Northern Ireland news

Stormont convention enables Arlene Foster to escape watchdog grilling

Unwritten convention means First Minister Arlene Foster will not give evidence to Stormont's spending watchdog. Picture Mal by McCann

AN unwritten convention means First Minister Arlene Foster will escape a grilling by Stormont's public spending watchdog over her handling of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

While minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012 the DUP leader launched the RHI, the cost of which is expected to put a £1bn-plus hole in the north's block grant over the next 20 years.

An Audit Office report in July pointed to "serious systematic failings" in the non-domestic element of the renewable energy initiative, which was designed to encourage farmers and businesses to ditch fossil fuels.

But unlike Britain where a similar scheme capped the amount of money that could be claimed, a regional policy tweak meant the spoils from the north's RHI were unlimited.

It is thought to have led to many businesses burning more heat than they required, just to make money.

One member of the Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has branded the RHI "potentially the biggest scandal since devolution began".

Last month in an interview with The Irish News Mrs Foster refused to accept any responsibility for the scheme's shortcomings.

The first minister suggested that a Stormont committee should shoulder some of the blame because MLAs failed to scrutinise it properly.

Mrs Foster said she was not accepting any responsibility because "it was developed by officials in a way that shouldn't have been developed by officials".

"I hope you're not suggesting I get to see every single jot and tittle that goes on in every ministerial department," she said.

"Ministers do not get to see that level of detail as you well know. We get to see the overall policy in terms of those renewable schemes."

Next week, the former DETI permanent secretary David Sterling will give evidence to the PAC as part of its inquiry into the RHI. Stormont's unwritten rules dictate that rather than the minister, permanent secretaries - who also double as their department's accounting officer - face questions from the spending watchdog.

The likelihood is that the permanent secretary will also take blame for any of the scheme's financial shortcomings highlighted by the PAC even though the failings may have stemmed from policy.

A spokesman for the assembly confirmed that it was highly unlikely Mrs Foster would be called to give evidence to the committee.

"It is the unwritten convention that the accounting officer - the permanent secretary - is the person who will be called to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee when it is conducting an inquiry into the running of a particular programme or initiative," the spokesman said.

"In both past and present PAC inquiries, the committee has called on the permanent secretary and other officials to examine retrospectively value for money, governance and implementation of programmes overseen by the department in question."

The Stormont spokesman said the committee's role was not to question the merits of a policy but rather its implementation of the policy.

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