Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster: I did not sign blank cheque for botched RHI scheme

Arlene Foster during a previous sitting of the RHI inquiry
Michael McHugh, Press Association

ARLENE Foster has said she did not sign a blank cheque for a botched green energy scheme.

The DUP leader and former enterprise minister said officials should have given her more information about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Mrs Foster was giving evidence to a public inquiry established to investigate flaws in the initiative, which ultimately led to the collapse of power-sharing last year.

She said: "I read the information given to me, I took the information at face value."

She added that with hindsight she believed she should have received more information but said: "I don't believe it was a blank cheque at that time."

Mrs Foster said she had not read some technical information associated with the scheme but it was up to others to flag up issues in their submissions to her.

She said she did not know why that was not done.

A panel chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin is investigating the RHI scheme.

Panel member Keith MacLean has previously suggested the scheme was given a blank cheque.

Mrs Foster, who was enterprise minister when the scheme began in 2012, said yesterday she was not aware of the final bill when the scheme was in its formative stages.

A series of fatal design flaws exposed Stormont to a huge overspend, paying out more than it cost to buy wood fuel.

Ian Knox cartoon 19/4/18: Sir Patrick Coughlin's forensic interrogation makes the RHI inquiry unmissable 

This created an incentive to "burn to earn".

Mrs Foster also said she had not been told about a clear warning not to proceed with the scheme in June 2012 - just months before the launch.

Experts from the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM), which was being paid to run the RHI scheme, had advised officials in Mrs Foster's department to delay the scheme and alter it to reflect cost controls being introduced in Britain.

Mrs Foster said she did not believe officials had told her about the warning.

She said it was a "very big deal" and the reasons for it ought to have been raised with her in a formal submission.

Fiona Hepper, an official with the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, previously told the inquiry she informed Mrs Foster about the warning.

She said a decision was taken to go ahead with the scheme and introduce cost controls later.

Mrs Foster said her diary showed no record of any contact with Mrs Hepper to discuss the matter.

She said the end of June 2012 was a particularly busy period which included a visit by Queen Elizabeth and the Irish Open.

Mrs Foster also said that had the warning been emphasised to her she would definitely have raised it with her advisor Andrew Crawford.

Later, she said officials were sending her "mixed messages" about the scheme in May 2014.

They told her changes to the botched non-domestic scheme were being postponed and the domestic scheme was being prioritised.

And she said the May submission talked of promoting the scheme and at that stage she was not aware of the "cash for ash" rumours.

She said even though she was from a rural constituency she did not talk to farmers about the RHI scheme.

She also said she had not discussed the scheme with then agriculture minister Michelle O'Neill, whose department was also promoting RHI, because the "interaction at this time wouldn't have been particularly good and you may say what has changed, but it wasn't at that particular point in time".

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