Northern Ireland news

RHI inquiry: Former DETI minister Arlene Foster lays blame for oversights at door of her civil servants

The DUP leader and former DETI minister Arlene Foster has said problems related to the RHI scheme were not drawn to her attention by her officials. Picture by Yui Mok/PA Wire
John Monaghan

THE DUP leader Arlene Foster, who was minister in charge of the department which set up the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, has laid the blame for oversights on the botched green energy project at the door of her officials.

Mrs Foster, who was minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) from 2008 until 2015, is due to give evidence today at the public inquiry into the debacle.

The RHI scheme paid out more generous subsidies to boiler owners than it cost to heat the equipment, and is estimated to have an overspend of £700 million over 20 years.

It was one of the key factors in the collapse of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin, forcing Mrs Foster out of her position as First Minister in January last year.

In a written statement provided to the inquiry, the former DETI minister has said she "clearly did not know there were flaws in the scheme" during her time in office, aside from being aware of staff shortages in the energy division team.

There are contradictions between Mrs Foster's written statement and evidence given by Fiona Hepper, the former head of the energy division within DETI, at a hearing of the inquiry in February.

Ms Hepper said that she expressed no preference on the options relating to the RHI scheme, and left it up to the minister to decide.

In her statement, Mrs Foster writes: "I would have expected officials to draw any significant or material changes affecting my prior decision to proceed to consult on a NI RHI directly to my attention (prior to) a submission. This was not done."

In her evidence, Ms Hepper claimed that the minister was informed that an overspend would have direct consequences for the Northern Ireland budget.

"Fiona Hepper did not tell me there was a DEL consequence and I did not know there was a DEL consequence, whether from conversation with her, or by any other means," wrote Mrs Foster.

Asked about the absence of cost controls, Mrs Foster said that neither she nor her special adviser, Andrew Crawford, had queried this point.

However, she said this was not a deliberate decision but was rather due to officials not drawing any issues to her attention.

"I did not ask officials to ignore warnings or proceed with a scheme that was inherently flawed. The warnings from Ofgem were not spelled out to me," wrote the former DETI minister.

Mrs Foster added that she had "no recollection of being clearly informed about the risks of proceeding without cost controls".

"If this issue was raised to me I believe that Ofgem’s warnings must have been significantly downplayed," she said.

The DUP leader also denied suggestions that she was "adamant" that the RHI scheme must go ahead. Numerous civil servants, including Ms Hepper, have told the inquiry that the minister was pressing officials for the scheme to begin.

"I did want the scheme to go ahead as soon as possible. This was because we were lagging behind the rest of the UK in the introduction of a renewable heat scheme and had a budget available," she said.

"I would have expected officials to advise me if the timescale was not achievable or to apprise me properly of the risks of moving forward with a scheme that was less than robust. This was not done."

Among the other questions posed to Mrs Foster was when exactly she became aware of problems with the RHI budget.

Evidence provided to the inquiry has indicated that by March 2015 DETI officials were "urgently seeking clarity about the funding...and were considering tariff reductions".

The DUP leader, who was DETI minister until May 2015, maintained she was not aware of difficulties before leaving office.

"By the time problems or difficulties began to emerge I was no longer DETI minister," the DUP leader replied. "I was not aware of officials' concerns in relation to the scheme budget before I ceased to hold office."

An email sent to Ofgem by Ms Hepper in 2013 said that Mrs Foster wanted information on RHI applicants because "Northern Ireland is a small place and our minister regularly asks about individual companies."

Mrs Foster said she does not "recall any specific instances where I encouraged, promoted, assisted, or provided information to a third party with regard to applying to the scheme".

However, she admitted that in late 2015, when finance minister, she telephoned Timothy Cairns, a special adviser to the then DETI minister Jonathan Bell, on behalf of a constituent seeking whether cost controls could be delayed by a week to enable the boiler owner to join the scheme.

She wrote: "My understanding was that Timothy Cairns went away, asked the question, the answer was no, and I accepted that."

Although there were a small number of cases cited where constituents had approached her with queries related to RHI, Mrs Foster said: "I would not be aware of every representation as often people did not come directly to me as minister but preferred to contact the department or my special adviser."

Asked about her assessment of the flaws with the scheme, Mrs Foster listed several factors including the failure to review, the lack of power to suspend it, and the fact that "the regulations were not sufficiently robust".

However, she added: "I believe that the inquiry is best placed to identify with whom responsibility for those flaws lies."

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