RHI: Articles warning about abuse of GB schemes never shared with NI officials

Stuart Wightman gave evidence to the RHI Inquiry yesterday

TWO national newspaper stories warning about the abuse of renewable heat incentive schemes in Britain were never shared with officials responsible for the project in Northern Ireland.

Senior civil servant Stuart Wightman, a manager of the scheme, yesterday told the RHI Inquiry he was "unaware" of the material published highlighting concerns about the scheme.

Questions were asked at the inquiry yesterday about whether the press office in the Enterprise Department (Deti) had a role in collating relevant newspaper clippings to ensure that material was passed on.

Mr Wightman, who was responsible for developing renewable heat and energy efficiency policies, said he would have expected the articles to be circulated to his boss, John Mills, who headed up the Energy Division in the department.

He said if he had known about the material, the content would have been raised with the minister at the time, Arlene Foster.

An article in the Daily Mirror in November 2014 included the headline, 'Rich enjoy free fuel and taxpayers' cash while millions must choose between heating and eating'.

The RHI Inquiry is continuing to be heard at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker

A Guardian story claimed the scheme in Britain had been rolled out without basic checks and encouraged waste with an opinion piece from environmentalist George Monbiot, in which he commented: "the more fuel you burn, the more money you are given".

The inquiry also heard yesterday that DUP adviser Stephen Brimstone called Mr Wightman to discuss the RHI scheme.

Mr Wightman said he "didn't know who he was when he rang, but the name was familiar".

He confirmed that Mr Brimstone did not identify himself as a ministerial adviser during the call, which he believed took place in 2015.

"The reason I remember the call as it was unusual as it started with 'I believe you're the guy to talk to about RHI' and I think he referenced Andrew Crawford (Deti's then permanent secretary)," he said.

"At that stage I thought it was just a general applicant so I would have treated the call like any other applicant...I talked him through the process and referred him to the website."

Mr Wightman said he would have been "on my guard a bit more" if he had known Mr Brimstone was a DUP adviser when they were speaking.

He said he later remembered Mr Brimstone had become a prominent figure due to the Red Sky scandal over Housing Executive contracts in 2013.

The inquiry also heard yesterday that there was no clarity among officials regarding budget consequences of the scheme.

Mr Wightman said from March 2015 they thought they could get more money from Treasury to cover the overspend, but it was not until December that year it was confirmed that any overspend would have to be met from the department's budget.

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