily, simply to draw down more RHI money.
Under questioning from counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC, Mrs Foster rejected any suggestion she was "passive" and allowed officials to get on with running schemes.
"I don't think anybody would have described me as a passive minister," she said.
"I certainly didn't see my role as interfering in which project management style you were using to monitor this particular scheme."