Northern Ireland news

RHI: Official's Arlene Foster cost control assumption 'incorrect'

DUP leader Arlene Foster, centre, at the unveiling of a portrait at Stormont of former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness. Picture by Mal McCann

A SENIOR civil servant has admitted he made an "incorrect" assumption that former minister Arlene Foster dropped cost controls from the RHI scheme.

John Mills was in charge of the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment's energy division which ran the Renewable Heat Incentive.

His assertion was recorded in a departmental minute in October 2015 as major changes were being made to tariffs.

But appearing yesterday before the RHI inquiry, Mr Mills acknowledged he had made an "assumption" that there had to have been ministerial authority for the move.

He said he had in preparation for the public inquiry searched for documentation to back this up, but was unable to find any evidence that Mrs Foster had taken any such decision.

The inquiry has previously been told the introduction in 2014 of the domestic RHI scheme had been prioritised over the need for cost controls.

Mr Mills said the decision appeared to have been made the previous November, some months before he joined the energy division, and he simply followed the course that had been set.

The RHI inquiry was set up after the initiative – aimed at encouraging the use of eco-friendly wood pellet boilers – ran significantly over budget.

It paid out more in subsidies than the cost of fuel due to a lack of cost controls, causing a potential overspend of £700m over 20 years.

The political fallout over the scandal led to the executive's collapse last year.

Earlier yesterday, Mr Mills told the inquiry his "perception" was the RHI scheme had been "put in place to make sure that Treasury money was gotten hold of".

RHI funding came from central government, but any overspend would affect Northern Ireland's block grant.

The inquiry has heard Stormont officials were initially aware of this, but lost sight of it as the scheme progressed.

The non-domestic RHI scheme had been operating for more than a year when Mr Mills took charge of the energy division.

He said he was not aware of the need for a review, and his focus was on expanding the scheme to domestic properties.

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