Northern Ireland news

DUP spad's 'greatest regret' was not reading key RHI report

Andrew Crawford said he regretted not reading a consultant's technical report

Arlene Foster's former special adviser has said his "greatest regret" of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) debacle was failing to read a consultant's report that could have identified the scheme's financial shortcomings.

Andrew Crawford was giving evidence yesterday to the inquiry into the botched green energy scheme that is widely blamed for bringing down the Stormont institutions last January.

The technical report from consultants Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (Cepa) was attached to a June 2011 departmental submission sent to Mrs Foster, who was then minister for enterprise, trade and investment, and her adviser Mr Crawford .

The submission formed the basis of the RHI scheme that was adopted in Northern Ireland and ultimately went over budget.

In evidence that is at odds with previous claims made to the inquiry by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's energy head Fiona Hepper, Mr Crawford claims officials did not bring a copy of Cepa's technical report to a crucial meeting in June 2011.

Asked by inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin whether he read the report – for which Cepa was paid £100,000 – the former DUP spad said he had not.

"I think it is my greatest regret that I did not sit down and read that report because if I did, clearly my advice to the minister would have been different and I have no doubt at that stage the minister would have had major questions to ask," Mr Crawford told the inquiry.

He said he did not see it as his role to mark the "homework" of the technical experts, and given the amount Cepa was paid, Mr Crawford believed the report "should've been at a level that was clearly and easily understood" by civil servants.

In Mrs Foster's written evidence, the former first minister maintains that her adviser "would read the detail of technical reports" and "draw particularly significant aspects" to her attention.

Mr Crawford also told Sir Patrick's probe that he was unaware of a practice where civil servants did not minute meetings with ministers to ensure the record was not disclosed through Freedom of Information requests.

He said he first he heard of the practice during recent evidence to the inquiry.

Last month, civil service head David Sterling revealed that the DUP and Sinn Féin executive ministers were "sensitive to criticism" and it was "safer" not to have a record which might be released through FOI requests.

When quizzed by Sir Patrick, the former DUP spad said there was no change in note taking policy during "in my entire time in the civil service", which spanned from 2008 to January last year.

The DUP spad conceded that he had "no difficulty" in saying that records of meetings should be taken and that he "would do it differently" if ever employed as a special adviser again.

Mr Crawford resigned from the role in January last year, following claims by a senior civil servant that he was the person who exerted pressure to keep the RHI scheme running when officials wanted to close it.

The former Stormont spad yesterday denied that he had tried to keep the botched scheme open after it became clear that it was going vastly over budget.

Mr Crawford said he quit his Stormont post after he became the focus of political and media attention.

The Irish News had revealed weeks before that the DUP spad's poultry farmer brother was a beneficiary of the RHI scheme.

Written evidence to the inquiry confirms that his brother Richard Crawford has six RHI boilers.

Sir Patrick decided yesterday that given the relationship between Mrs Foster and Mr Crawford's evidence, he would reschedule next week's hearings to ensure there was adequate time to scrutinise both witnesses.

The DUP leader and former first minister is due to give evidence after lunch today.

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