Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster: 'I was not made aware' of vital RHI information

Arlene Foster during day two of her evidence to the RHI public inquiry at Stormont 

FORMER first minister Arlene Foster has finished giving evidence to the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.

Read More:
Day One: Arlene Foster would not have signed off botched scheme if information on alternatives was correct 
John Manley: Those expecting high drama will likely be left disappointed
Arlene Foster's written statement to the RHI inquiry

See updates from her day giving evidence below (most recent first).

 

The inquiry has now adjourned until next week. DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford will give evidence on Monday and Tuesday while Arlene Foster is set to appear again on Wednesday and Thursday.

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Ms Foster says there may have been people who believed the RHI tariff should have been higher still but she does not recall anyone expressing this to her.

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Arlene Foster says she does not recall any advice given to her regarding the introduction of cost controls to the RHI scheme.

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David Scoffield QC points out that DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford said in his evidence he always assumed the cost of biomass fuel was less than the tariff as it was an incentive for people to join the scheme. The higher tariff meant people on the scheme were making a profit. Ms Foster says she was not aware of this issue and does not recall having a conversation with Andrew Crawford about the costs.

Mr Scoffield asks if Mr Crawford made an error not identifying this as a flaw. Ms Foster says he has explained why he assumed the tariff was higher and she is not going to second guess his evidence.

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Ms Foster says if she had started micro-managing divisions in her department it would not have been welcomed by officials as that was not her role.

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Ms Foster is asked about the significant jump in RHI tariffs. She tells the inquiry that she relied on advice when it came to setting tariff levels. She says: "I was not an expert in biomass or the biomass industry, I would have taken the advice that was given to me."

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The inquiry hears DETI's procedures call for all projects over £1 million to be approved by the minister in charge and all documentation sent to the minister's private office. Ms Foster again confirms she did not receive papers from the March 2012 meeting.

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Inquiry panellist Dr Keith MacLean asks Ms Foster if she understands the list of things she says her department failed to tell her shows an endemic situation rather than a one-off failure. He asks that if "procedure after procedure were being ignored" what would she have done differently to have avoided that situation.

She says because the issues were not highlighted to her, it was impossible for her to intervene. She says: "There are intervention points throughout this process that weren't there."

She says the "basic issues of note-taking and minute-taking will be fundamental moving forward for the civil service in all our departments, for the good of ministers and the good of cicil servants."

She goes on to say "I don't know what the intention was behind not bringing me the papers but it turned out to be very significant."

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The RHI inquiry has reconvened after lunch and MS Foster is describing how she was not told about an increase in tariffs of the RHI scheme. The increases were outlined in a document by Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA) from March 2012. The overall cost of the scheme was going up by £105 million, making a total of £445 million. The inquiry is told while the tariffs were increasing, the total amount of renewable heat being produced was not.

David Scoffield QC asks if the document from  was read by DUP spad Andrew Crawford. Ms Foster says she would have expected him to be aware of it.

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The inquiry has now stopped for lunch.

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Ofgem, which DETI engaged to administer the RHI scheme, identified a list of concerns including definitions of terms such as "useful heat". Ms Foster says she is seeing Ofgem's review "for the first time today" and says she should have been told about the issues raised.

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Ms Foster again says she was not made aware of vital information related to the RHI scheme. She says: "It's not like I was saying 'Don't be bringing me any submissions from the energy division, I don't want to see them.'"

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Ms Foster repeats that she believes the energy division in her department should have brought the differrence in cost between the schemes to her attention. The inquiry hears the proposed grant scheme was less than half the full cost of RHI. Ms Foster says she agrees it is an insatisfactory position to be in but it is up to the panel at the inquiry to decide who was to blame.

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Ms Foster is asked about her relationship with her officials and why they might not have told her about a £200 million difference in costs. She says: "I would have expected them to point that out to me." She then repeats the point that she was never made aware the RHI scheme was more than £200 million more expensive than the grants scheme.

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Ms Foster says she was not aware of a £200 million difference in cost between the grant scheme under consideration and the RHI scheme. She says if she was made aware of this she would like to think she would have taken action.

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Ms Foster is asked about a letter from Dr John Gilliland was is described as a "leading stakeholder" in renewable energy. The letter asks her to prioritise renewable heating. Ms Foster is asked if she had his request in mind when she decided to sign off on RHI. She says it was not. Ms Foster says stakeholders in renewable energy had a preference for an RHI-style scheme similar to one that ran in Britain but says she has no recollection if that entered into her thinking at the time.

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The inquiry is now taking a short break.

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David Scoffield QC asks Ms Foster if there were not "major alarm bells ringing" when she received an impact assessment report on RHI that had two boxes on costs and benefits that were not filled in. Mr Scoffield queries why Ms Foster signed the document when it wasn't fully completed. She says in hindsight she perhaps should not have signed the document but "was taking it on trust that given what was told to me things were going to be ok."

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Ms Foster says she was not aware of guidance from her department that notes should be taken at all meetings. She says: "I don't understand how things can run if you don't have notes of decisions that were taken during meetings."

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Ms Foster says she believed Fiona Hepper should have taken notes during the meeting "to take back to the energy division."

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The chair of the inquiry, Sir Patrick Coughlin, asks Ms Foster about meetings not being recorded by the department with no notes or records being made. He asks if the department was dysfunctional as no notes of the meeting of June 14 2012 exist. Ms Foster says "I was somewhat taken aback that there were no notes of the meeting." She says "I didn't see it as my role to check if a minute was put somewhere of the meeting."

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When asked about advice given to her on the RHI scheme as related in Fiona Hepper's evidence, Ms Foster sas "If it had been put in as stark terms as she is saying, I don't believe I would have signed off on the submission."

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Ms Foster says it would have been "incredible" for her to sign off on RHI if all the details were properly presented to her. In her written evidence, Ms Foster says she would have expected DETI's energy boss Fiona Hepper to highlight the costs of each scheme. Ms Hepper told the inquiry she did not recall recommending a scheme but said there was a full discussion about the options.

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Two options were discussed for renewable energy - one offering up-front grants to applicants and the second offering ongoing subsidies over 20 years. The inquiry hears the document Ms Foster received said the subsidies scheme offered the best value. Expert analysis paid for by DETI however, found the initiative with up-front grants was better value. Ms Foster says she would not have signed off on the subsidy scheme if she'd known the cost of both options. The subsidy scheme cost £300m more. Ms Foster says: "It obviously wasn't explained to me in those terms otherwise I wouldn't have signed off on submission."

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In her written evidence to the inquiry, Ms Foster said she believed Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA) had recommended that the RHI sheme was the best option for the north. She now admits she did not read the CEPA report at the time and now agrees "this is not the case"

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The inquiry is now examining a document sent to Ms Foster outlining recommendations for the initiative by DETI civil servants and a follow-up meeting that led to the implementation of the RHI scheme.

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The DUP leader says she does not believe she was given exact figures detailing the value for money RHI would provide during the meeting of Juenb 14 2012 but says she was told in general terms RHI was the best option.

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Ms Foster tells the inquiry's senior counsel, David Scoffield QC, she is likely to have signed off on the RHI scheme on 14 June 2012 after a DETI meeting about which option was best. She says she "cannot recall specific details of the meeting."

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